- Associated Press - Saturday, December 9, 2017

CLINTWOOD, Va. (AP) - Thirteen years have passed since a group including then-Gov. Mark Warner and bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley gathered in Clintwood to celebrate the beginning of The Crooked Road, a collection of U.S. and state highways in Southwest Virginia.

It was May 2004, and they stood in front of the Ralph Stanley Museum, which wasn’t even finished. Beyond them, the road would wind in its crooked way for 250 miles between Clintwood and Ferrum. It linked what officials called its “major venues” - including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, the Floyd Country Store in Floyd and the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum.

At the time, Dickenson County Del. Clarence “Bud” Phillips said he wanted to draw tourists and their dollars to Southwest Virginia. Warner said the road could be the “defining hook” that lures people for weeklong stays at multiple destinations.

Since then, The Crooked Road has grown to 330 miles and added dozens of affiliated venues, festivals and wayside exhibits in 19 counties, four cities and more than 50 towns. Warner, after serving his term, became a senator. Phillips retired from the legislature and became a judge. Stanley - whose haunting voice was part of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” movie soundtrack that reignited international interest in the old mountain music - died in June 2016. The path they championed continues serving its purpose.

Jack Hinshelwood, The Crooked Road’s executive director, credited the late folklorist Joe Wilson and community developer Todd Christensen with growing the idea.

“Their goal was to be, within three years, a nationally recognized heritage music driving trail destination, and the reality was (that) within about 18 months they were getting international press,” Hinshelwood said. “So there is something about it that captures people’s imaginations, and here we are in the second decade of it and it still has the power to generate interest.

“So that to me is proof that there is something very real, something very authentic there because there is no amount of clever marketing that could sustain interest for that period of time.”

A 2016 report from the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development analyzed interviews and surveys to determine that people spend $6.4 million annually in Southwest Virginia due to The Crooked Road. That sum is responsible for about 108 full-time jobs, either created or sustained each year, with $2 million in wages. That money, circulated in the region through business and employee spending, amplifies the financial impact to about $9.2 million and 131 non-Crooked Road jobs per year, according to the Virginia Tech report.

About 43 percent of visitors to the attractions come from outside Southwest Virginia. Most come from North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, according to the report, but visitors from Canada, France, Australia and the United Kingdom make the trip, as well.

Day-trip visitors have spent between $42 and $54 per trip, with multiple-day visitors spending between $134 and $591 per trip, according to the report.

Dylan Locke and Heather Krantz, owners of the Floyd Country Store, said they see that mix of local, national and international participation every Friday at their century-old building’s traditional Friday Night Jamboree.

The live-music dance scene there has a large Floyd-area regular following, and those folks are good about welcoming the new ones, both Southwest Virginians and tourists, Locke said.

“They take care of and entertain all of the new folks that are here every week, and it is amazing,” Locke said. “We have our routine on Friday night where we ask who is here for the first time, and every Friday it is a third to a half, and then we ask who is the farthest away from Floyd, born-and-raised, and it’s never (from) the U.S.”

Over the past two years, photographer Heather Rousseau and I traveled to places along The Crooked Road. In Bristol, we visited the state-of-the-art Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian Institution-affiliated place that presents the story of 1927 recordings by artists including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, sessions that came to be known as the genre’s “big bang.” We stopped at nearby Hiltons, where the Carter Family Fold keeps alive the musical heritage of the Carter Family and their descendants with some absolutely down-home picking, singing and dancing.

In Clintwood, we toured a wonderfully presented but poorly attended Stanley Museum and a well-attended Hills of Home Festival that was missing Stanley, who was on his death bed, suffering complications from skin cancer.

We stopped in Galax, for visits to the Old Fiddlers Convention, which is deep into its ninth decade hosting some of the best mountain music players and singers on offer, as well as the Blue Ridge Music Center and Rex Theater, which takes up the slack during many of the 51 weeks per year that the convention is not in session.

In Rocky Mount, where The Crooked Road begins, we visited with participants at the Dairy Queen’s bluegrass jam, and we listened to Rhiannon Giddens in concert at Harvester Performance Center - which is not a Crooked Road venue, but you catch Ms. Giddens when and where you can. Traveling west, we hit the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, which houses great collections of mountain culture and hosts the annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, where exhibitions, contests and concerts show that the traditions are still alive.

At the Floyd Country Store, we talked with Krantz and Locke, who are the relatively new owners working hard to balance welcoming all the attention The Crooked Road brings with the desires of a longtime audience of pickers and dancers who understand the traditions as well as anyone.

“The Crooked Road is one of the richest music traditions in the world,” Hinshelwood said. “The beauty of it is very vibrant and alive now. It is not something that happened in the past. It’s got all that incredible history behind it, but it’s so vibrant now, and that’s again these venues, both the major venues and over 60 affiliate venues. The music traditions have been going on here for so long that it is just embedded in the culture here and the way people live, the way they recreate.”

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