Maces Spring, Virginia - Wandering Virginia

Exploring The Back Road Roots Of Bluegrass

A.P. Carter had a wandering soul. The chronic road traveler spent much of his life searching out songs and music in the Appalachian Mountains, and the sorrowful ballads he discovered started a musical movement that became popular in the 1930s and 1940s and lives on today at bluegrass festivals and as the musical background for films like O Brother Where Art Thou.

When the road tired Carter, he loved to come home to his green-carpeted mountainous community known as Maces Spring. When you visit this timeless mountain community, it's easy to understand Carter's affection.

My trip to the area started in the strip-malled outskirts of Bristol, Tennessee and slipped across the border into Virginia and under the rumbling concrete of Interstate 81 to take a trip back in time. The four-lane gives way to two, and as the miles go by the scenery changes from beat-up gas stations and tightly-packed homes to weatherbeaten tobacco barns and split rail fences. The route slips under the shadow of Clinch Mountain to arrive at Maces Spring, the home of Carter as well as his daughter, June, and son-in-law, Johnny Cash.

The 25 or so miles I'm traveling took Carter all day to drive in the late 1920s. Carter made the long drive in July 1927 with his wife Sara and her sister Maybelle. The musical trio drove to Bristol after spotting an ad taken out by The Victor Company seeking recording artists and made $300 for the six songs they recorded.

A.P.'s journey to Bristol was the start of his successful career as one of the founding figures in the bluegrass music movement. Just as the blues are infused with the Mississippi Delta, bluegrass lives and breathes in the Appalachian Mountains, created at a time when the isolated region was populated with a blend of nationalities and constantly passed through by people traveling to the American West.

Bluegrass was born in this cauldron, created by the banjo, the fiddle; the sounds are a fresh mix created on back porches and popularized by musicians such as Tom Monroe and the A.P. Carter family. That lively music lives on in the hills, and finding a good banjo player requires as little effort today as it did when A.P. Carter's radio show became a national sensation in the 1930s and 1940s.

My bluegrass journey began on a cold, rainy night in April following the road from Bristol, Tennessee to the Carter Family Fold in Maces Springs. The Fold is a music center rich with American music history that remains a bluegrass destination with local and national acts filling the stands above the stage as well as the dance floor every Saturday night

The parking lot was packed when I arrived, and the crowd was composed of an eclectic mix of college kids, bluegrass tourists, and Carter family and friends packed into a venue that seats about 1,000 comfortably and bulged with larger crowds when Johnny Cash made one of his regular appearances (including the last live performance of his career on July 5, 2003).

The Carter family descendants still run the Fold, and A.P.'s granddaughter Rita Forrester graciously took me on a tour of their little bluegrass museum and a restored log cabin that is the birthplace of her grandfather. She had me sit down with her in the cabin, and said with a laugh, "It's the only quiet place on the fold!"

She sat in a rocking chair that was a favorite of Johnny Cash's, and talked about how she had grown up in these mountains, swimming in the local pond and surrounded by a large music-oriented family that was and is her primary social circle. Unlike her ever-wandering grandfather, she doesn't like to leave it often, and is one of the rare Americans left in the world who finds home so satisfying that there is no need to travel to find out she's happy right where she was born.

I bought some of Rita's beans (which were delicious) and a BBQ sandwich and sat down only to find more Carter family members in the crowd, who happily told me how they came down nearly every Saturday night and that there was a 15-year-old banjo-playing prodigy appearing that night, a kid named Grant Marshall. The dance floor filled with flat-footing dancers, the band played, and the halls echoed with the sounds of a mandolin, banjo, and harmonized vocals.

Back on the road, my next bluegrass destination took me back on Highway 58 through Bristol and on to Mt. Rogers Recreational Area. The highway is a wonderful two-lane journey, twisting through the wilderness area up to Mt. Rogers (elev. 5,729 feet), the highest point in Virginia.

Come to this area in June, and you'll find the Song of the Mountains Festival bringing together thousands of people and some of the country's best bluegrass at the nearby Davis Valley Winery. When I passed through, however, the park was quiet and a perfect place to take in the curves with some gusto.

I came down from the mountains and back onto Highway 58, emerging into the next bluegrass stop, the town of Galax, Virginia, the home of the Rex Theatre. The Rex broadcasts live bluegrass music every Friday night across five states via a powerful 100-kilowatt station, WBRF 98.1.

That station is a beacon for modern-day bluegrass, and radio played a big role in bringing the form to the masses. By 1938, A.P. Carter's roamings had brought dozens of folksy songs home to roost. To take the next step, they needed a way to reach the masses, and they found that by moving to Texas to regularly appear on border radio. The station XERA was based across the border in Mexico to escape FCC regulations, and was able to broadcast 500-kilowatts of power across the lower 48 and into Canada. This allowed the Carter Family to reach America en masse, and their popularity soared.

I missed the Rex Theatre show, so I had to make do with a stop at Barr's Fiddle Shop, which is owned by one of the legends of bluegrass, luthier Steve Barr. The small, friendly shop was fairly quiet that morning. A jean-jacketed 50-something stopped in to try out a guitar and talk local politics with the the retired music teacher keeping the shop. When he walked out, the keeper treated me to an impromptu banjo lesson. I managed to leave without purchasing an instrument and walked across the street to The Galax Smokehouse to pursue my interest in the fine art of pork product preparation.

I was in town before noon, and the Smokehouse was not yet open for business. I did, however, manage to talk the cook into letting me taste his award-winning wares. The Galax Smokehouse has national awards from National BBQ News for their food, and the smoky pork and beef they serve tastes as rich as the sound of the high-priced instruments made by Steve Barr across the street.

From Galax, Highway 58's crooked road travels east and, if you link up with the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Meadows of Dan, you can travel north to one of the country's most-photographed destinations, Mabry Mill. I found fresh snow there, the remnants of a freak late snowstorm rapidly melting away in the April sunshine.

Just a bit farther down the road you come to Floyd, Virginia, the home of the infamous Pickin' Porch at Floyd's Country Store. Floyd's is an old general store that closed, and became a favorite place for local musicians to hang out and play. After enough people came by and knocked on the door asking to come in, they decided to re-open and hold regular informal performances. You can stop on a Friday night and pay three bucks to hear music and get your hat tossed in the ring to win a ham.

Floyd was the last stop on my bluegrass tour, but I had sampled just a bit of the road's offerings. I stopped in at a local grocery and gift store to get some lunch. As I killed time waiting for my sandwich by wandering between the rows of perfumed soaps and carved wooden sunflowers, I was drawn into conversation by a resident and the shop keeper who were discussing an upcoming wine and music festival. One of them was the organizer of the event, and she urged me to stay a day to check it out.

Perhaps A.P. Carter would have stayed, but I had commitments in the days ahead and was looking forward to putting my feet up and relaxing with my family. Like A.P., I had filled my travel bag (well, my iPod) with new songs and my notebook with stories to tell while I was in the land where Johnny Cash rested his bones and impromptu banjo lessons are no surprise.

The land of A.P Carter holds a special allure, but as the man said, there's nothing like going home.

The Crooked Road Tour

Motorcycle Rentals at Eaglerider in Richmond, VA

To Purchase Prints OR MAPS

One of the great side trips found on this route is to turn right out of Galax and head through Piper's Gap to Fancy Gap. You can then take the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way back to Highway 58, joining near Mabry Mill.
This cabin is the historic home of A.P. Carter. One of his granddaughters, Rita Forrester, sits in Johnny Cash's favorite chair in the restored cabin.
The road to the Carter Family Fold passes by this abandoned old motel.
The Floyd County Store hosts live music every Friday night and often has music on Saturday, as well. While you can buy lunch, the place is a cultural center more than a store with informal gatherings of musicians as well as musical classes and workshops hosted there.
The countryside in Virginia is a trip back in time.
Bluegrass music was called "hillbilly" or "Old Timey" music in its early days. When well-known musician Bill Monroe dubbed his band the Blue Grass Boys. He and his group popularized the form of music, and Monroe is considered the father of bluegrass music.
The Appalachian Mountains are a motorcyclist's delight, with hundreds of miles of great roads.
The Fold brings in everything from the famous to the up and coming, and this 15-year-old prodigy, Grant Marshall, had been playing for only three years before his talent drew attention.
The Carter Family Fold is a music venue just north of Bristol, Tennessee near the home of bluegrass legend A.P. Carter. They have live music every Saturday night. Johnny Cash played his last two shows here and had a home not far away.
The bluegrass route known as The Crooked Road visits dozens of music destinations in runs from Breaks on the west side of Virginia all the way east to Franklin, which is only 63 miles from the coast.
One of the most-photographed places in America is the Mabry Mill, shown here. It's near Highway 58 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a worthwhile stop if you are into history.