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USA Radio
March 9, 2016

Music and Culture in the Mountains of Virginia

I live in Grayson County, Virginia. It’s a ways south of Shenandoah National Park, but I’ve visited the park many times and have played music up there. This is an area of the country known for its scenic beauty and welcoming people. It’s also one of the most ecologically diverse areas in U.S., with wildflowers in the spring and beautiful fall colors. There are streams and rivers and forests – and lots of wildlife.

There’s a definite folklore here, too. Visitors are curious about the early settlers and the moonshining legends, the traditional music and the folk crafts. The perception of the Appalachian Mountains has changed, yet people make an effort to keep the old traditions alive. As a musician and artisan, I play and build instruments. I also give workshops and frequently work with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Folklife Program in Charlottesville, Virginia.I started making fiddles (violins) in my late 20s. I apprenticed with Audrey Hash Ham, who lived up the road from me. Her father built fiddles and she learned from him and then she taught me. Earlier, I had worked on guitars. Wayne Henderson (famed guitarist and master luthier known for his guitars and mandolins), and Don Wilson (from Jacksonville, Florida) helped me quite a bit, sharing stories and instruction. I feel fortunate to have learned that way.

Since I’m a musician, people often ask me for recommendations on where to go to hear live music around here. I tell them the Crooked Road (State Highway 58 from Martinsville to Middleboro) runs past the famous Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia. There’s music every Saturday there and it’s still run by family members. Visitors get a good bit of the culture of the mountains and there’s dancing, too.

The Floyd County, Virginia, Country Store is another good place for music lovers. It’s not far off Interstate 81 and the Friday Night Jamboree is open to all and people bring instruments. There’s a huge summer jam session (The Crooked Road’s Mountains of Music Homecoming) there, too, plus lots of scheduled music.

Food is a big part of culture, too, and barbecue is big here. One of my favorite places is in the Shenandoah region. There’s a place attached to a truck stop – you wouldn’t think it’d be much because it’s at a truck stop – but it really is “The Best Dang BBQ in Virginia,” as the sign says. Stop in at Smiley’s Fuel City and BBQ in Raphine, Virginia. Another spot is in Galax at the Galax Smokehouse, just a couple hours’ drive down I-81.

Jackson Cunningham

Jackson Cunningham is a lifelong musician and woodworker who makes beautiful archtop guitars and custom fiddles from local timbers near his home in Rugby, Virginia. 

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