Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains are known for their speed demons. The moonshiners of old tore over country roads in 1940 Ford coupes, executing 180-degree “bootleg turns” and using bright lights to blind the revenue officers shooting at their tires. Legend has it that many of Nascar’s original drivers cut their teeth here, and modern stock car design is almost certainly indebted to the “liquor cars” dreamed up in local garages, modified for speed and for hauling brimful loads of “that good old mountain dew,” as the country song goes.
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Even now, it is tempting to barrel down Shooting Creek Road, near Floyd, Virginia, the most treacherous racing stretch of all, where the remains of old stills decay beside a rushing stream. But instead I proceed at a snail’s pace, windows down, listening to the burble of the creek, the gossip of cicadas in the dense summer woods, and the slosh of a Mason jar full of bona fide moonshine in the back seat—a gift from one of the new friends I met along the road.
Slow is almost always better in this part of the world, I was learning. A traveler should be sure to leave time to savor another ready-to-levitate biscuit or a melting sunset or a stranger’s drawling tale—and especially, to linger at the mountain banjo-and-fiddle jams that the region is known for. This music cannot be heard with half an ear—it has 400 years of history behind it, and listening to it properly takes time.
The Crooked Road, Virginia’s heritage music trail, winds for some 300 miles through the southwest corner of the state, from the Blue Ridge into deeper Appalachia, home to some of the rawest and most arresting sounds around. Most of the trail runs along U.S. 58, a straightforward multilane highway in some spots and a harrowing slalom course in others. But the Crooked Road—a state designation originally conceived in 2003—is shaped by several much older routes. Woodland buffalo and the Indians who hunted them wore the first paths in this part of the world. Then, in the 1700s, settlers came in search of new homes in the South, following the Great Wagon Road from Germantown, Pennsylvania, to Augusta, Georgia. Other pioneers headed west on the Wilderness Road that Daniel Boone hacked through the mountains of Kentucky. Some rode on wagons, but many walked—one woman told me the story of her great-grandfather, who as a child hiked with his parents into western Virginia with the family pewter tied in a sack around his waist and his chair on his back. And, of course, some fled into the mountains, long a refuge for escaped slaves.
The diversity of settlers funneled into the region gave rise to its unique musical style. Today the “old-time” Virginia music—the forerunner of American country—is still performed not just at legendary venues such as the Carter Family Fold near Hiltons, Virginia, but at Dairy Queens, community centers, coon hunting clubs, barber shops, local rescue squads and VFW halls. A fiddle tune may be played three different ways in one county; the sound is markedly modified as you travel deeper into the mountains toward the coalfields. Some of the oldest, loveliest songs are known as “crooked tunes,” for their irregular measures; they lead the listener in unexpected directions, and give the music trail its name.
Except for a few sites, including a park near the town of Rocky Mount, where a surviving fragment of the Great Wagon Road wanders off into shadow, the older pathways have virtually disappeared. But the music’s journey continues, slowly.
Cheick Hamala Diabate smiled angelically at the small, bewildered crowd gathered in a breezeway at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia. They had come expecting to hear Mid-Day Mountain Music with local guitar players, but here instead was a beaming African musician in pointy-toed boots and dark sunglasses, cradling an alien string instrument called a ngoni. Small and oblong, it is made of goatskin stretched over hollowed wood. “Old in form but very sophisticated,” whispered folklorist Joe Wilson, a co-founder of the center, a partnership between the National Park Service and the National Council for the Traditional Arts. “Looks like it wouldn’t have much music in it, but the music’s in his hands.”
Wilson is one of the Crooked Road’s creators and the author of the indispensable Guide to the Crooked Road. He had invited Diabate for a recording session, not only because the musician is a virtuoso performer nominated for a Grammy, but because the ngoni is an ancient ancestor of the banjo, often described as the most American of instruments. The ngoni’s shortened drone string, tied off with a piece of rawhide, is the giveaway—it’s a predecessor of the modern banjo’s signature abbreviated fifth string.
“This is a tune to bless people—very, very important,” Diabate told the audience as he strummed the ngoni. Later he would perform a tune on the banjo, an instrument he’d never heard of before immigrating to this country from Mali 15 years ago but has since embraced like a long-lost relative.
Captured Africans were being shipped to coastal Virginia as early as 1619; by 1710, slaves constituted one-quarter of the colony’s population. They brought sophisticated musical and instrument-building skills across the Atlantic and, in some cases, actual instruments—one banjo-like device from a slave ship still survives in a Dutch museum. Slaves performed for themselves (a late 1700s American folk painting, The Old Plantation, depicts a black musician plucking a gourd banjo) and also at dances for whites, where, it was quickly discovered, “the banjar”—as Thomas Jefferson called his slaves’ version—was much more fun to groove to than the tabor or the harp. Constantly altered in shape and construction, banjos were frequently paired with a European import, the fiddle, and the unlikely duo became country music’s bedrock.