GALAX, Va. — Blue Grass, Country, Blues and Jazz.
All are uniquely American forms of music, that tell the story not only of the musical development of the nation, but in the words and tone tell the emotional and cultural history of the country.
No matter where one travels across America, that music, those sounds and stories, aren’t far away.
While local folks might be familiar with blue grass, and even country, the truth is every one of those musical genres either had their birth here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or at least passed this way early in their development.
And the Blue Ridge Music Center, just up the road near Galax, Virginia, tells the story of that music and the musicians, playing and singing songs and telling stories that have chronicled life in and near these mountain communities over the decades.
The Center, located at Mile Post 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Virginia-North Carolina border, is an unassuming venue, off the beaten path, but it chronicles the roots of American music that developed from the colonial days right on through the 20th century.
Like that American music, the Center itself has changed over the years. It had its beginnings in 2002, with a simple amphitheatre for local and regional musicians to play. Three years later, a visitor and interpretative center opened, and in 2011 the Center’s museum opened, which now features the interactive Roots of American Music exhibit.
Richard Emmett, program director at the Blue Ridge Music Center, can give a quick version of the birth of American music, in describing the center and all it has to offer.
The roots of American music, which grew from the iconic fiddle and banjo playing that came from the Blue Ridge region, was born with the meeting of two very different instruments.
“This music can be traced to the meeting of the African banjo and the European fiddle in the Tidewater area of Virginia,” he said.
That African banjo is similar to the modern clawhammer banjo, which has a deeper, sometimes more mournful sound than the modern banjo.
“That led to blue grass, the blues, jazz,” Emmett said.
The role of the Blue Ridge in all of that is that once that music began to develop in the Tidewater region of the state, many of those musicians migrated west, settling the mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina during the mid and late 1700s.
Those isolated communities formed their own culture, and that is reflected in the music. As the nation continued growing, spreading west and north, the music went along, changing, evolving, morphing into various genres we know today.
While many of the early practitioners of what would become blue grass and old time music have been largely forgotten by the world, their stories and instruments are alive at the Blue Ridge Music Center.
In addition to the emphasis on musical history, the Center offers modern music and activities as well.
“Every day from noon to 4 o’clock, May through October, local and regional performers come in and do some informal presentations in our breezeway, which opens up to the mountains and the fresh air,” Emmett said. “That gives us shelter from the rain and weather, but is open to the outdoors.”
The daily series began in 2008. Emmett explained some local musicians wanted to start performing there on a daily basis, so the center was certainly willing to give them an outlet.
The schedule for those daily concerts and music sessions for 2017 is:
Sunday: Stu Shek & The Fisher Peak Timber Rattlers
Monday: The Buck Mountain Band
Tuesday: Bobby Patterson & Willard Gayheart
Wednesday: Bill & Maggie Anderson
Thursday: Scott Freeman and Willard Gayheart
Friday: Bluegrass jam. This is a day for the casual musician to bring his or her instrument and sit in on some jam sessions. Everyone of all skill levels welcome to participate and perform for those in the audience.
Saturday: These are handled differently, with four musical acts rotating Saturdays each month. The first Saturday of each month is the Mountain Breeze Band; the second Saturday is The Mountain Music Makers; third Saturday is the Sugarloaf Mountain Band; and the fourth Saturday of each month features Ron Ireland.
This daily schedule of music has been key to the Center, Emmett said.
“We get quite a few visitors who come up repeatedly to enjoy that opportunity,” he said, adding it’s also a nice bonus for Parkway travelers who stop in to find a live, free concert going on.
In addition to the daily jams, the center holds period concerts featuring bands that play Celtic, Blues, blue grass, old time, folk and other musical genres. often featuring acts that tour the United States and Europe.
The remaining concert series for 2017 include:
July 22: The April Verch Band and the Grayson County Daredevils. The concert costs $15 admission and begins at 7 p.m.
July 29: The Harris Brothers as well as Joe Troop and Che Apalache will be in concert at 7 p.m., and tickets cost $10. Brothers Reggie and Ryan Harris were born and raised in Western North Carolina. Che Apalache is an international bluegrass and old-time mountain music quartet based in Buenos Aires, Argentinia.
Aug. 5: Crooked Road Ramblers and the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters. Crooked Road Ramblers hail from Southeastern Virginia, and the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters is a Virginia band whose name is a tribute to the 1930s era group, Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters. The concert begins at 7 p.m. and is $10.
Aug. 19: Barr-Williams and Cabin Creek Boys. Award-winning husband and wife musicians Jeanette Williams and Johnny Williams will be joined on stage by well-known banjo player Stevie Barr and talented young fiddler Daniel Greeson. The Cabin Creek Boys play old-time hillbilly music from the mountains of southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina. The concert begins at 7 p.m. and tickets are $10.
Aug. 27: Old Crow Medicine Show has toured the world playing renowned festivals and venues and has five studio albums to their name. With Mipso and Amythyst Kiah. Mipso is made up of “four young renegade traditionalists” carrying forward the traditions of North Carolina and beyond, blending Appalachian country, folk, jazz and pop. Amythyst Kiah is a Southern Gothic, alt-country blues singer/songwriter based in Johnson City, Tennessee. The concert begins at 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 1: A Show for Joe: The 2nd Annual Joe Wilson Memorial Music Festival with Band of Ruhks, Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, Linda Lay & Springfield Exit, Whitetop Mountain Band and Special Guest Sherman Holmes. This mult-act concert gets under way at 4 p.m. and tickets are $25.
Oct. 7: Anna & Elizabeth: The collaboration between Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle spans worlds—between their homes in Brooklyn and rural Virginia. The two spent last summer touring across the US, UK, and Ireland, and now bring their sound to Virginia. The concert begins at 5 p.m. and tickets cost $20.
Oct. 21: Dom Flemons: Dom Flemons is the “American Songster,” pulling from traditions of old-time folk music to create new sounds, a co-founder of the acclaimed Carolina Chocolate Drops. This season-ending concert gets under way at 5 p.m., and tickets are $20.