Blue Ridge Bluegrass

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  1. KenH

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    Blue Ridge Bluegrass

    The town of Floyd, Virginia draws jam-ready musicians and some toe-tapping fans
    • By Kenneth R. Fletcher
    •, July 28, 2008

    If you drive through Floyd on a Friday evening, you'll have slow down when you pass the country store of this tiny town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Crowds of people mill about the street, many carrying mandolins, banjos, basses and other instruments. In alleys and parking lots they form impromptu groups playing bluegrass and traditional country music. The jam sessions are fluid; a young guitarist backs up a group of old timers and then joins a fiddle player from the Midwest. Inside the spacious Floyd Country Store, bands from across the region play on a small stage and dancers fill the floor. Their tapping feet provide percussion to the music.

    "The country store has a unique energy," says Fred First, a writer and part-time physical therapist who moved to Floyd a decade ago. "It's maintained its authenticity." In recent years Floyd, a town of just a few hundred people, has formalized spontaneous musical gatherings into a weekly event that brings new interest to the local culture. The town is now a major stop on Virginia's 250-mile Crooked Road, which winds through places where traditional music flourishes. The route is a recent effort by the Appalachian Regional Commission, USDA and local communities to spur tourism and economic development in an often forgotten of southwest Virginia.

    I drive the 280 miles from Washington, D.C. to Floyd on a sunny Friday afternoon. When I enter the country store, locals greet me with a smile and hello. I meet First at a bright booth near the window and he introduces me to Doug Thompson, a Floyd native who left in 1965 and spent years as a D.C.-based photojournalist before returning recently. They lead me to a scenic overlook with an expansive view of gentle green mountains stretching into North Carolina. Since the 1970s, my hosts explain, artists have been drawn to Floyd's beautiful countryside and cheap land. A diverse mixture of residents contributes to Floyd's riving arts community.

    I head back down to the Floyd Country Store in time to catch the 6:30 start of its Friday night jamboree. Every week the store books three bands onstage and charges $3 admission. The first band always sings gospel numbers, and listeners sit reverently in the folding chairs set out near the stage. At 7:30, bluegrass and old-time bands arrive and fill the dance floor with flat-foot dancers. The fancy footwork, like the music, is descended from traditions brought centuries ago by immigrants from the British Isles.

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