Old-Time Adventures on Virginia’s Crooked Road


I had been planning my trip to The Crooked Road for almost two years. It was an eye-opening musical adventure that didn’t last nearly long enough. You would be hard pressed to see half the Crooked Road venues in a week, we did our best to fit all the major venues into four days and five nights.

DAY 1:

On Thursday evening I drove down as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Friday morning Denton, Texas, musician David White flew into Harrisburg and our adventure began with a seven-plus hour drive.

Our first stop was Allen Hick’s Friday Night Jam in Nickelsville, Virginia, which is toward the western end of the Crooked Road. The jam, actually jams, were already in full swing when we arrived on a long, winding mountain road.


The main stage at Allen Hicks jam.

There must have been 100 people of all ages gathered for an evening of old-time and bluegrass music. Allen Hicks converted a barn into a venue with an open-air bottom main floor stage and church pews. On stage were about eight musicians playing all of the traditional old-time instruments. Allen welcomed us and later took to the stage on harmonica.

Later, we ventured upstairs where another jam was happening outside on the front porch. Just inside the front door, a kitchen was serving up hotdogs, anyway you like them, along with a variety of other snacks. We discovered a third jam session crammed into a back room before we were led to Allen’s workshop where he builds mandolins, a “hobby” he took up following retirement.


Allen Hicks joins the jam on harmonica.


More musicians gathered on the porch at Allen Hicks Jam.







We were awed by the talent at Allen Hicks Jam. The musicians were welcoming and very warm. It was the perfect introduction to The Crooked Road and the sights and experiences that awaited us over the next four days.

Exhausted from our drive and the excitement of the experience at Allen’s, we retired to The Ole Nickelsville Hotel. The cozy century-old hotel was the perfect spot to rest up for the following day’s adventures.


The Ole Nickelsville Hotel

DAY 2:

The next morning we were up bright and early and on our way to the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center in Clintwood, Virginia, near Stanley’s hometown of McClure. Museum Director Tammy Hill greeted us and explained how the historic building became a museum. She says the museum is personal to her and other locals as the family is part of the community. She went to school with Ralph’s daughter.


Ralph Stanley Museum

The first two floors of the home tell the fascinating story of how Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter got started in music. An audiophone tour is narrated by Ralph Stanley, himself. The top floor of the home is lodging for visitors to Clintwood. We could have probably spent half a day in this fascinating museum, but we had an itinerary to follow.


One of the interactive exhibits in the brand new Birthplace of Country Music museum.

Soon we were on the road, driving two hours to arrive in Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee. We arrived just in time for the ribbon cutting on the brand new Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Through videos, interactive displays, and fascinating multimedia exhibits, this state-of-the-art facility tells the story behind the famed 1927 Bristol recording sessions, often referred to as the “big bang” of country music recording for the impact the pinnacle recordings had on subsequent music.


Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys at Birthplace of Country Music Museum grand opening.

Outside the museum a celebration took place with an inspiring performance by none other than Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.

After the performance finished, we headed out for a half-hour drive to Abingdon, Virginia, where we checked into the beautiful Martha Washington Inn. We were greeted with warm hospitality and much needed bottled water! The historic hotel was built in 1832 as a private residence for General Francis and Sarah Buchanan Preston and their nine children. It served as the Martha Washington College and a Civil War barracks before becoming a hotel in 1935.


Martha Washington Inn

On our way out of town we stopped at nearby Capo’s Music Store for their Saturday evening jam. Gill Braswell, who owns the store with his wife, Amy, explained his mission to enrich the lives of the community through music and the arts.


Saturday night jam at Capo’s Music Store.

Gill and Amy are also active in Abingdon’s Barter Theatre—the longest-running nonprofit equity theater in the country. The theater, which opened during the Great Depression, accepted donations of produce from patrons for admittance to a show. Today it presents a wide variety of theatrical and musical performances.


Barter Theatre

Leaving Abingdon for the evening, we drove to the Carter Family Fold, in Hiltons, which was celebrating its 40th Annual Festival. This venue, including A.P.’s former grocery store, which is now a museum, was a real step back in time.


What was formerly A.P. Carter’s grocery store is now a museum to the Carter Family.

Every Saturday night there’s a show featuring acoustic bluegrass and old-time music and clogging dancers. A.P.’s daughter, Janette Carter, launched the venue to keep a promise she made to her father to ensure the Carter family’s music was never forgotten. Janette first began presenting shows in 1974 in the grocery store her father had run before he passed away in 1960. Later, she moved to a larger venue set next to the former store.


There’s a musical celebration every Saturday night at the Carter Family Fold.

After driving back to the Martha Washington Inn we enjoyed a complimentary evening glass of port and settled in for a relaxing night.

DAY 3:



Sunday morning Abingdon Director of Tourism Kevin Costello accompanied us to Heartwood, “Virginia’s Artisan Gateway.” He explained how Heartwood is often a first stop for Crooked Road travelers as it provides a great overview for the region, including a state-of-the-art interactive map.

Heartwood is also the epicenter of the local arts community. Inside are unique products, including instruments, made by for local artisans. Video presentations let you “meet” the artists.


At Heartwood you can “meet” the artists through recorded video presentations.


One of Allen Hicks’ mandolins is on display at Heartwood.

Open seven days a week, Heartwood has a terrific restaurant and stage that presents live music every Thursday, and every Sunday there’s a Gospel music brunch. It was particularly difficult to leave Heartwood as there was a showcase of local artisans giving demonstrations on the front lawn. If you like arts and food, this is a place you won’t want to miss.


Floyd Country Store

A two-hour dive brought us to the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia. Actually, Friday night is the night to visit Floyd. That’s when the whole town of Floyd comes alive for the Friday night jam with mini-jams happening all along the street. We we were unable to fit a Friday night visit into our schedule. Sunday’s was also pretty cool though. The Floyd Country Store is a real slice of Americana, a country store with old-time charm and plenty of jamming and dancing in the back.


A Sunday jam session at Floyd Country Store.

A one-hour drive brought us to Galax. During the first week in August the city of Galax is consumed by its annual Old Fiddler’s Convention, which is the oldest in the country. Beginning in 1935 the local Moose lodge has hosted amateur fiddlers and other traditional instrumentalists. Aside from the competition, jam sessions happen late into the night, and that’s where younger inexperienced players learn from the veterans.


A campsite jam session at the Old Fidder’s Convention in Galax.

We were there for the start of this year’s convention. Musician and Crooked Road executive director Jack Hinshelwood was camped out for the duration and he took the time to show us around.

Our final event of the evening was a concert at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway, this amazing place features an interactive, state-of-the-art museum telling the story of the roots of American music. It is also a live outdoor music venue set in a breathtaking backdrop. We saw Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice. Sisk is Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association Contemporary Male Vocalist of the Year. An excellent band, surrounded by the greenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I kept asking myself, am I really here?


Outdoor stage at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

An hour and a half drive brought us back to Floyd and the evenings’ lodging at the bed and breakfast Bella La Vita. We arrived at this peaceful villa late at night. Even in the dark it was a beautiful setting and the starry night drew us outside to star gaze.

DAY 4:


Bella La Vita bed and breakfast, Floyd, Virginia.


Bella La Vita’s gardens.

Our final day on the Crooked Road began perfectly. Bella La Vita owners and hosts Lisal and Matthew Roberts, greeted us with eggs Benedict and warm hospitality. They immediately made us feel comfortable and welcome, giving us lots of information about the area. Before leaving, they invited us to visit their garden—a beautiful and peaceful setting. It was VERY difficult to leave. We would have liked to wallow in their hospitality all day!

Before leaving Floyd, we stopped by County Sales, which has the world’s largest selection of bluegrass and old-time music. More than 4,500 CDs, cassettes, books, and videos of American traditional music are stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Most of their sales are now done online (www.countysales.com), but they also welcome visitors.


A peek inside County Sales, the world’s largest collection of American traditional music.

We took Shooting Creek Road from Floyd to Ferrum. Before we left Bella La Vita, Matthew Roberts explained that Shooting Creek was an old moonshine route. As the law approached, moonshiners would fire shots, one after another along the road, to warn each other.


The Blue Ridge Institute museum at Ferrum College.

In Ferrum we visited the Blue Ridge Institute located at Ferrum College, which has a small museum dedicated to the folk heritage of the region. Museum Director Roddy Moore and Assistant Director Vaughan Webb talked to us about the music history of the area, including the critical role that African Americans played in the development of the region’s music. The institute hosts the annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival on the fourth Saturday of October. It brings together musicians, cooks, craftspeople, mule jumpers, etc., for a one-day celebration of heritage and traditions.


Big Walker Lookout tower.


The breathtaking view from the top of Big Walker Lookout.

After a two-hour drive we arrived at Big Walker Lookout in Wytheville, Virginia. Opened in 1947, by Stuart and Abigail Kime, this unique store and lookout tower has been a family-owned operation for three generations. The 100-foot tower, set on a 3,405-foot elevation, gives a bird’s eye view of the beautiful countryside. The country store sells ice cream, other snacks, souvenirs, and local crafts. It frequently hosts live performances from local musicians.


Young competitors waiting for their turn to take the stage.


Each young competitor can be accompanied by one other instrumentalist.

We arrived back at the Galax Old Fidder’s Convention in time to chat with the judges and musicians just as the official competition was beginning. The first day’s competition is always dedicated to youth competitors.


David White, who is also a mandolin player, talks with Mandolin Player of the Year Adam Steffey.

We wandered the campgrounds with Jack Hinshelwood, listening in on informal jam sessions and chatting with musicians. We were fortunate to meet 10-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year Adam Steffey who chatted with us about the fiddle convention and the local music scene. Steffey is a five-time Grammy winner and is nominated again for 2014.

That was one of the most amazing parts of this trip. Every single musician we met took the time to chat with us and help us learn about the music, such as the subtle differences between old-time and bluegrass. They were all very passionate about their music and helped us to gain a deeper appreciation for their unique culture. And if you play, you are welcome to join in.


Our final Crooked Road destination was the Monday night jam at River City Grill in Radford, Virginia, led by Ralph Berrier (second from right).

Our final stop was the River City Grille in Radford, Virginia, where a scaled-down Monday night jam led by Ralph Berrier was going on. This friendly group was a great final send-off in our immersion in traditional music on the Crooked Road.

You can read more about The Crooked Road in November, in the November/December 2014 issue of Making Music magazine (www.makingmusicmag.com).


America Meets The Beatles! At Bethel Woods


Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, is an oasis nestled in the Catskill Mountains, about two hours northwest of New York City, at the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival in Bethel, New york. It hosts a wide range of events from April through January and its museum, The Museum at Bethel Woods, is dedicated to the study and exhibit of the social, political, and cultural events of the 1960s, including Woodstock, and the preservation of the site and artifacts from that period in music history.

In celebration of this year’s 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America, the musem has launched a special exhibit, America Meets the Beatles! On Thursday, I was invited to take a sneak peek at the unique presentation, which is actually two exhibits in one, featuring photographs from Life photographer Bill Eppridge and memorabilia from local collector Rod Mandeville.

Eppridge’s photos come with their own fascinating story. He was assigned by Life to cover the Fab Four’s arrive in the US for their iconic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was so impressed by the group and their scores of screaming fans that he arranged to follow them for the next six days shooting intimate photos.

The Beatles traveling by train on their first US trip.

The Beatles traveling by train on their first US trip.

The magazine published four of his photos and then lost all of his negatives. The negatives were found more than a decade later, after The Beatles had already broken up. Useless at that time, Eppridge set them aside. Therefore, many of them have never been seen by the public. Unfortunately, he passed away before the exhibit was completed, but his wife carried on with the project.

Ringo Starr reads about the ongoing events in 1963.

Ringo Starr reads about the ongoing events in 1963.

The photographs are a compelling behind-the-scenes look at what that first US tour must have been like for the boys from Liverpool, revealing intimate glimpses of their excitement in the first few days of the British Invasion. They also give a window into the cultural and political climate at the time.

Rod Mandeville of Jeffersonville, New York, may be one of the biggest Beatles collectors in the US. His home is teaming with memorabilia including posters, pins, fan club mailings, figurines, fan magazines, and much more. Some of these items form the heart of the other half of the exhibit. You can also see an actual suit worn by Paul McCartney in 1963, on loan from another private collection. One of my favorite displays was the 1960s living room, complete with an antique television showing the Ed Sullivan Show and old magazines you can thumb through, including the TV Guide from the week of the Beatles first US television appearance.

Part of Rod Mandeville's collection of Beatles memorabilia.

Part of Rod Mandeville’s collection of Beatles memorabilia.

The America Meets the Beatles! exhibit runs through August 17, so you have all summer to visit. To support the exhibit, the museum will be hosting several speakers who are Beatles experts and showing several Beatles films, including Good Ol’ Freda this Saturday. The direct from Broadway show Rain—A Tribute to the Beatles will be performed in June.

Check the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts website https://www.bethelwoodscenter.org for a complete list of this summer’s events and concerts, as well as museum hours.

Memphis for Music Lovers

Music is everywhere in Memphis.

Memphis is paradise for music lovers. I had only visited the city once before, and it was only a one-night stay due to an overbooked flight. I saw Graceland, Sun Studios, Beale Street, and that was about it. It was long before I began writing about music, and this trip was long overdue. Visiting Memphis was a fantastic and enlightening experience.

Before heading out for a day of touring have breakfast at the Arcade Restaurant on the corner of South Main and G. E. Patterson. Not only is this the oldest restaurant in the city, it was also one of Elvis’s favorites, and you can still sit in his booth. The diner has a real nostalgic feel that has attracted writers and filmmakers. Scenes from Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire, The Client, The Firm, 21 Grams, Walk the Line, My Blueberry Nights, and others were filmed inside the Arcade.

Historic Arcade Restaurant.

The historic Arcade Restaurant.

The best place to start a visit to Memphis is at one of the city’s fine music museums. The Rock ‘n’ Soul museum, conveniently located near many hotels in the Fedex Forum (across the street from Gibson guitars!) tells the story of how the many genres of music from gospel to blues to soul combined and morphed into rock. It’s a relatively small museum, but jam packed with information so you’ll want at least a couple hours here. There are many listening stations each allowing you to sample tunes to your heart’s content.

A collection of vintage harmonicas in the Rock 'n' Soul Museum.

If you are a guitar aficionado, or just interested in how instruments are made, hop into the Gibson Guitar factory just across the street. For $10 per person you can get a first-hand look at the process of building a guitar from binding to neck fitting to painting to tuning. The 45-minute tours are given on the hour from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Gibson factory.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music at Soulsville, USA, is a monument to the genre that flourished in Memphis in the ’60s and ’70s. Stax Records launched the careers of such legendary artists as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Rufus & Carla Thomas, Booker T, & the MG, but it’s most important legacy may be as an oasis of racial harmony during a very troubling period in American history. This is a really cool place. Take note of the state-of-the art Soulsville Charter School and Soulsville Music Academy next door. What great assets for Memphis’s next generation of musicians.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the former site of Stax Records.

Another museum you won’t want to miss is Sun Studio. Referred to as the birthplace of rock and roll, this small studio and its tour are an entertaining must. If you’ve seen the show Million Dollar Quartet, this is where it all took place. You almost feel like you might bump into Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, or Elvis Presley just hanging around the studio. One of the coolest things about Sun Studio is that it still operates as a recording studio in the evening—making it the only working recording studio in the US that’s been designated a National Historic Landmark. You can schedule a quick karaoke-like recording, or even a professional recording using the same vintage ribbon mikes and analog tube gear as Elvis did, or get the best of both worlds by combining the warmth of tube gear with the ease of digital audio. You’d be in good company—musicians like Justin Townes, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Lee Rocker, and many more, have recorded here.

Sun Studio

Music icons, especially those recalling Elvis, are everywhere in Memphis. Many of the other attractions refer to Graceland as the “mother ship.” There’s a shuttle that runs between Graceland and Sun Studios every hour, so following your visit to Sun is probably the most convenient time to see Graceland. The sprawling complex including the mansion, trophy room, Elvis’s car collection, and airplanes is very commercialized, but still well worth a visit. The audio tour is a must.


Inside Graceland.

The picture of the Memphis music scene and how it evolved is not complete without a visit to the National Civil Rights museum, located at the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. This is truly an emotional site, and anyone who visits it can’t help but be touched. Be warned that this museum is due for a major renovation beginning in 2012, so parts of it may be closed.

If you want to take in some specialized shopping. Local guitar maker St. Blues will be happy to show you around their custom workshop and describe how they hand-build each instrument. You can browse their selection of fine, handmade guitars. You may even want to bring home a souvenir cigar box guitar.

A behind-the-scenes look at how St. Blues guitars are handmade at the Memphis workshop.

If percussion is more your thing, Memphis Drum Shop is world-renowned for their drums, including vintage kits, and the world’s largest cymbal inventory. This store is a percussionist’s dream and you could easily spend an entire afternoon browsing. The drum shop sometimes hosts clinics, demos, and benefits featuring well-known and local artists. The latest addition to this incredible facility is its Gong Room, where you can get a sonic massage on the last Saturday of every month. This is an sensory experience you won’t soon forget.

Memphis Drum Shop has the world's largest cymbal inventory.

No trip to Memphis would be complete without a walk on Beale St. Aside from the many venues with fine live music, you can see the famous Memphis flippers who backflip down the street for tips, A. Schwab, the oldest retail establishment on Beale, an exhibit of civil rights photographs by Ernest Withers, and the home of W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues.

Beale Street

Home of W.C. Handy, the Father of Blues

When you are tired of the hustle and bustle step into Itta Bena on the third floor above B.B. King’s. Modeled after the speakeasies of the 1920s, there’s live music on the weekends. Or head to the Center for Southern Folklore on South Main Street. On most Saturday and Friday nights you can hear local artists performing live blues, jazz, or R&B. On Labor Day weekend the Center holds its annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival.

Honk! Festival of Activist Street Bands in Somerville, MA

Host band Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society of Somerville, MA.

Last weekend I went to the Honk Festival in the Boston suburb of Somerville. It was awesome, exceeding my expectations in every way. It is also nearly impossible to describe. Loud and fun, the colorful bands played, danced, and paraded in parks and alleys around Davis Square on Saturday. There were lots of horns, drums, stilt walkers, dancers, and hula hoops, and not a single stage. That’s one thing that makes Honk so special, the lack of boundary between audience and performers.

What Cheer? Brigade from Providence, RI, performs among the spectators.

Some of the musicians involved were local and others traveled from locations around the country, from the Brass Messengers of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to the Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble from Montreal, Quebec, to the Minor Mishap Marching Band of Austin, Texas.

Environmental Encroachment band of Chicago, IL, wowed the crowds with fun antics and unique costumes.

Though billed as a festival of activist street bands, I think political agendas were secondary for Friday, September 30 through Monday, October 3. The mission was spreading the joy of music and taking back public space for the purpose of sharing music.

Musicians "took back" the streets of Davis Square, at least for the weekend.

Honk is a completely grassroots, nonprofit operation with no promoters and no outside food vendors or stalls selling junk. So, the area businesses and residents benefit from the festival, and in turn, show their appreciation by donating funds, as well as housing and food, for visiting bands.

I know lots of people who can hula hoop, a few that can play trombone, but I've never seen anyone do both at the same time before.

Host band Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band of Somerville began the festival in 2006 in an effort to connect with other similar-minded street bands. It was such a success that it has become an annual event, usually held Friday through Monday on Columbus Day weekend.

Seed & Feed Marching Abominable from Atlanta, GE.

Sunday there was a Honk parade that brought the band’s and other community groups from Davis Square to Harvard Square, where they entertained at an Oktoberfest celebration. That evening the bands took to the water at Boston Harbor where they performed and cruised aboard the Provincetown II. Monday a Honk Symposium was held at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, followed by performances at Boys and Girls Clubs around greater Boston.

Extraordinary Rendition Band from Providence, RI.

Some Honk participants from other states have been so affected by it that they went home and started their own “Honk band” and in some cases their own Honk festival, including Pronk in Providence, Rhode, Island; Bronk in Brooklyn, New York; HonkWest in Seattle, Washington; and HonkTex in Austin, Texas.

The Bread & Puppet Circus Band from Glover, VT, has been an activist band for many years.

Southwest Louisiana

I was inspired to start a blog about musical happenings in cities around the US after a media tour of Southwestern Louisiana, birthplace to both Cajun and zydeco music and a super place to hear those genres live. It seemed like everywhere we went there was live music and dancing!

Our tour was focused around Lafayette’s annual Festival International de Louisiane held in late April. The festival hosts performances of fantastic world musicians and local acts on four stages right in downtown Lafayette. This festival has a great feel to it—it’s friendly, free, and safe, and people of all ages were enjoying the music.

Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys

Some of the memorable acts that I saw were local bands Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys and Lil’ Nathan & the Zydeco Experience.

Plus there were international and national acts like Red Baraat, Umalali, Toubab Krewe, and the MarchFourth Marching Band, performing on four different stages.

MarchFourth Marching Band

To celebrate the festival, cyclists from around the country gather each year for the zydeco tour, which circles Lafayette through some of the finest music making land and the birthplace of Cajun and zydeco music. Of course there are great local food stops and live music along the way. We watched the tour begin and then caught up with the bikers at the famous Evangeline Oak and St. Martinsville for food and live zydeco music.

Cycle zydeco riders from Kansas City.

I saw many live music venues during my visit. At Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge patrons line up as early as 7:00 am for a place at the Zydeco Breakfast. Once the music starts to play people start dancing on the floor until it is literally shaking.

Lil' Pookie & the Zydeco Sensations at Café Des Amis.

Nearly every venue we visited from Randol’s Cajun Restaurant to the Blue Dog Café featured live zydeco or Cajun music. I enjoyed talking to and photographing all the musicians who were both passionate about their music and friendly.

Cajun musicians at Blue Dog Café.