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Pickin' and grinnin' in the Blue Ridge Mountains

BY LESLEY SAULS Modified: December 31, 2012 at 10:23 am •  Published: December 31, 2012
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It was at the second of 26 wayside exhibits along the Crooked Road, Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, that I met Cheryl Chrzanowski. I'd stopped in to learn about Appalachian music history at the Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum, and she happened to join me in a gallery dedicated to early local musicians. On learning that she was from the area, I asked if the old music was still a part of daily life.

"Oh, sure," she said. "Music is alive in Virginia. We'll throw a pig roast or a picnic, and every time there's pickin' and grinnin' goin' on."

I was hooked and eager to hear more about something that sounded so fun. What I learned was that Appalachian folk music is the first truly American sound. Europeans brought their fiddles to the new world, and in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, their melodies blended with the banjos played by African slaves.

The bluegrass music that emerged in Colonial times is still played today and passed down from generation to generation. The instruments are handmade, and that art form is also passed down through families. Violins, banjos, guitars, harmonicas and sometimes a stand-up bass come together for jamborees.

I veered off the Crooked Road and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, a stretch of limited-access highway constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps where grassy shoulders are made for picnicking and the driving speed is limited to 45 miles per hour.

Rounding a busy bend, I spotted a familiar water wheel at Mabry Mill that my artist grandfather had oil-painted when I was a child. I stopped in for a closer look, but it was my ears that got the real feast. I heard some of that pickin' and grinnin' going on and dashed up a small hill to find a gathering of musicians along the edge of a wooden dance floor where feet were flying to the rhythm of the songs.

At the first break, I asked a woman if she would show me how it was done. She and her husband showed me some steps and said I was a natural. They said they enjoy dancing at many local places, and at the end of the song they sent me on my way with hugs and well-wishes.

Not far from the mill is Chateau Morissette, a hobby winery that the owners say got out of hand as their family winemaking evolved into a facility that produces 19 wines from grapes grown onsite or from other local vineyards.

I relaxed by a stone fireplace with a glass of bubbly Star Dog after brunch and then wandered out along a wide deck toward the wine-production facility and tasting room. On my way there I paused in the sunshine with other patrons and their pets — this is a dog-friendly winery — to enjoy the music of another local band.

Back on the Crooked Road leading away from the Chateau and the Blue Ridge Parkway, I found myself in Floyd, Va. A banjo suspended above a sign that read "Loitering Allowed" invited me to explore the Floyd Country Store.

I thought it might be a place where I could pick up a CD of the music to which I had been dancing, but I found more than I'd expected.

I could hear the sounds of pickin' and grinnin' spilling out the open store door and was slipping my backpack off to join the dancers before I could even see them in the back of the room. There at least 50 people had gathered to hear an impromptu jam session. Some were sitting and tapping their toes.

Others had taken up the dance in the corner. The woman next to me told me that there is a scheduled Friday night jamboree every week but that people come back on Sundays for whatever music they can pick up. She told me that she has taps on her suede-soled shoes to add to the rhythm of the music, and she gave me tips on my dancing.

"Most of the movement is from the waist down, but anything you do is right," she said. "There is no incorrect step."

This folk dance reminded me of Irish step-dancing, and I could see how these steps, too, had been passed from generation to generation just as the music and the instruments had been.

The Crooked Road Music Trail winds through Franklin County, headquarters of the secretive -- and formerly lucrative -- moonshine business.

Strict laws don't allow locals to possess the ingredients needed to make moonshine anymore or to know anyone who does, so that source of income is gone from the area.

But Chrzanowski and her husband shared memories of days gone by when their kin would soak fruit in the liquor for months before eating it - a true fruit cocktail. I asked if moonshine had been a drink to throw back like whiskey, and they laughingly said no.

"Not if you want to stand up afterward!" Chrzanowski's husband teased.

Another financial hit came to this area of Virginia when important textile jobs moved overseas. As a result of these losses, the arts have blossomed in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Not far from Floyd is the town of Rocky Mount, the easternmost point on the Crooked Road Music Trail and the location of its first wayside exhibit.

In this town, Carolyn Rogers is the gaffer at the Rocky Mount Center of the Arts. That means she is the head glass-blower who works with three apprentices in a non-profit art center that her family has opened to showcase local talent.

In addition to glass-blowing classes and demonstrations, there are painters, potters, weavers, spinners, quilters, woodworkers, photographers and jewelers who rent space in their studios. I was captivated by watching Rogers and her apprentice, Darrin Gendron, move together rolling the hot glass, holding it in the fiery "glory hole," and adding color and texture to their work.

What had started out as a day to enjoy fall foliage along the Blue Ridge Parkway had become a trip into American history and an appreciation for the folk traditions deeply rooted there. Virginia artists, winemakers, musicians and dancers are proud of their history and warmly welcome anyone who wants to take part. Even now I have my bluegrass tunes turned on, and as my feet tap to the music, I feel that Appalachian grinnin' comin' on.

WHEN YOU GO

The Roanoke airport is served by connecting flights operated by Allegiant Air, Delta, United Airlines and US Airways.

Homestead Creamery takes advantage of local dairy and offers savory lunches and ice creams: www.facebook.com/pages/Homestead-Creamery-Inc/152846474769734.

Chateau Morisette offers full meals by cozy fireplaces in their restaurant and winery that sits on a peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains: www.thedogs.com.

Mount Center for the Arts is a great place to gather souvenirs and participate in local art: www.rockymountarts.org.

The Blue Ridge Institute, the second stop along the Crooked Road, is a great place to learn more about the music, culture and history of the Blue Ridge Mountains: www.blueridgeinstitute.org.

Floyd Country Store has weekly jamborees and jam sessions that are open to any visitors who are willing to join in: www.floydcountrystore.com.

The Blue Ridge Parkway's Explore Park and Visitors Center offers hiking trails, informational video and museum exhibits about the creation of the limited-access highway: www.roanokecountyva.gov/Facilities.aspx?Page=detail&RID=5.

Mabry Mill is a restored gristmill along the Blue Ridge Parkway that attracts many visitors to its restaurant and seasonal activities: www.virginia.org/listings/historicsites/mabrymill/.

Lesley Sauls is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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