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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

Competitors hail from all over the country. I met four carrot-topped teenage sisters from Alaska, who had formed a bluegrass band, the Redhead Express. (Until recently, it had included their three little brothers, but the guys could no longer bear the indignity and had broken away to form their own unit, the Walker Boys.) Kids and parents had been touring the country for more than two years, practicing various instruments three at a time, up to eight hours a day, in a cramped and cacophonous RV. As soon as the youth competition wrapped up, the redheads faced a marathon drive to Nebraska for more shows.

Back in Galax, though, the music would proceed at a leisurely pace. For many children at the convention, as for generations of their ancestors, music was not so much an all-consuming occupation as a natural accompaniment to living, an excuse to enjoy friends and fine weather and stay up past bedtimes.

Erin Hall of Radford, Virginia, a 15-year-old with blue bands on her braces, had been fiddling since she was 5. During the school year, she plays classical violin, training in the Suzuki method. Come June, though, she switches to old-time.“It’s kind of like...” she paused. “Like my summer break.”

Abigail Tucker is the staff writer at Smithsonian. Photographer Susana Raab is based in Washington, D.C.

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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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