In the 1700s, when the younger sons of Tidewater Virginia’s plantation owners began crowding west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains—then considered the end of the civilized world—they took their slaves with them, and some whites began picking up the banjo themselves. In the mountains, the new sound was shaped by other migratory populations—Anabaptist German farmers from Pennsylvania, who toted their church hymnals and harmonies along the Great Wagon Road as they searched for new fields to plow, and Scots-Irish, newly arrived from northern Ireland,who brought lively Celtic ballads.
Two hundred years later, the country music known as “old-time” belongs to anyone who plays it. On my first Friday night in town, I stopped by the Willis Gap Community Center in Ararat, Virginia, not far from where Diabate had performed, for a jam session. The place was nothing fancy: fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, a snack bar serving hot dogs and hot coffee. A dozen musicians sat in a circle of folding chairs, holding banjos and fiddles but also mandolins, dobros (a type of resonator guitar), basses and other instruments that have been added to the country mix since the Civil War. A small crowd looked on.
Each musician selected a favorite tune for the group to play: old-time, gospel or bluegrass, a newer country style related to old-time, but with a bigger, bossier banjo sound. An elderly man with slicked-back hair, a string tie and red roses embroidered on his shirt sang “Way Down in the Blue Ridge Mountains.” A harmonica player blew like a Category 5 hurricane. Even the hot-dog chef briefly escaped the kitchen to belt out “Take Your Burden to the Lord” in a rough-hewn but lovely voice. Flatfoot dancers stomped the rhythm in the center of the room.
Most claimed to have acquired the music through their DNA—they felt they’d been born knowing how to tune a banjo. “I guess everybody learned by singing in church,” said singer Mary Dellenback Hill. “None of us had lessons.”
Of course, they did have maestro uncles and grandfathers who’d improvise with them for hours, and perhaps fewer distractions than the average American child today. Some of the older musicians performing that night had been born into a world straight out of a country song, where horses still plowed steep hillsides, mothers scalded dandelion greens for dinner and battery-operated radios were the only hope of hearing the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, because electricity didn’t come to parts of the Blue Ridge until the 1950s. Poverty only increased the children’s intimacy with the music, as some learned to carve their own instruments from local hardwoods, especially red spruce, which gives the best tone. On lazy summer afternoons, fledgling pickers didn’t need a stage to perform—then as now, a front porch or even a pool of shade would do.
My husband and I traveled east to west on the Crooked Road, pushing deeper into the mountains each day. Touring the foothills, we sensed why so many homesteaders had decided to journey no farther. All creatures here look well fed, from beef cows in their pastures to the deer bounding across the road to portly groundhogs lolling in the margins. It’s hard not to follow suit and eat everything in sight, especially with old-fashioned country joints such as Floyd’s Blue Ridge Restaurant serving up bowls of homemade applesauce, heaping helpings of chicken pan pie and, in the morning, dishes of grits with moats of butter. Big farm breakfasts—especially biscuits and gravy—are mandatory, and tangy fried apple pies are a regional specialty.
Many public fiddle jams take place at night, so there’s plenty of time for detours during the day. One morning, I stopped by the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum near Rocky Mount, site of an annual autumn folk life festival that includes mule jumping and coon dog trials as well as a forum where old revenue officers and moonshiners swap stories. Although Roddy Moore, the museum’s director, relishes these traditions, he told me that this part of the mountains was never isolated or backward—the roads took care of that, keeping local farmers in contact with relatives in big cities. “What people don’t understand,” Moore says, “is that these roads went both ways. People traveled back and forth, and stayed in touch.”
Especially around the one-stoplight town of Floyd, the outer mountains are becoming even more cosmopolitan, with chichi wineries, organic food shops and even a luxury yurt retailer. The 100-year-old Floyd Country Store still sells bib overalls, but now it also carries eco-conscious cocktail napkins. The old tobacco farms are disappearing—some fields have returned to forest, while others have been converted to Christmas tree farms. There’s a strong market for second homes.
Still, to an outsider, the place can feel almost exotically rural. Moore and I lunched at the Hub in Rocky Mount, where he mentioned it was possible to order a meal of cow’s brains and eggs. As I tried to mentally assemble this dish, a sociable fellow at the next table leaned over and advised: “Butter in a pan, break eggs over them. They’re really sweet. You would really like them if you wouldn’t know what they were.” Too bad I’d already ordered my ham biscuit.
And as much as people still migrate in and out of the outer Blue Ridge, there’s a feeling of timelessness about the region. At the Willis Gap jam, somebody mentioned “the tragedy in Hillsville,” a town in the next county over. I thought I must have missed a morning headline, before realizing that the man was referring to an incident that happened in 1912.