America’s country music heartland
Heading east along the I-81, I catch fleeting glimpses of familiar country music scenes: countless fluttering Stars and Stripes flags, pick-up trucks outside shabby roadhouses. Eventually the road leads to Bristol, the self-proclaimed ‘birthplace of country music’ sat squarely on the Tennessee-Virginia border. In 1927 Ralph Peer, a producer with The Victor Talking Machine Company, set up a recording studio on its main drag, State Street, and by the end of that year he had recorded 19 performers. The most successful of his Bristol Sessions – considered country’s Big Bang – were those made by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
These days it’s the 175mph Nascar racing at the local speedway track that draws the biggest crowds, but music is still ingrained in Bristol’s cultural life, with live performances easy to find any night of the week. At Capo’s Music Store, its walls hung with guitars, banjos and fiddles, I stumble upon an informal jam session. ‘You can’t throw a rock around here without hitting someone who plays music,’ says Vinny Ringrose, a local law enforcement officer who helps prisoners overcome substance abuse. ‘It runs in the family like a wooden leg. And that music is growing. It’s not nostalgia, it’s alive.’
‘The fiddle was considered the devil’s instrument when I was a boy,’ chimes up 86-year-old Bill McCall with a deep chuckle. ‘You never saw a Christian with a dancin’ knee.’
From Bristol, a state-designated music trail known as the Crooked Road zigzags through the wooded hillsides and meadows of South Virginia, past white picket fences and trout-filled creeks along the North Carolina border. Following signs marked with a banjo, I pass the evocatively-named Great Dismal Swamp, a national wildlife refuge. After a rollercoaster of twists and turns, the road flattens out to reveal small towns like Damascus and Galax, the latter home to a weekly bluegrass night. Further along is Floyd, where yuppie meets hippy meets redneck and everyone seems to get along. Most of the village’s 500 or so residents pass each other daily on sleepy Main Street, a strip of wooden terraced homes and shops with 1950s-style signs.
In the basement of his family’s grocery store, John-William Houston makes and sells handcrafted fiddles. By trade, John- William is a farmer, growing Christmas trees and organic cider apples. Yet now he sits at a workbench, gently scraping back pieces of curly maple and spruce. ‘I wanted to have a good instrument to play,’ he says, ‘but I’ve never been given a lot of money, so I decided to make my own.’ He shows me one of the finished products, which he hopes to sell for around $2,000. Tucking the fiddle under his chin, he plays Bach and bluegrass to an audience of lathes, wood chips and empty egg boxes.
The highlight of John-William’s week, as with everyone here in Floyd, is the jamboree held every Friday in the village’s Country Store. The crowd hand over $5 a piece before picking their way past shelves stacked with coffee and fridges full of ice cream towards the stage at the back. Huge, angry storm clouds have gathered outside and the air is oppressively humid. The evening begins with the Down Home Gospel Band, their voices clinging to the lyrics ‘It took your blood, to set me free’ sung in perfect harmony.
Just as the music switches to bluegrass courtesy of the Friday Night Oldtime Band, rain begins to hammer on the windows. The pitter-patter is drowned out as people take to the dancefloor, twirling and flat-footing in a sweaty, happy mass. At 9pm the Jug Busters Band start their set, keeping Floyd stomping and whirling until gone midnight.