Pulled up by the banjo strings
FLOYD, VA. — On a Friday night, the old-time music spills out of the Floyd Country Store and "pickin' parties" spring up along the narrow sidewalks.
Ed Coar, a county worker from Pennsylvania here on vacation, says he's drawn by "that old lonesome sound" of bona fide bluegrass.
Many simply stumble upon this Friday night jamboree, but Mr. Coar found Floyd on a music map. The map ties together eight music destinations - from the Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood to the Fiddlers' Convention in Galax - in a 250-mile "trail" through the Virginia highlands, called the Crooked Road. "It's easy to forget this stuff still happens in America," Coar says.
The selling of the Crooked Road is part of a multimillion-dollar tourism effort designed to pull this impoverished region up by its banjo strings.
With coal mostly gone and factories closing, local officials are hoping the old-time music that invokes so much of the hope and healing of the American experiment will help lift the local economies of Appalachia. And it just might.
Today, American and foreign tourists are turning their ears to a number of new music trails that wend through the misty mountains, where small towns like Floyd have become repositories of living history. Yet as the curious and musical arrive, they raise a concern: Will the influx irrevocably change the culture of Appalachia?
"As we began to see industry moving out, folks moving out, and populations aging, people began to look around and say, 'What do we have that can generate revenue and help us not lose what is unique to our communities?' " says Carolyn Brackett at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The flip side is what some people call the 'caged bear syndrome': How do you avoid taking a musician and putting him on a platform and [losing] the authentic experience?"
Hardly Dollywood or the Grand Ole Opry, spots like the Hillbilly Opry, front-porch "pickin' parlors," and the Saturday morning bluegrass get-together at the Dairy Queen in Rocky Mount, Va., remain largely untouched by tourism. But now, the growth of music trails - from New Orleans to the Natchez Trace - is tapping a growing demand for "authentic" cultural experiences. Sixty thousand visitors to the Crooked Road are expected this year; in contrast, attendance at the 18th- century living-history village of Colonial Williamsburg has stayed flat for the past three years.
This search for "roots music" is part of a broader change in tourism, in which older, more specialized audiences are searching for places that evoke an idealized time. While music pilgrims have been drawn to the mountains for centuries, fueling several revivals, the scene has only recently been discovered by tourism professionals ready to package the twangy commodity.
"To the local power structure in many places, it has been surprising," says Robert Cogswell, an Appalachian folk-life expert and author of "Doing Right by the Local Folks: Grassroots Issues in Cultural Tourism." "Sometimes the assumption is that we're bringing culture to a backwater place. But then, inevitably, the highbrow arts people after the first event are just bubbling over.... It's an incredible vitality if people can break loose from their prejudices about the region."
Although festivals and jamborees are multiplying, most have been here all along, born of the early 19th-century revival movement that swept through the mountains. And some say the region's reluctance to transform itself in tune with the times has resulted in a buffer from the noise of modern life.
"Appalachia is the outback of a large metropolitan society," says Allen Batteau, a Wayne State University sociologist and author of "The Invention of Appalachia." "People in the mountains have hard lives, but they have ... huge networks of cousins and aunts and uncles and siblings, and these families continue to be a great source of strength and resilience that keep them out of poverty - both in the sense of going without food and also in the sense of going without hope. The music is all the testimony of that one should need."
Floyd is arguably the center of the bluegrass universe. After all, it's the home of County Records, the world's largest distributor of old-time music. One of the best-selling albums here remains Sen. Robert Byrd's 1978 "Mountain Fiddler." Per capita, there are more musicians here than in New York City and Los Angeles combined.
On Friday night, $3 gets you in the door at the Floyd Country Store, but you don't have to pay to watch the impromptu bluegrass circles on the sidewalks, crowds spilling onto the street. On any given night, easily half the audience is tourists. Even when college students come down to make fun of the scene, locals say, they often end up in the thick of the dancing.
"Part of the charm is that it just kind of happens, without anybody's permission. That couldn't happen in a larger city," says local farmer Claude Wade. He's fully behind a state grant to build two new parking lots in Floyd, to handle the overflow traffic.
Whether this scene needs big-city professionals to market it is unclear. John Williams of Markham, Ontario, had never heard of Floyd before stumbling on it while touring the Blue Ridge Parkway on his Harley. By the end of the night, he's dancing in front of a bluegrass quintet. "I could do this every night," he says with a sweaty brow.
As crowds build in the Floyd Country Store, the banjo-and-fiddle ruckus - the core of mountain music - floats out across the sun-tinged hills.
"We make a lot of mistakes, but the thing is just to keep going," says Guy Weeks, leader of the Down Home Gospel Singers. He nods toward the audience with a mischievous smile: "Half the time, they don't know the difference anyway."