- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2016


Most people can name the major hot spots of American music: Nashville. Memphis. Austin. New York. Los Angeles. But just 400 miles from the nation’s capital, where extreme southwestern Virginia kisses the hem of neighboring Tennessee, the Celtic music of Irish and Scottish immigrants melded with the gospel and blues sounds of black Southerners migrating up from the Delta — resulting in a brand-new musical form that the world had heretofore never known.

Whether it is called country, Americana, roots music or simply the joy emanating from your radio, the soundscape of Appalachia has staked its claim to a major part of the identity of the United States, as it has emanated from its source to all points of the American landscape and as our gift to the world.

The Washington Times recently spent a weekend in the heart of music country to learn about the history, the heritage and hospitality of one of the most unsung parts of the American cultural identity.


Day 1:

One thing about this part of the country: It’s a bit difficult to get to. I live in Washington, from where it’s either a good six or seven hours by car, or nearly as much via air travel. From Reagan airport, I fly into Charlotte and then take a quick hop to the Tri-Cities Airport in northeastern Tennessee. I still enjoy coming into a smaller airport like this one, without the zoo that accompanies most major ports of air call.

Picking up the rental car, I head northeast along I-81 toward Abingdon, Virginia. My first stop is Heartwood (One Heartwood Circle, Abingdon, Virginia, 24210, 276/492.2400) which serves as a cultural and ambassadorial welcoming site to Southwest Virginia. It’s a lovely edifice, constructed entirely from the wood of local arbols — it almost has the feel of a huge cabin.

I am met by Amanda Livingston of the Abingdon CVB and Jenna Wagner, marketing manager with the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation. They take me for a tour of the Heartwood, a thoroughly welcoming first impression for visitors to this historic section of the Commonwealth. Not only does the museum provide news on the cultural history of the area, but crafts by local artists are here for both display as well as sale purposes. It’s a reminder that while most of us will not get rich by applying a trade or artisinal endeavor, it is far more important that we continue to do so in order to add more squares to the rich tapestry that is our culture.

Amanda gives me a lift into central Abingdon, a lovely little ‘burg situated amid the Blue Ridge Mountains, and whose biggest claim to fame is the Barter Theatre (127 W Main St, Abingdon, Virginia, 24210, 276/628-3991), the state proscenium of Virginia, and a professional repertory company where such luminaries of yesteryear as Ernest Borgnine and Oscar winners Gregory Peck and Patricia Neal once cut their teeth as aspiring young thespians with their eyes on the hills of California. In fact, my hostess’ husband is now a player on the Barter’s stage. (Its name, I learn, comes from the Depression era, where patrons, many too poor to pay for an evening’s entertainment, would offer the theater goods or farm products in trade for a seat.)

Abingdon not only sits on the Appalachian Trail, it is also the source of the Creeper Trail, a 34-mile bike path that stretches from Abingdon to where it terminates at Whitetop near the North Carolina border. Other points of local interest include the ornate Martha Washington Inn & Spa (150 West Main St., Abingdon, Virginia, 24210, 276/628-3161), whose guests have included Eleanor Roosevelt, President Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Elizabeth Taylor. Its piece de resistance, in my humble opinion, is its library, with wall-height shelves of books new and old that require a ladder to retrieve on the higher eaves. I wish I’d had time to simply sit here and read.

For lunch Amanda takes me to 128 Pecan (128 Pecan Street SE, Abingdon, Virginia, 24210, 276/698-3159), a homely do-drop-in where locals mix with the itinerant sojourner like myself. The atmosphere is pleasant and the staff gracious. As I dine on my sandwich and sip on an iced tea, chef and owner Jack Barrow pops by to say hello, and he and Amanda trade town stories as I finish up.

Following a quick trip to local coffee shop Zazzy’s (380 E Main St. Abingdon, Virginia, 24210. (276) 698-3333), we head for some locally brewed beverages at Wolf Hills Brewing Company (350 Park St SE, Abingdon, Virginia, 24210, 276/451-5470), a brewhouse that also doubles as a live music venue in these parts — and takes its name from what frontiersman Daniel Boone once called the area. Proprietor Cameron S. Bell, an attorney by trade, proffers his wares from behind his bar, which won’t be open to the public for a few hours hence. Of particularly prominent taste is the White Blaze Honey Cream Ale, which was both refreshing and offered a hint of honey taste without being overwhelming. Creeper Trail Amber Ale had a taste profile to match its name, and I especially dug the Oktoberfest lager for this time of year.

Bidding Amanda — and Abingdon — adieu, I head east on I-81 toward Marion, yet another treasure of Southwestern Virginia’s pedigree. I check into the General Francis Marion Hotel (107 E. Main St., Marion, Virginia, 24354, 276/783-4800), a thoroughly charming, welcoming edifice right on Marion’s main drag. I am greeted by owner Joe Ellis, who cheerily talks of the recent two-year-long renovation.

No key cards here; I am issued an old-school metal door lock and proceed to my room, a cozy upstairs quarters with a super-comfy bed, desk, dresser and generous large-screen TV amid the room.

After a quick nap, I walk down the street to Wolf’s BBQ (138 E Main St, Marion, Virginia, 24354, 276)/378-0823), where I am met by Jenna from Abingdon as well as Ken Heath, director of the Marion CVB, who shows up with a Marion ball cap to add to my collection.

I order up a platter of prime rib, fried okra, cornbread and mac n’ cheese. It’s filling, if not exactly stellar, but it’s down-home cooking in a way that I simply cannot get in D.C. Ken, Jenna and I have beers and chat congenially of the reality show — er, election — that is upcoming.

Post-dinner I head across the street to the historic Lincoln Theatre (117 E Main St, Marion, Virginia, 24354), originally opened as a movie house in the 1920s but now a mecca for the roots music that defines the region. The Mayan Revival decor of the interior is ornate, the artwork clearly fashioned with the utmost care compared to the cookie-cutter, sterile matinee palaces of modern times. It’s also where the syndicated “Song of the Mountains” TV show is broadcast.

This is where bluegrass was born and where roots music brought from the Old Country — mainly the Celtic lands — fused into a new kind of Americana and became “roots” music in the New World. Tonight, that grand musical tradition is upheld by the great Sigean, a Tri-Cities band that traffics in “the traditional music of Ireland,” according to their website. That means strings, especially the fiddle, and deep melodies and harmonies evocative of the Emerald Isle. It’s a fine way to spend a Friday evening, and I chat briefly with Sigean’s management about getting a CD to review.

After a drink back at the General Francis, I’m ready to turn in.


Day 2:

Who says you can’t have a morning drink? Especially when it’s for, uh, journalistic purposes.

Across the street from the General Francis is the Mercantile Stillhouse Store, (112 E Main St., Marion, Virginia, 24354, 276/378-0867), a general store where, in the back room, proprietor Scott Schumaker shares samples (for a small fee) of his pride and joy — his Virginia Sweetwater Distillery moonshine.

Scott offers me tastings of his wares, including the absolutely delectable Apple Pie Moonshine, which is precisely the way I hope to conclude — or commence — Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Back on I-81, I head southeast toward Bristol, a double-headed town with so-named cities on both sides of the Virginia-Tennessee border. I stand in the middle of State St. for the requisite photo, smiling broadly at the notion of being an itinerant reporter in two states simultaneously as both Virginia and Tennessee state flags wave behind me.

On the Tennessee side, I inquire of an officer of the law what would happen if he saw me committing mischief but then ran across the street to Virginia. Not seeming to know what to do with me at first — although I inform him of my journalistic cred — he says that under “hot pursuit” statutes, he could in fact race across state lines and tackle me.

Duly noted.

Bristol is ground zero for what later became “country music.” But why? For the answer, I head into the Birthplace of Country Music Museum (520 Birthplace of Country Music Way, Bristol, Virginia, 24201, 423/573-1927) a Smithsonian-affiliated institution that commemorates the history of the area as well as the famous Bristol Sessions, widely considered to be the founding event of modern country music.

Inside the museum, filled with interactive exhibits, I learn much about how immigrant music mixed with gospel sound and blues and jazz from black musicians migrating up from the South to meld and give birth to “Americana,” which entails what became roots, country and bluegrass — which itself then became a signature part of rock ‘n’ roll. Also, there’s an entire exhibit devoted to “what is a hillbilly?” that discusses the term’s history from its inoffensive origins to its current status as a pejorative.

In a song booth, I record my own vocals over a recording of the old-timey “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” and listen to the playback. I come from a choral and theater background, and it’s my first attempt at yodeling. Clearly I need more practice.

After a thoroughly fulfilling meal at downtown Bristol’s Burger Bar (8 Piedmont Ave, Bristol, Virginia, 24201, 276/466-6200), I head up into the mountains to the Carter Family Fold (3449 A P Carter Hwy, Hiltons, Virginia, 24258, 276/386-9480), a combination museum and performance space that honors the so-called first family of country music, discovered in these parts in 1927, and then going on to record hundreds of songs in Bristol. Of course, music history also records that one of the Carter family daughters, June, went on to marry the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash.

The Carter Family Fold is indeed a rustic affair, and the drive up here offers almost no cell service at all. For 20 miles I drive up into the mountains until it suddenly appears by the side of the road. For entry, the Fold asks all of $10 (cash only), but what you get is a boot-scootin’ good time of modern country music in as authentic a setting as possible.

Tonight’s entertainment is the Whitetop Mountain Band, a sextet local to these parts whose latest album, “Roads of Grayson County,” pays homage to the area they call home and the music that inspired them. The band is as tight a unit as any professional musical outfit, and their spirit enlivens this smallish venue as much as it would the Royal Albert Hall as WMB plays with verve and a joy that rings across Saturday night in Appalachia.

Back in Bristol I pop by the Bristol Brewery (41 Piedmont Ave, Bristol, Virginia, 24201, 276/608-1220) for a nightcap. It’s a great combination indoor-outdoor establishment, with many craft suds on tap (including one, the Red Neck Amber, which clearly pokes fun at the jokes aimed at the area’s own history). I opt for the Barefoot Blonde, the Red Neck, Double Loco Imperial IPA and the Hellraiser as the cap for this little journey of mine, which I enjoy next to a patio fire.

So close to yet so far from my home in D.C., the Tri-Cities region has offered me a bevy of new experiences, chief among them the explication of just one piece of our nation’s musical landscape. If I’ve learned anything this weekend, it’s that America will never cease to fascinate me with its mix of cultures that gave rise to an ever-expanding national identity that is still evolving.

Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.

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