While much has been made of the region’s gems, places like Pilot Mountain State Park, the area’s burgeoning wine industry and the general quality of life offered in the Foothills, one organization is working to preserve another historic feature: The area’s musical heritage.
The Blue Ridge Music Center’s mission is simple: to showcase the area’s cultural heritage.
“We’re a visitor’s center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which just happens to be the most-visited park facility out of 401 in the United States,” said park ranger and Music Center Director Janet Bachmann. “In keeping with the bigger park service mission, we are here to preserve and interpret the natural, cultural and historic features of the region, and that includes the music.”
Bachmann said the center, located on the parkway at mile marker 213 in Galax, Virginia, is a one-of-a-kind facility that features interactive exhibits and live traditional music daily.
“For years, you could go up and down the parkway and stop at this campground and that and hear some traditional music,” she said. “But this is the one place where we formally interpret how the music started.”
Bachmann couldn’t be more serious about her mission to save and share the traditional music of the region.
“It’s the roots of American music,” she said emphatically. “This region was very important in developing some of these types of music, whether it be called mountain music, Old Time or bluegrass. How the people of the region kept these older strands of music alive as a tradition is a story worth telling.
“Big band music came along and people liked it, but the people in this area also like the Old Time and bluegrass music because they are living traditions,” Bachmann added.
She said she is proud of the exhibit the park service and the Blue Ridge Foundation, which oversees the center for the first time this year, have put together.
“It’s a fairly new exhibit that features the roots of American music and it’s so amazing,” Bachmann said. “There is nowhere else I know of where you can get this overview of American folk music and how it came about.”
Bachman said the exhibit illustrates for the visitor how the music was kept in the mountain region as well as how it was transformed through technology.
“First you have this music where 100 years ago you would sit on your front porch and play homemade instruments,” she said. “Then came mass media in the form of recordings, radio and television.”
For Richard Emmett, music program director for the center, music was the “cultural glue” that bonded communities.
“On special occasions, music was important whether it was sitting on someone’s porch listening to music or at a church or community event,” he said. “It was what people did when they came together. It really was the glue that bonded communities, and it often helped tell a community’s story.”
Emmett said for him, traditional music is the “best music there is.”
“I think some of this music is the most vital music we have from a historical perspective,” he said. “I didn’t grow up with it, but I got hooked on it because it’s so very unique, vital and authentic.”
Many visitors to the center hear the twang of a banjo and the wail of a fiddle and immediately think of bluegrass, Bachmann said.
“But that didn’t come along until the 1940s with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs,” she said. “That story unfolds in a wonderful way in our exhibit with interactive displays, videos and listening stations.
“It’s pretty unique,” Bachmann added. “Visitors to the Country Music Hall of Fame or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will see some of the same people on the walls there that we have here.”
“These days, bands like the Old Crow Medicine Show and the Carolina Chocolate Drops are becoming very popular, and that music is highly influenced by the traditional music of our region,” he said.
Bachmann paused, noting the importance of preserving and sharing the music of the region.
“No one has the kind of overview we have here,” she said. “You’d have to read 250 books to learn the story we tell with our exhibit.”
For Bachmann, preserving the history of the region’s musical heritage and sharing it with others is an important mission.
“This region’s musical heritage had such a huge impact on later music and culture,” she said. “It’s a huge part of the development of what we know today as country and rock and roll music.
“But this is America’s music,” Bachmann added. “It’s gone around the world and has had such a huge impact on culture. The story of how it was used in the community and preserved throughout the years is so interesting.”
She noted she didn’t grow up in the region, although she has lived in the area for three decades.
“I think from the outside looking in, music is such a part of the fabric of life that sometimes these outside visitors focus on how special this area is,” she said. “Where I grew up, in upstate New York, we loved music as well, but we didn’t have this body of work and traditional history. The way this region nurtures the music through things like instrument closets or musical competitions for children, it’s a part of the region.”
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-415-4698 or via Twitter @strangereporter.