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Impromptu jam sessions, including a gathering at Floyd, Virginia's Country Store, attract musicians and dancers raised on the raw and keening power of mountain music. (Susana Raab)

A Musical Tour Along the Crooked Road

Grab a partner. Bluegrass and country tunes that tell America's story are all the rage in hilly southern Virginia

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Dr. Ralph Stanley (he garnered an honorary doctorate in music from Tennessee’s Lincoln Memorial University) and the Clinch Mountain Boys closed the show. Stanley, one of the most celebrated country tenors around, is a shy, slight octogenarian who tends to sing with one hand tucked into his pocket. His white Stetson dwarfed him, although he wore a daringly sparkly string tie. His band includes his guitar-picking son, Ralph II; tiny Ralph III, age 3, also made a cameo appearance, strumming a digital toy guitar. “You’re going to hear Stanley music many, many years from now,” Stanley promised the delighted crowd.

But Dr. Ralph’s sound is also singular. His best-known performance is perhaps “O Death,” which he sang on the soundtrack for the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou. (Although set in Mississippi, the film did wonders to promote Virginia country music.) Stanley grew up many miles north of the Fold, in Virginia’s remotest mountains, where the Crooked Road would lead us the next day. His voice—pure, quavering and full of sorrow—belongs to the coalfields.

Crushed up against the Kentucky border, the mountains of southern Virginia were among the last parts of the state to be colonized. Not even Indians built permanent dwellings, although they hunted in the area. The few roads there followed creeks and ridges—terrain too rugged for wagons. “You couldn’t get here,” says Bill Smith, tourism director for Wise County. “You could get to Abingdon, right down the valley, but not here.” After the Civil War, railroads broke through the hills to ferry out the region’s vast stores of coal. The coalfields have always been a world of their own. In near isolation, a haunting, highly original style of a cappella singing developed.

Travelers are still a relative rarity in these parts—Smith, a gregarious transplant from Montana, is the county’s first-ever tourism director. His wife’s family has lived here for generations. Revenue officers shot and killed one of Nancy Smith’s uncles while he was manning a whiskey still (moonshining is big on this end of the road, too) and it was her great-grandfather, Pappy Austin, who, as a child, carried the pewter and the chair. The family still has the chair, its worn-down legs a testament to the pleasure of sitting still. They don’t have the pewter—young Pappy, weary of the burden, simply dropped it off a mountain somewhere along the way.

I met Smith in Big Stone Gap, beneath the faded awning of the Mutual Drug, an old-style pharmacy and cafeteria of the type that once nourished every small town. Inside, older men tucked into platters of eggs, peering out from beneath the yanked-down brims of baseball caps.

People in these mountains don’t hide their roots. The window of the hardware store in nearby Norton—with a population of 3,958, Virginia’s smallest city—is full of honest-to-goodness butter churns. Many women won’t let you leave their home without a parting present—a jar of homemade chow-chow relish, perhaps, or a newly baked loaf of bread. Family cemeteries are meticulously tended—fresh flowers adorn the grave of a young woman who died in the 1918 flu epidemic. In the cemeteries, the old clans still host annual “dinners on the ground,” at which the picnicker keeps a sharp eye out for copperheads basking on the graves.

Coal is omnipresent here—in the defaced mountain vistas, in the black smears, known as coal seams, visible even on roadside rock faces, in the dark harvested mounds waiting to be loaded onto railroad cars. Many communities remain organized around company-built coal camps—long streets of rickety, nearly identical houses, with little concrete coal silos out front and miner’s uniforms, deep blue with iridescent orange stripes, hung on front porches. Men fresh from “under the mountain” still patronize local banks, their faces black with dust.

Coal was once a more generous king. The gradual mechanization of the mines eliminated many jobs, and some of the area’s productive coal seams have been exhausted. There are abandoned bathhouses, where miners once washed off the noxious black dust. Kudzu, the ferocious invasive vine, has wrestled some now-deserted neighborhoods to the ground.

The threat of violent death, by cave-in or methane explosion, is still a constant for the remaining workers, and so the music here is steeped in pain and piety. From the lightless mines, the lyrics promise, leads a road to Paradise. Wise County is home to at least 50 Baptist and other congregations. Some of the churches are picturesque and white, others are utilitarian, little more than stacked cinderblocks. But almost all are well attended. “Prayer is our only hope,” reads a sign in front of one. In Appalachian music, “death is but an open gate to heaven,” Smith explains. “They’re going to the Beulah Land, the land of milk and honey. That is the music. They sing their pain, but also their particular view—that there’s a better life after this.”

The coalfields’ keening vocals—reflected in the sound of commercial artists like Stanley, Larry Sparks and Del McCoury—stem in part from the religious “line-singing” characteristic of the area. There weren’t always enough hymnals to go around at the little houses of worship, so a leader would sing out a single line for the rest to repeat. On summer Sundays it’s common to hear congregations—often one extended family—singing outside, the soloist and then the small group, their dolorous voices echoing off the hills.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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