Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Another Bluegrass Extravaganza on Southwest Virginia's Crooked Road

Do you know the difference between a violin and a fiddle?

Well, neither did I until spending the four-day tutorial in Bluegrass music that I am enjoying in southwest Virginia.

I say, Bluegrass, only as shorthand for the conglomeration of music styles that could just as easily be categorized as mountain, Old-Time, or just plain Americana.

What I've seen are fiddles, banjos, guitars, bass fiddles, washboards and even a saxophone. Sometimes it's just guitars; other times maybe a guitar and fiddle, and one time the whole enchilada of instruments.

But so far, no drums.

Here's a short music-history lesson: Southwest Virginia is where the feisty African banjo -- yes, the banjo arrived in America with the slaves -- and the stately European violin collided. If there were ever two more unlikely instruments blended into one sound, I don't know what they might be: the slide trombone and harpsichord, perhaps?

However strange the pairing, the result is a music movement enveloping the entire Appalachian region.

Playing the fiddle or guitar just comes naturally to locals here. Even if not accomplished, they strum and bow because the music has been with them since birth.

Folks in southwest Virginia simply light up when talking about music.

Yesterday we spent a couple of hours at the spectacular Heartwood Center near Galax, Virginia. Located near the Tennessee border, it is Virginia's gateway to music and art.

We met Erynn Marshall, the music program manager of the Blue Ridge Music Center who played a couple of tunes on her fiddle as the founding father of The Crooked Road, Joe Wilson looked on.

The Crooked Road links together several live music venues around more than 300 miles of southwest Virginia. Joe, regaled us with local music history and lore as we strolled around the Crooked Road history exhibit.

In another area of the center, Jack Hinshelwood, the executive director of The Crooked Road, and Blake Collins, an employee of the Heartwood Center, entertained us with a couple of tunes.

Before we left Heartwood, we stopped in the demonstration room where one of the U.S. Park Rangers -- Heartwood Center is overseen by the U.S. Park Service -- displayed his bowing and strumming skills. Everyone here seems to play something.

Last night we attended the weekly gathering at the Carter Family Fold. This is a music venue that was founded by the Carter Family, considered by many as the first family of country music. For those of us not steeped in music history, the better known of the clan was June Carter Cash and, of course, Johnny Cash.

The music was Old-Time, the dancing version of Bluegrass. The music was lively and the dancing captivating. Dancers ranged in age from, maybe, as young as six to as old as 85. This is flat dancing. It's sort of a freestyle tap dancing. Many of the dancers were actually wearing shoes with metal taps on them. Others clogged. From 30 rows back, it looked like chaos; next to the dance floor, it was an art form.

The hall seats 1,000. Last night roughly 600 people paid their $7 -- the admission cost for adults -- to listen to the music and dance. A concession stand dispensed homemade food. It felt more like a family reunion than a show.

What a night!

Oh, and what's the difference between a violin and a fiddle? Only the person playing it.

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