- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2015

If you like pigs, fiddles and the good times that go with barbecue and country music, Galax is the place for you, beginning in June and continuing through the summer and early autumn.

The wail of the fiddle and the notes of country music float on the summer air all over town, beginning with the Galax Leaf & String Festival in the second weekend in June, when craft vendors, food concessions (including great barbecue) fill the streets. Authors from nearly everywhere join a celebration of books written about Appalachia. The Mountains of Music Homecoming celebrates country music from June 12 to 20 along the “Crooked Road,” the Virginia Heritage Music Trail, a section of Highway 330.

Galax (pronounced “gay-lax”) has just finished with Houstonfest, honoring the memory of Houston Caldwell, a popular 18-year-old banjo player killed in a road accident. A highlight this year recreated the 1927 recording session in Bristol, a hundred miles farther down the Shenandoah Valley, called “Orthophonic Joy Revisited,” which took country music out of the hills and hollows and introduced it as America’s native music.

In August, fiddle players from across the country descend on tiny Galax, population 7,000, for the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention. This year, the convention runs for a week from Aug. 3 to 8, with the words and music of banjo, mandolin, guitar and autoharp players, folk singing, country and bluegrass bands and “flatfoot dancing,” which is similar to clog dancing but without clogs.

Galax is not old as Virginia measures age — dating from only 1906 — but the town is an oasis of yesteryear, reflecting its claim as “World Capital of Old Time Mountain Music.” The pride of its downtown is the 70-year-old Rex Theater, where every Friday night Radio Station WBRF (90.1 FM) broadcasts 100,000 watts of country and bluegrass music of the “Blue Ridge Back Roads” from the stage of the theater.

Downtown Galax offers more than the Rex, with several antique shops, and crafts, jewelry and paintings for sale at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in a preserved bank building, where local artists and craftsmen teach popular classes. Barr’s Fiddle Shop on Main Street, a mecca for country fiddlers, includes a 1920s barber shop. You can no longer get a shave, but the walls are covered with photographs of musicians who visited to spruce up before performing at Galax. Fiddles, banjos and dulcimers are everywhere — on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, tucked away in display cases. There’s a photograph of four Galax musicians who went to find fame and fortune in New York and, according to the local lore, coined the phrase “hillbilly.”

Music inevitably leads to good eats. The Galax Smoke House, a local institution, specializes in St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork brisket, smoked chicken and banana pudding. The Smoke House is a regular competitor in the annual Smoke on the Mountain Barbecue Championship, which will take place on July 17 and 18 in Galax. The barbecue festival is a qualifying event for the World Food Championship in Kissimmee, Florida, in November, and serves bluegrass and other old-time music with the smoked pig.

Galax is a considerable drive from Washington, and a good place to break the trip is at Roanoke, a lovely city of 98,400 surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its original name was “Big Lick,” for a large outcropping of salt near the Roanoke River, which the wildlife discovered before man. The town first prospered with tobacco; the railroad arrived in 1882, and the town got a more elegant name, said to have originated from an Algonquian word for “shell money.”

The imposing Hotel Roanoke first opened in a hillside wheat field in 1882. The hotel had faded by 1989, when it closed for renovations. It reopened six years later, gloriously reborn, and it’s now magnificent. A lovely frieze of scenes from the early history of Virginia, painted by Hugo Ohlms, a German artist, lines the lobby walls. The Regency Room is famous for its peanut soup and spoonbread, two Virginia delicacies.

The old railroad station across the street, designed by Raymond Loewy, has been reborn as the Roanoke Valley Visitor Center, and is well worth a visit, where it exhibits the railroad photographs of O. Winston Link. A new station is under construction down the line for a new rail line to points north, scheduled to open late next year.

Downtown Roanoke lies on the other side of the tracks, a mix of old and new buildings of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments. From the Center in the Square — a converted warehouse housing the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the History Museum of Western Virginia and a lovely butterfly garden — a pedestrian plaza leads to a daily farmers’ market.

Nearby is the stunning new Taubman Museum of Art, designed by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout. It features contemporary American art, decorative art, works on paper and visiting regional and national exhibits.

A wide selection of restaurants lines downtown streets, ranging from the gourmet Alexander’s to the 24/7 Texas Tavern, where hamburgers rival those of California’s famous In-N-Out burgers. In between are ethnic restaurants including Cedars of Lebanon, On the Rise, a bakery and sandwich shop, and Billy’s, where ladies of the evening of bygone days entertained gentlemen upstairs. Visitors can sample food and history on the Historic Downtown Food and Cultural Tour, although the ladies of the evening have since retired.

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