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.
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