The Crooked Road

Climbing into the Cumberland Mountains, Virginia’s Heritage MusicTrail – “The Crooked Road” – comes to Clintwood and stops at a mighty mansion bearing the name of Ralph Stanley.

A smoky-voiced singer, the 80-year-old Stanley is one of Southwest Virginia’s greatest musical success stories.

As one half of The Stanley Brothers, Ralph created some of the best known recordings in bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music history.

Songs like “Rank Strangers” and “Pretty Polly” became standards.

Ralph, later, proved his resilience in 1966, carrying on as a solo act after his brother Carter’s death.

Then, at the dawn of the 21st Century, when musicians Stanley’s age might have simply been counting Social Security checks, Ralph Stanley started counting big royalties when his music was featured in the box office hit “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Today, Stanley’s museum features state-of-the-art listening centers and multi-faceted exhibits. It is also one of the reasons The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail even exists.

THE CROOKED ROAD IS ALL ABOUT tradition and culture.

Namely, it’s all about the music of the mountains: sounds of fiddles, banjos and dulcimers. This is music that’s been passed down through generations and kept alive at weekly jam sessions, community based festivals, museums, and far-from-fancy concert halls, all across Southwest Virginia.

“The Crooked Road is a way to dive into the musical heritage of this region,” said musician Scott Perry of Floyd. “As you travel The Crooked Road from end to end, you will see some of the best examples of old-time and bluegrass music.”

Officially, The Crooked Road spans 253 miles, from the Rocky Mount Depot to Breaks Interstate Park.

Many towns mentioned on this tour – Ferrum, Floyd, Galax, Norton and Clintwood – are not what you call prominent population centers in Virginia. Or even the Appalachians. But they all have a story to tell.

“These communities have had an effect on the culture of the nation that’s totally out of proportion with the number of people that live in them,” said Joe Wilson, the chairman of the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Wilson talks about musicians and how many – so many – came out of this corner of the Appalachians, where Virginia meets Tennessee, NorthCarolina, Kentucky and West Virginia.

A lifelong scholar of old-time Appalachian music, the 60-something Wilson coined the phrase “Crooked Road” with a friend in 2002. Then he helped turn the idea of a driving tour into an officially recognized state tourism and economic development entity in 2004.

“The way this thing started was with volunteers and tourism officials,” said H. William “Bill” Smith, the executive director of The Crooked Road. “And this thing took off so quick in people’s minds.

And it continues to grow and morph.”

THIS ALL BEGAN AS A WAY TO LINK the musical heritage sites around Galax to what’s been happening at Bristol and Hiltons. Then, Wilson said, all that could tie into the then-developing Ralph Stanley Museum, which opened in 2004.

“The goal,” Smith said, “is to empower the people along The Crooked Road – to make it their road. The trick is to always have that feeling of down-home in it.” It also means helping musicians play more, helping luthiers make more and helping restaurants serve more. Officials hope all this newfound attention to tunes translates to tourism – and creates a different kind of economy for scenic, yet often-struggling Southwest Virginia.

Affiliated partners on The Crooked Road range from the Rocky Mount Dairy Queen, with its Thursday morning shows, to Mountain Arts Works at Haysi, where live music is staged on Friday and Saturday nights.

Rex McCarty, a Scott County historian and operator of the Homeplace Mountain Farm in Weber City, wants to see more small businesses develop along the trail.

“We must slow people down long enough to spend some money on this Crooked Road trail or its economic impact will never be felt,” McCarty said. “The key is to help the economy here. And it will help enhance the quality of life.”

That seems to be happening in Galax, where visitation is up at the Rex Theatre on Friday nights, said the city’s director of tourism, Chuck Riedhammer.

“It’s in its infancy, I feel, still,” Riedhammer said. “It’s kind of like a ‘If they built it, they will come.'”

THE CROOKED ROAD ROLLS THROUGH a remote region of Franklin County, stopping at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum. It makes other stops in Stuart, climbs the side of mile-high Whitetop Mountain and dives down into Damascus on a stretch of U.S. Highway 58 that feels like a roller-coaster ride – even if you’re at the wheel.

Along the way, in Galax, you’ll find Tom Barr, selling fiddles and guitars at Barr’s Fiddle Shop. Barr, 65, is assisted by his son, Stevie, who’s about half Tom’s age and an avid musician; Stevie likes to pluck his banjo.

Business at the shop has increased, thanks to The Crooked Road, the Barrs say.

And, Tom Barr predicted, it’s all just getting started.

“In five years from now, it will triple – or more than that, the popularity of it,” said Tom Barr. “A lot of people travel The Crooked Road. They don’t know really anything about the music. But they kind of learn as they go.”

When tourists reach Galax, just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Riedhammer likes to remind them of the city’s history, including the Old Fiddlers Convention, held at Galax since 1935.

Each August, shows happen at Felts Park. But people also play in the campground, in parking lots and on street corners.

“The people of Galax have kept the music alive,” said Debbie Robinson, the director of Galax’s Blue Ridge Music Center. “These people, they have been resilient.”

LONG A PLACE OF ISOLATION, and one that has often styled itself as a stepchild of the Commonwealth of Virginia, much of Southwest Virginia was not settled until long after the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Dickenson County, where The Crooked Road ends near the Kentucky border, was not even created until 1880, long after the Civil War.

But the tunes – the music – reaches far beyond present generations, likely even to the very first settlers who carved homes out of this region’s wilderness in the mid-1700s.

Joe Tennis is the author of Southwest Virginia Crossroads (The Overmountain Press), an illustrated history and guide profiling the towns, music venues and natural wonders of The Crooked Road region.



Ralph Stanley Museum – Clintwood


Country Cabin – Norton


Carter Family Fold – Hiltons (Maces Spring)


Birthplace of Country Music Alliance – Bristol

Mountain Music Museum – Bristol


Blue Ridge Music Center – Galax


Rex Theatre – Galax


Floyd Country Store – Floyd


Blue Ridge Institute and Museum – Ferrum




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