Mountain and Bluegrass music is in the heart of the people in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is easy to find music venues as jams, shows and festivals are often held throughout the week. We spent several days enjoying some of that old time music. On the Blue Ridge Parkway south of where we were staying is the Blue Ridge Music Center operated by the National Park Service. It has an informative museum dedicated to understanding the roots of American music. You can learn how the fiddle brought by immigrants from Europe and the banjo brought by enslaved Africans created old time mountain, gospel and bluegrass sounds that influenced American popular music. What is so neat about the exhibits is how interactive they are with examples of music playing and videos of well known musicians who were the founders of country and bluegrass. Further exhibits show the importance of radio in bringing mountain music to the homes of many listeners.
The Music Center hosts different musicians each afternoon from 12:00 – 4:00 in the “breezeway” next to the museum. Seats and even rockers are provided and Mark and I spent a few hours listening to the two guys above. They are both excellent musicians and singers of old time mountain and bluegrass music. The older gentleman to the right, Mr. Gayheart who grew up in Kentucky had written several songs that he sang about his younger years living in a small Appalachian community. He is also an incredible pencil artist who displayed some of his prints of life in Appalachia. We had a relaxing and enjoyable afternoon at the Music Center.
After an afternoon at the Blue Ridge Music Center we headed to the nearby town of Mt. Airy, North Carolina for a Thursday night jam of local musicians at the Earle Theater. Since the 1930’s the Earle has hosted performances, shows, jams and films. The theater was not even half full when we visited and I thought it was too bad more didn’t turn out as it was free and so organized, it seemed more like a show than a jam. One of the musicians told me later that there is so much free music happening around the area that a group can’t get a paid gig. Many of the musicians on stage had been playing for years and also played at other jam venues in various small towns during the week. It would have been interesting to know their combined ages and years of experience! They enjoyed playing so much that when they were done at the Earle, some continued jamming at a square down the street.
We returned to Mt. Airy and the Earle Theater on Saturday morning for the WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round which is the country’s second longest running live radio show since February 1948 behind only Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Over the years quite a few music legends have performed here. The radio show hosted a young bluegrass group first and then the couple called “Davis Bradley” pictured below who were my favorite. They come from Virginia with an active touring schedule and each played a variety of instruments including the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, ukulele and harmonica.
Prior to the Earle Merry-Go-Round show we hung around the square listening to musicians jamming. Some of them were the same ones we heard on Thursday night and they like to gather each Saturday morning to visit and play. What a great way to keep mountain music alive in Mt. Airy! Locals and tourists shopping on the Main Street would stop for awhile to listen.
The Floyd Country Store near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia is a general store and eatery, but best known as a popular music venue several days a week. Ongoing events are a show on Friday nights, Americana music on Saturday afternoons and on Sunday afternoons two different jam sessions. In addition, they have a radio show.
Not only is the music wonderful, but the first rate Southern comfort food is worth coming for too. The store itself is delightful with lots of things for sale such as musical instruments, books, cards, artwork, toys, clothes, souvenirs and big barrels full of candy.
And if candy is not exotic enough, then how about a can of creamed possum, a true mountain treat in these parts.
We came for the Sunday afternoon jam and everyone there, including musicians and visitors seemed to be having a great time. Floyd’s isn’t really all that big, but they manage to squeeze everyone in. The music happens in the back of the store where chairs are set up in a circle for the musicians and a few rows of chairs placed on the outside for listeners. There are also some tables in the back of the room as well so those listening can eat their lunch or snacks like Mark and I did. I think when you listen to old time music you just have to eat beans and cornbread, collard greens and chow chow.
When the music started with about 28 musicians playing, so did the flat foot dancing in the center. It was fun to see people out there doing this traditional Appalachian dance and you don’t need a partner to do it. Sometimes the dance floor would be full of people including families with kids, but these guys were the mainstay during the session. I think the guy wearing the “I’m Confused” black shirt was out there for most of the two hour old time music jam.
When the old time jam ends then the Bluegrass jam started with a different group of musicians. We stayed for some of it and then headed back to our “home” in Fancy Gap. What a great afternoon of music, food and fun!
In the next blog we head back to Mt. Airy, North Carolina to further explore Andy Griffith’s home town.