Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Connect with the Carters or Ralph Stanley.

There is a Crooked Road to roots of country music

The "pickin' porch" at the Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood, Va., is the place to catch impromptu bluegrass jams by visiting musicians, especially on the second Sunday of the month.
The "pickin' porch" at the Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood, Va., is the place to catch impromptu bluegrass jams by visiting musicians, especially on the second Sunday of the month.Read moreH WILLIAM SMITH

HILTONS, Va. - Rita Forrester gets misty-eyed thinking about the people she has met over the years - people who have come to this tiny town in southwestern Virginia to see where today's country music got started.

She remembers two teenage boys from Chicago - "city folk," she calls them - who ventured south to find the roots of country music.

"They were going to make a circle - go to Nashville, then down to Meridian, Miss., where the Jimmie Rodgers Museum is, and then come back to us for our Saturday night show," says Forrester, who runs the Carter Family Fold here. "When they came back on Saturday, I asked them what they found, and they said, 'We found a lot. But what was best was what we found right here in Virginia.' "

What they found was old-time and bluegrass music written and played the way Maybelle, A.P. and Sara Carter first recorded it in 1927.

It's where Maybelle Carter's daughter June continued the family tradition with her legendary husband, Johnny Cash.

And it's where, for 55 years, Grammy winner Ralph Stanley has written and performed the Appalachian music popularized by the hit movie

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

- including his dirge "O Death."

It's the experience, says Forrester, a granddaughter of A.P. and Sara Carter. "There's nothing like seeing it and hearing it and getting up and dancing."

Country-music lovers can get the experience by following the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail. The 250-mile stretch winds through 13 cities and towns along the state's southern and western borders, linking eight venues that highlight the history of traditional old-time, bluegrass, folk and country music.

"On the surface, we're just signs on the side of the road that connect the venues, but the real story is the people and the music," says Bill Smith, executive director of the Crooked Road project.

One of the spots is the Carter Family Fold, which draws up to 500 visitors on Saturday nights. Forrester's mother, Janette Carter, started it in the 1970s when she began inviting bands and performers of bluegrass, old-time and traditional country music to the family's hometown.

The music hall, with wooden chairs, beams and posts, harks back to the days of barn dances. "The main draw is the music, and with old-time music, you have fiddle tunes," Forrester says. "With fiddle tunes, the natural inclination is to dance. That way, the audience can be a part of everything."

The site also includes the restored cabin where Alvin Pleasant Carter was born and the Carter Family Museum, which displays A.P.'s Bible and the costumes the Cashes wore to perform at the White House.

It's not unusual for Ralph Stanley to pop into the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center in Clintwood, another stop on the Crooked Road.

Each Memorial Day weekend, the museum hosts the Ralph Stanley Festival in Coeburn, featuring Stanley and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, plus such country-music stars as Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam.

The museum opened in 2004, prompted by the popularity of the George Clooney movie and soundtrack. One room is dedicated to

O Brother,

which won Stanley a Grammy for best male country vocal performance, but there are also Stanley's banjos, a mock-up of a recording studio, and interactive computer banks for visitors to listen to the music.

Museum director Aaron Davis says the movie helped broaden the popularity of Appalachian music, "but the music is what the people react to. They see the culture, they see the stories of the people, and they hear a part of themselves in the music."

Last year, the museum hosted 5,300 visitors, with many of them treated to music on the "pickin' porch," an impromptu jam session for visiting musicians.

"We try to schedule it the second Sunday of each month, but if we have a tour group coming in, we might ask [the musicians] to come in for that," Davis says. "Generally, it's planned, but you never know when you might get musicians in."

The Crooked Road also features the Country Cabin in Norton, which hosts the Dock Boggs Memorial Festival; the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance in Bristol; the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway; the Rex Theater and Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax; the Floyd Country Store and County Records in Floyd; and the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum.

"You can plan a two-week vacation on the Crooked Road," Davis says. "We don't have the large venues like some bigger cities, but we have a lot of smaller places you can go."

Davis and Forrester say the Crooked Road is drawing more visitors from around the country and the world, including Russia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

"And they're much more knowledgeable about the history of music," Forrester says. "They know the history of our music a lot better than some of us do."

Visitors will hear a unique style of music that's based on gospel, that's a little more sad than Blue Ridge music, Smith says.

"You'll still find people writing music all along the Crooked Road. And there's more young people playing," he says. "And if you listen to the music, you'll hear the story of coal."

Coal mining is still huge in southwest Virginia, but the numbers of miners and operating mines have dropped over the years. And that has affected the area's economy significantly, Smith says, which is one reason the Crooked Road is so important here.

"Nobody can close up the music," Smith says. "Nobody can take the music away from us and move it to Pennsylvania."

Following the Crooked Road

1. Ralph Stanley Museum




2. Country Cabin




3. Carter Family Fold




4. Birthplace of Country Music Alliance




5. Rex Theater and Old

Fiddler's Convention


276-236-5309 Ext. 112




6. Blue Ridge Music Center




7. The Floyd Country Store

and County Sales




8. Blue Ridge Institute

and Museum




For information

The Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail