It all started when a member of the Allen clan kissed the wrong girl at a corn-shucking. A fistfight, several arrests and a pistol-whipping later, Floyd Allen, the family’s fiery patriarch, stood in the Hillsville courthouse, having just heard his jail sentence. “Gentlemen, I ain’t a’goin’,” he declared, and appeared to reach for his gun; either the court clerk or the sheriff shot him before he drew, and the courtroom—full of Allens and armed to the teeth—erupted in gunfire. Bystanders jumped out the windows; on the courthouse steps, Floyd Allen—injured but alive—attempted to mow down the fleeing jury. At the end of the shootout, five lay dead and seven were wounded. Bullet holes still pock the front steps.
But visitors to the courthouse should keep their opinions on the incident and its aftermath (Floyd and his son were eventually executed) to themselves. Ron Hall, my able tour guide and a mean guitar player to boot, told me that descendants of the Allens and other families involved still harbor hard feelings. The feud inspired at least two popular “murder ballads,” one of which memorializes the heroics of Sidna Allen, Floyd’s sharp-shooting brother, who had escaped the courtroom:
Sidna mounted to his pony and away he did ride
His friends and his nephews they were riding by his side
They all shook hands and swore they would hang
Before they’d give in to the ball and chain.
Stay alert when navigating the Crooked Road’s switchbacks and hairpin turns: around practically every corner lies a festival of some kind. There are annual celebrations for cabbages, covered bridges, maple syrup (sugar maples grow in the very highest elevations of the Blue Ridge), mountain leeks, hawks, tobacco, peaches, coal and Christmas trees.
In the pretty little town of Abingdon, we stumbled across the Virginia Highlands Festival. There we browsed handicrafts including lye-and-goats’ milk soap, mayhaw preserves (made from boggy, cranberry-like southern berries that taste like crabapples), and handmade brooms and rag rugs. Glendon Boyd, a master wooden-bowl maker, described his technique (“Start with a chainsaw. Guesswork.”) and the merits of local cucumber-magnolia lumber, which he prefers for his biscuit trays (“Cucumber, it takes a beating. It’s just good wood.”)
We were en route to what some consider the greatest country music venue of all—a cavernous tobacco barn in Poor Valley, at the foot of Clinch Mountain, known as the Carter Family Fold. As we ventured west, out of the Blue Ridge and into the Appalachians, the landscape began to change—the mountains becoming stonier and more vertiginous, the handmade wooden crosses on the side of the road taller, the houses huddled farther into hollows. Long grass lapped at prettily dilapidated outbuildings, sunlight cutting through the slats.
The Carters—A.P., his wife, Sara, and her cousin Maybelle—are often called the “first family” of country music. A.P. traveled through the Virginia hills to collect the twangy old ballads, and the group’s famous 1927 recording sessions helped launch the genre commercially. Maybelle’s guitar style—a kind of rolling strumming—was particularly influential.
In 1974, one of A.P. and Sara’s daughters, Janette, opened the Fold as a family tribute. Along with the big barn, which serves as the auditorium, the venue includes a general store once run by A.P. Carter, as well as his tiny boyhood house, which Johnny Cash—who married Maybelle’s daughter, June Carter, and later played his last concert at the Fold—had relocated to the site. Some diehards complain that the Fold has gotten too cushy in recent years—the chairs used to be recycled school-bus seats, and the big room was heated by pot-bellied stoves—but the barn remains rustic enough, admission is still 50 cents for kids and the evening fare is classic barbecue pork on a bun with a side of corn muffins.
Naturally, the Fold was hosting a summer festival too, which meant even bigger headliners than on a typical Saturday night. The place was packed to the rafters with old-time fans, some young enough to sport orange-soda moustaches, others old enough to balance oxygen tanks between their knees. Bands on stage played Carter standards (“Wildwood Flower”) and lesser-known numbers (“Solid Gone.”)
Throughout these performances, however, I noticed a strange nervous clicking sound, like fingers being frenetically snapped. Inspecting the area beneath our seats, I saw that many of our neighbors were wearing what looked to be tap shoes. When the Grayson Highlands Band came on, a wave of audience members swept onto the dance floor in front of the stage, with one man sliding, Tom Cruise-in-Risky Business style, into the center, blue lights flashing on his tap shoes. The traditional Appalachian dancing that followed—combinations of kicks, stomps and shuffles known as clogging—was dominated by strutting older men, some in silly hats. Professional cloggers, including women in red ruffled tops and patchwork skirts, joined the romp.