Randy Johnson Books


Soundtrack of the Mountains

Randy Johnson, Special to The Charlotte Observer, July 2, 2003

If the Grammy-winning soundtrack for the film "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" and this year's Grammy album "Legacy" by David Holt and Doc Watson get your toes tapping, know that the music and crafts traditions of America are alive and vibrant just an hour or so west of the Queen City.

Maybe this is the summer to head west just a bit and touch base with our country's roots.

Indeed, next weekend, two major events near Boone are attuned to the musical traditions of Western North Carolina: the 6th Annual Doc Watson Music Fest and the 48th Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

A rich vein of America's past runs through our mountains. But like a vein of ore, you have to know where to look to find it. Luckily, with Fred Fussell's new "Blue Ridge Music Trails: Finding a Place in the Circle" (review, page xx), mountain music seems to be everywhere on the Parkway.

And with HandMade in America's two recent guides you can hit every craft shop and farmers market in the high country.

Driving trails devoted to crafts, Civil War battles, and other heritage and history topics abound. But the Blue Ridge Parkway was the first -- a multifaceted, nearly 500-mile motor trail devoted to the Southern Appalachians and its riches. Conceived by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s as the Eastern United States' premier national park experience, the Parkway aimed to delve so deeply into a forgotten "land of do without" that residents of this ridge top seriously doubted the road could be built. Bulldozer operators found families living a pioneering lifestyle long after the West was settled.

Times have changed -- but maybe less than you think. The cultural life of the mountains is coming into sharper musical focus with the continuing development of the Blue Ridge Music Center just north of the Virginia line (the state border is actually painted across the Parkway).

The Blue Ridge Music Center, at Milepost 213, is destined to become one of the most important ways the Parkway preserves its cultural slice of Americana. It's a perfect centerpiece for a music-in-the-mountains mini-vacation loop drive for Charlotteans.

The center is between Southwest Virginia and northwestern North Carolina, one of the richest regions to gain an insight -- and appreciation -- of traditional music. An amphitheater is already open. Ground was just broken on its 17,000-square-foot visitor center, the Parkway's newest, which is expected to open in 2004.

There will be extensive multimedia exhibits, lectures and more, devoted to the wonderful fusion of Irish, English, Scots-Irish, African, Celtic and other kinds of music and instruments that came together early in U.S. history to create the nation's traditional music. The staff will refer visitors to nearby music events and a wide range of recorded music will be available.

The National Park Service already has a large outdoor amphitheater at the music center that was dedicated in October 2001 by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. All summer long, Parkway visitors can stop in for weekend concerts and hear mountain music as the locals play it. Expect jam sessions to erupt at the drop of a hat.

Fittingly, this portion of the Parkway, roughly between Roanoke, Va., and Deep Gap -- at U.S. 421, near Boone -- is where the culture of the mountain people truly seems to stand out. This part of the Parkway may come closest to fusing the road's interpretation of the past with a sense of the present and future.

Music is a part of that interpretation, but so are scenery, crafts and some of the best Parkway hiking trails.

Access is easy: From the Charlotte area, you can reach the Parkway just above the Virginia border by traveling north on Interstate 77. Or, continue north on I-77 to Interstate 81 and join the Parkway near Roanoke. You also can get on the Parkway near Boone by taking I-77 to U.S. 421, which is increasingly close to being completed as a four-lane highway. Or connect to the Parkway near Asheville, via I-85/26.

If you can't plan ahead to enjoy one of the region's many mountain music festivals, stop at the Blue Ridge Music Center and enrich your understanding of how the music happened.

There's a calendar full of traditional mountain music events to consider all along this central portion of the Parkway. Just 12 miles off the Parkway, Galax, Va., is the site of the classic Old Time Fiddler's Convention the second weekend in August. Galax donated more than 1,000 acres of land to create the Blue Ridge Music Center.

On your way there, it's a short detour east from the Parkway to Mount Airy for WPAQ radio's "Saturday Morning Merry-Go-Round." For more than 50 years, this mountain music program at Mount Airy's Downtown Cinema Theater has been broadcast on the local AM station, one of many Blue Ridge regional radio stations whose devotion helps keep the music alive. A jam session precedes the 11 a.m. live broadcast, which you can attend for free. The town that served as the inspiration for native-son Andy Griffith's TV burg of Mayberry has a variety of other music events worth checking out.

On the Parkway itself, Mabry Mill in Virginia (Milepost 176.2) is the high road's stirringly preserved grist mill south of Roanoke. Mountain music and dancing take place here every Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. An easy trail through a complex of 19th-century structures imparts a sense of how mountain families lived a century-and-a-half ago.

Farther south, there's music in the Ashe County town of Glendale Springs, the site of the Parkway's Northwest Trading Post craft shop. The Mountain Music Jamboree, easily reached from Parkway Milepost 258, features old-time mountain music, bluegrass, and spirited dancing every Friday and Saturday from 7 to 11 p.m., June through September.

Boone's Summer Concerts on the Lawn take place at the Jones House Community Center every Friday evening at 5:30. The type of music varies, but bluegrass and traditional mountain music are popular -- appropriate in a town where legendary native son Doc Watson still plays informal gigs.

If you missed Wilkesboro's Merlefest in April, this week's 6th Annual Doc Watson Music Fest in Sugar Grove, near Boone, will be one of your best chances to celebrate Doc's 80th birthday. David Holt will share the stage with a man he calls "one of the great American traditional musicians of all time."

The event supports the Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum, located in the adjacent Old Cove Creek School; event tickets include museum access.

Performances start at 4 p.m. Friday, at 9 a.m. Saturday, and each night the MusicFest Jam goes until "Doc says done."

There's more music available next weekend near Boone. Celtic music has had its impact on traditional music in America and its presence at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is growing. "Celtic Grove" stages are sited among the trees, with diverse performances that range from Scottish fiddle to Celtic Rock and on to Scottish folk, Celtic crossover and bluegrass.

The story of former Charlotte resident Fiona Ritchie startlingly illustrates the impact of the Southern mountains and their musical events. Ritchie's "Thistle & Shamrock" Celtic music show, born on Charlotte's WFAE (90.7-FM) went national 20 years ago, and she's gone on to international acclaim as host of one of National Public Radio's most popular programs. WFAE airs the weekly show at 8 p.m. Saturdays. The anniversary was celebrated last month in the United Kingdom with an hour-long BBC documentary.

Years ago, when Ritchie and some college friends took off on a lark from Charlotte to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, there was no Celtic section in most music stores. "I went off with my cutoff denim shorts and white T-shirt," she says, "looking like an American, while the Americans were walking around looking quite authentically like Scots.

"And then I had a really powerful experience," she says. "I saw a family who looked like they weren't of great means. The children were sitting quite reverentially as their father was recording the sound of all these pipe bands with his little tape recorder. They looked as if they were from the mountains, and I felt moved by them and what they obviously thought was a connection to their roots. That made it real and important for me, that family trying to catch something that they could take away. I realized that magical musical connections exist between my part of the world and many others. I was an interesting door that opened for me that day."

The door to that kind of musical experience opens again next weekend at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, the Doc Watson Music Festival and other places just a short drive away on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

"To keep our musical heritage alive," Holt says, "it takes people to play it, and people to listen to it. The Blue Ridge Parkway, and the new Blue Ridge Music Center, give everyone the opportunity to play a part in keeping traditional music alive."

Randy Johnson's new books, "Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway: The Ultimate Guide to America's Most Popular Scenic Roadway" ($16.95, Falcon/Globe Pequot) and "Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway" ($9.95, Falcon/Globe Pequot) include trails on the Parkway as well as paths in the state parks, national forests and private preserves that line the road.


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