Music Trail Could Help Struggling Virginia Towns
By Kara Glascoe , Special to Stateline
Country and folk music have put Southwest Virginia on the map. Now a proposal to designate a Heritage Music Trail and Country Music Highway through the Appalachian countryside would make that map easier to follow.
Supporters hope a road marker system will attract fans of country-music stars such as the Carter family and mountain-music legend Ralph Stanley the same way that Virginia's Civil War Trail has drawn history buffs to Appomattox, the site of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender, and other historic war sites.
Residents of Southwest Virginia say the area deserves to have a trail to commemorate the music it fostered. Besides, the trail could lure tourist dollars to an area suffering from loss of coal, furniture-making and textile jobs. The area suffered another economic hit this year when Travelocity.com, an online travel service, announced it will close its call center in Dickenson County and shift most of the 250 jobs to India.
A bill moving through the General Assembly would designate certain routes connecting musical landmarks as "Virginia's Heritage Music Trail: The Crooked Road." Not be missed along the way would be Bristol, Va., straddling the Virginia-Tennessee border, considered the birthplace of country music. Roughly 25 miles east is Hiltons, Va., hometown of the Carters, country music's first family. A winding 45 miles north is Norton, Va., where Dock Boggs played his bluesy banjo. Twenty-five miles up the road is Clintwood, Va., stomping ground of Ralph Stanley.
The music trail would start in the Virginia town of Floyd, run southwest through Independence, Abingdon, Bristol and Weber City (generally along U.S.Highway 58), then curl west and north mostly along U.S. Highway 23 through Big Stone Gap, Norton and Pound before ending in Clintwood. All the turns are what make this "The Crooked Road." A parallel proposal would name part of the trail - the section of U.S. 23 through Wise, Lee and Scott counties - the "Country Music Highway."
The measures, sponsored by Del. Clarence "Bud" Phillips, D-Castlewood, were passed unanimously by the Virginia House in February and are awaiting action in a Senate committee.
The sounds that were born in the Appalachians of southwest Virginia went largely undiscovered until the 1920s, when Ralph Peer, a talent scout and record producer from New York, "heard about the music down here and how rich it is," said Teddy Helton, a volunteer at the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance Museum in Bristol, Va.
Helton said Peer recorded such country-music legends as the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers. "I think Johnny Cash said this is the big bang of country music right here," he said.
The Bristol museum last year drew more than 30,000 visitors from 39 states and 17 foreign countries, said museum executive director Bill Hartley. Visitors include "some true fans of country music and some who want to learn the history of it -- some kids, older or retired persons, all types of people," he said.
Hartley said the museum offers a range of activities featuring nationally popular artists as well as locally respected musicians. The activities include live shows (with free admission to local or regional acts) and book signings.
The museum is one of numerous attractions in the area:
- Hiltons has the Carter Family Fold, which includes a performance center and various activities dedicated to the preservation of traditional mountain and folk music.
- Norton has a festival honoring Dock Boggs, who invented a style of banjo picking and "even played at Carnegie Hall," said Nancy Jones. She and her husband, Bill, head a nonprofit group called Appalachian Traditions Inc., which has hosted the festival and other events for more than 35 years.
- Clintwood is opening a museum to honor Ralph Stanley, who formed the Clinch Mountain Boys decades ago and has been such an influence on bluegrass that his picture hangs in the front of the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn. Stanley recently won awards and acclaim for his contributions to the soundtrack for the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Creating a Heritage Music Trail is one of several legislative proposals to boost the economy of the area. Other proposals include creating enterprise zones to attract businesses and reducing the tuition for Tennessee students to attend the University of Virginia's College at Wise.
Kara Glascoe is a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University.