At a crossroads in the hills outside of Galax, Virginia, I see a sign for a Baptist church that reads, “God has a plan and a purpose for your life.” I’m not what you’d call a believer, but if my life has followed a plan, the blueprint has included country and bluegrass music. And the purpose of the trip I’m on right now, the reason I’m driving these remote, winding roads through the Blue Ridge Mountains, is to get to the source of that music.
I didn’t come from the typical country music fan’s background. I was born in New York City, raised in San Francisco. I’ve never set foot in a church in my life, other than as a tourist. My hippie parents were into rock ’n’ roll. As a teenager, I was obsessed with hip-hop. I discovered traditional country music the way a lot of city dwellers my age did: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
That Coen Brothers film came out in 2000, when I was a sophomore in college. By this time, I had gotten into my parents’ music, had started playing guitar, knew that my idols—Hendrix, Zeppelin, the Stones—were steeped in the blues of the Mississippi Delta. So when George Clooney and company stopped at a crossroads to pick up a guitar player who had sold his soul to the devil, I knew it was a reference to the legend of Robert Johnson. The guitar on the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “Man of Constant Sorrow” rang with the blues, but the twangy vocals would have made 19-year-old me turn the dial if I’d heard them on the radio. Still, that song and the others in the film—“Keep on the Sunny Side,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Angel Band”—enchanted me.
Over the next decade, O Brother’s Grammy-winning soundtrack became a mainstay in my increasingly eclectic CD library, nestled between All Eyez on Me and Electric Ladyland. That scratched-up disc eventually set the mood for a shift in my life that I never would have anticipated. It began in earnest in 2010, when I moved back to New York, and my uncle brought me to a place in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Sunny’s Bar. There was a bluegrass jam in the back room that night, where I watched musicians play tunes from O Brother, among other songs that reached back to the beginnings of American music. I started going back every Saturday night, brought my guitar, even took to wearing Western shirts and cowboy boots. I wasn’t much of a picker back then, but I practiced, urged on by the desire to be a part of this community, to feel the energy of that music all the time. Saturday night at Sunny’s became the constant in my life. I’ve heard Tone Johansen, the owner of the bar and leader of the jam, compare it to a church service—so I guess you could say I have set foot in a church, after all.
As I became versed in bluegrass and classic country, I found that many of the songs I was playing could be traced to one group: the Carter Family. When I watched Ken Burns’s Country Music documentary series in 2019, I learned that the Carter Family recorded for the first time in Bristol, on the border of Virginia and Tennessee, as part of a 10-day session that would come to be known as the “Big Bang of Country Music.” Then I found out there’s a museum in Bristol dedicated to that session… and that the town hosts a music festival, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, each September… and that the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia are littered with musical landmarks, including the Carter Family Fold, on a route called the Crooked Road. I booked a flight and packed my guitar.
I start, naturally, at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, just two blocks up from Bristol’s State Street (so named because the Virginia-Tennessee state line cuts right down the middle of it). The permanent exhibition begins with a video narrated by John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, introducing how Victor Talking Machine Company producer Ralph Peer came from New York to record 19 acts that Virginia musician Ernest Stoneman had searched out in the surrounding mountains. Interactive stations in the ensuing galleries show visitors how these songs have been passed on through the years. (One display links the Tenneva Ramblers’ Bristol Sessions recording of “The Longest Train I Ever Saw” to Lead Belly’s “In the Pines” to Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”)
The museum also illustrates the way this music melded elements of early 20th-century America. There’s the gospel influence, seen in Stoneman’s “Are You Washed in the Blood?,” and railroad songs, like Blind Alfred Reed’s “Wreck of the Virginian.” The instruments themselves show how country music simmered in the American melting pot: The fiddle came with Scotch-Irish immigrants, while the banjo was brought by enslaved Africans. Another video at the end of the exhibit shows a range of artists singing the Carter Family standard “Can the Circle Be Unbroken”: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples. The message is unmistakable: The circle that this music has created is enduring, all-encompassing.
Where does a circle start? That may seem a riddle, but in this case there’s an answer: the Carter Family Fold. About a 40-minute drive west from Bristol, past small farms that I doubt look much different from the way they did a century ago, stands the tiny cabin in which A.P. Carter was born in 1891. Thirty-six years later, A.P. convinced his wife, Sara, a singer and autoharp player, and Sara’s guitarist cousin Maybelle to go down Clinch Mountain and audition for Ralph Peer. The songs that the trio recorded at that and later sessions form the backbone of what we now call country music: “The Storms Are on the Ocean,” “Wildwood Flower,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Bury Me Under the Weeping Wil-low,” “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” and many more.
At the end of his recording career, A.P. returned to Clinch Mountain, where he ran a general store until his death in 1960. In 1974, his daughter Janette began running a series of concerts here, building an auditorium and preserving the store and A.P.’s boyhood cabin as a museum. Janette’s daughter, Rita Forrester, took over hosting duties in 2006, and to this day the Carter Family Fold has a show just about every Saturday night.
After perusing the exhibits in the old cabin and store—the highlight is a black suit and a white dress that Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (Maybelle’s daughter) wore to the White House—I cross the lawn to the barn-like music venue, which seats around 800 people. It’s a little less than half full when I enter. A six-piece old-time band from Tennessee, Uncle Shuffelo & His Haint Hollow Hootenanny (yes, some of them wear overalls), is warming up on stage; behind them is a sort of shrine to the Carter Family, featuring portraits, photos, newspaper clippings, trophies. Forrester, in jeans and a flannel shirt, introduces the band, noting that two of the members met on the dance floor here. “We’ve had just about everything but a baby born here,” she jokes, “and I hope we have that at some point, just to say we did.”
As the band launches into a set of fiddle- and banjo-driven tunes, flatfoot dancers rise, clacking their clogs against the floor. Forrester stands off to the side of the stage, tapping her foot, and I ask her if she’d be willing to chat. She shows me into a cluttered office at stage left, pushing aside a baby stroller to make room for us. “What has been the most memorable performance at the Fold?” I ask. “
Probably Johnny Cash,” she says. “He’d come to the valley a lot when he got in a bad way, and we’d lift him up. When June died [in 2003], he came at her birthday and stayed for three weeks and did two shows here. They were unannounced. At the last show, there were 1,700 people here. We were turning people away down the road.” It turned out to be Cash’s last live performance; he died two months later. “I still can’t watch that last show without crying,” Forrester adds. “He was in the green room, and he was asked, ‘Mr. Cash, why didn’t you go back to Dyess [Arkansas]? That’s your home.’ And he said, ‘This is my home.’”
It’s hard to top the Man in Black, but Forrester notes that the stage at the Fold has hosted all kinds—including a bluegrass band from Estonia. “They got up and did three songs in Estonian and three in English, and the crowd went wild,” she remembers. “If that doesn’t convince you that music is the international language, you missed the boat. Music can break down barriers that nothing else can.”
The Crooked Road is really living up to its name this morning. I traverse a mountain pass and descend into a dark, tree-choked canyon, alongside a river and a lonely railroad track. As I drive, I listen to Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys’ versions of “John Henry,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and “Amazing Grace.” A pioneering banjo player and mountain singer and a key contributor to the O Brother soundtrack, Stanley was born out here, in the hardscrabble town of McClure, and I’ve come to pay my respects at the Ralph Stanley Museum, which is located in Clintwood, about 75 miles northwest of Bristol.
Thunderously loud banjo—is there any other kind?—blares from the museum porch as I climb the stairs, but inside it’s quiet. There’s a display dedicated to O Brother, including Gillian Welch’s original handwritten lyrics for “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” as well as instruments played by members of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Welch—my favorite contemporary artist, perhaps because her music doesn’t sound contemporary at all—appears again at the end, on video, saying, “When I started doing this, I just wanted to sing like the Stanley Brothers. I think that’s why I play music: because I heard their records.”
A couple of hours later I’m back in Bristol, but I’m not done with Ralph Stanley. In fact, I’m standing on State Street, beneath a 30-foot-high mural depicting the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Stoneman Family, and Ralph Peer, listening to the Clinch Mountain Boys perform at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. The lead singer and guitar player is none other than Ralph Stanley II—“Ralph 2” to his bandmates—who has been in the band since he was 16. The elder Stanley, on his deathbed, asked his son to make sure the group would live on.
“My dad passed away in June [of 2016], and I found out at the Hills of Home Festival,” Stanley II remembers when I ask him about it after the set. “My oldest sister, Lisa, told me that night, right before I went on stage, that Dad wanted me to carry on the Clinch Mountain Boys name. It means a lot that my dad left a mark, and my uncle Carter too, and it makes me feel good that the old songs are still going over—and the new ones we’re doing.”
Walking up and down State Street, which is closed to traffic for the festival, I’m able to take in more songs old and new, from artists big and small. Inside the 1925 Cameo Theater, a Kentucky country blues singer named Nat Myers shreds on a steel guitar. In front of a Chinese restaurant, an elderly couple dances to a honky-tonk song by local artist Momma Molasses. On a side street, an energetic band called the Judy Chops does a zydeco-esque take on “You Are My Sunshine.” At an outdoor stage near the Burger Bar (the last place Hank Williams Sr. was seen alive), Americana star Jim Lauderdale leads a band that’s hotter than the midday sun, thanks largely to thrash-metal god Dave Mustaine, who’s sitting in on guitar. “Don’t go posting about this,” Lauderdale jokes to the crowd. “When he plays country music, we call him ‘Craig Smith.’”
The festival headliner is true American music royalty: Rosanne Cash. I have the good fortune to be able to talk with her a few minutes before she takes the stage, and I ask what it means to play here. “I’m particularly excited about doing a Carter Family song here,” she says. “I’m doing ‘Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow Tree,’ which is one of the very first songs I learned on guitar. Helen Carter taught it to me.” She adds that while she’s not directly related to the Carters (her mother was Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto), the Fold, where she played alongside her dad at his last show, has an undeniable power: “It’s like visiting the source of your inspiration and the source of part of your ancestry. It’s my stepmother’s ancestry, but it’s so much about my dad, because it’s melded into this family legacy that I really honor and appreciate.”
Aside from “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow”—which I once played at a memorial for a musician friend who died too young—Cash’s set includes the country classic “Long Black Veil” and songs from her hit record The River & the Thread. She closes the festival with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” accompanied by a local youth choir. Watching Cash sing with those kids, I’m reminded of something else she said to me: “I used to think, Oh my God, this is gonna disappear—and then I hear Molly Tuttle and all of the young people, and I think, Oh, this is safe. This is embedded in our American history forever.”
Another day, another piece of music history to explore: Just before noon, a few miles southeast of the town of Galax, I turn off of the famed Blue Ridge Parkway and pull into the Blue Ridge Music Center. Staffed by National Park Service rangers, the center hosts a museum covering the roots of American music, as well as daily afternoon performances from May through October. Today, in fact, lead interpretive ranger Valerie Glowinski tells me, it’s not just a concert; it’s a jam.
“The two who lead the jam are Lynn and Jim, and they drive an hour and a half to get here each way,” Glowinski says. “We get folks from all over the country—we had somebody who played Carnegie Hall one night and came here the next.”
I’ve never played Carnegie Hall—I need some more practice—but I have my guitar in the car, so I join Jim, Lynn, and a couple of other amateur musicians on the breezeway in front of the museum. The audience is small but includes a couple from the Netherlands and a half-dozen Harley-Davidson riders. Lynn leads “Keep on the Sunny Side,” written by Ada Blenkhorn in 1899 but made famous by the Carter Family. A woman who’s originally from New York does an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace,” written in 1772 by a former slave ship captain who disavowed his ways and sung by everyone from Ralph Stanley to Mahalia Jackson to Judy Collins. I lead “Sitting on Top of the World,” a 1930 Mississippi Sheiks song that became both a bluegrass (Bill Monroe) and blues (Howlin’ Wolf) standard. “You did good,” Jim tells me when I get up to leave.
I’d love to pick the day away here, but I’ve got another jam I want to hit—and not just a jam, but a jamboree. Specifically, I’m driving an hour northeast, to the town of Floyd, to catch The Floyd Country Store Friday Night Jamboree, a party that’s known not only for the performances at the store, but also for impromptu jams local musicians hold outside on Locust Street, the town’s main drag.
I show up a little early and wander around the small town. At the edge of a park, I find a small circle of musicians playing Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo,” but I decide not to join. (My fingertips have only so many songs in them, and I’m expecting lots of jamming later.) Next, I pop into County Sales, a record store that specializes in traditional music, where I find an old guy with a banjo strapped to his back-flipping through a photo album and telling the clerk stories about early Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon. People around here sure know their stuff.
Out front of The Floyd Country Store, I run into owner Dylan Locke, who invites me to join him on the back porch. Between bites of a pre-show sandwich, he tells me what he loves about the jamboree.
“We connect through music and dancing, and have for hundreds of years, plain and simple,” he says. “In a world that’s full of distraction and a lot of reasons to stay with your tribe, we see a lot of people come and mix company and get to know each other and take that not-so-comfortable step out onto a dance floor with a bunch of strangers. Especially post-pandemic, with some of the political divide we have in our country, we see the two sides coming together on the dance floor.”
Locke goes back inside to introduce the band, and I take a seat in one of the folding chairs that front the dance floor. Uncle Shuffelo (yes, the same band I saw at the Fold) opens with a fast number, and dancers rise to flatfoot; a man in a Western shirt embroidered with bald eagles even plays spoons as he hops around. “This is a real hootenanny, idn’t it?” I hear someone say. When the band slows things down with “Hesitation Blues,” the dancers two-step. The crowd definitely spans the ideological spectrum—I see a few people wearing masks, and I also overhear a guy say “there never was a pandemic”—but there’s no hostility in the air. When Locke raffles off a gift certificate at inter-mission, he asks where the winner is from, and her response sums up the vibe of the evening: “Atlanta, but I want to live here!”
Perhaps because Uncle Shuffelo is such a hot band, tonight’s jam scene turns out to be quiet, limited to four or five pickers in the alley beside the store. That’s all right, though: I still have one more stop ahead.
Which brings us back to that country crossroads outside Galax. I take a left and dive down into a hollow, across the New River—immortalized in the blue-grass standard “New River Train”—and into Fries, a town of maybe 500 people that sprang up around a cotton mill at the turn of the 20th century. (In a familiar story, the mill, which once employed 1,700 people, closed in 1989.) Most people outside of Grayson County won’t have heard of Fries, but it has a claim to be the real birth-place of country music: In 1923, four years before the Bristol sessions, Fries native Henry Whitter traveled to New York and made the first country music record. Today, the town is home to a weekly jam led by Eddie Bond, a fiddle player who in 2018 received a heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
I drive past quaint clapboard houses on Main Street until I reach the Fries Theatre, a shingled building with a simple arched neon sign above its door. The owners of the mill built the theater in 1903, but it fell into disrepair after the mill closed. Over the last few years, a local man named Gene Adkins has been restoring it. When I walk through the doors, I see walls hung with quilts, a circle of chairs populated with musicians. There’s a banjo, a few guitars, a few fiddles, and three upright basses (!) all played by women (!!), one of whom has blue hair and wears rhinestone-studded cow-boy boots (!!!). Around the circle, moving in a counter-clockwise walk, are a couple of dozen dancers, mostly senior citizens.
I take a chair, guitar in hand, and am immediately prompted to lead a song. I do “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” which goes well, but I soon realize it’s a bit out of step with the program. The focus here is old-time fiddle tunes, which is not my repertoire at all. The chords are fairly simple, though, so I’m able to follow. (“You seem like you’re figuring our songs out,” a friendly Adkins tells me during a break.)
“It’s been around here forever, since the pioneer days,” Bond tells me of this music. “A lot of these tunes go back to that era. It’s a dance tradition, really, as you can see.”
For the final song, though, the dancing stops. The band plays “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and the audience members link hands and form a circle around us. For the final chorus, everyone sings together, a cappella:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
They’re the same lyrics the Carter Family sang almost 100 years ago. The same lyrics my friends and I sing every week at Sunny’s Bar. These words, this melody, have become part of my very blood—and yet, I have to say that I don’t find myself looking for a better home in the sky. That’s because the best place I can imagine is any place where people have their feet on the ground, their instruments in their hands, their voices full of these songs.