There’s a place in the backwoods of southern Virginia where grandpas play banjo, their grandkids play fiddle, and everyone else in town sings along. This is the birthplace of American music, the geographic locale where the European fiddle (in the hands of the Scots-Irish) met the African banjo (brought over by slaves) and spawned country music, bluegrass, and the like. It sits along the aptly named “Crooked Road,” a 200-plus-mile long highway through the Appalachians, and it’s high time the rest of America tuned in. If you were one of the hundreds at Campbell Hall last Sunday watching the traveling road show of Virginians calling itself Music from the Crooked Road: Mountain Music of Virginia, then you’re off to an impressive start.
The concert, ripe for a straight-to-public-television musical documentary, began with some ballads from 19-year-old Elizabeth LaPrelle, a “young lady who sings old songs and makes you believe them,” according to acclaimed banjoman Sammy Shelor. In a revolving set that featured more than one dozen players from multiple bands, the night zoomed into a mountain music hurricane, unleashed by the Carter Family-esque Whitetop Mountain Band, with excellent jigging by daughter Martha; the picking talents of Wayne Henderson; and No Speed Limit, a “next generation” bluegrass outfit. In between, they all collaborated on each other’s songs, with fiddling highlights from Eddie Bond, banjo blasts from Shelor, and a steady stand-up bass backdrop from Jacob Eller. The display-not to mention the full-color, info-packed, magazine-like program-gave solid proof to their claims that the Crooked Road musical heritage thrives today, and that real hoedowns still go down in forgotten mountain towns.
Best of all, the players were visibly enthused by Campbell Hall’s raucous support-it was, in fact, only the third stop on this historic tour, which is supported by the National Endowment of the Arts, the state of Virginia, and the National Council for the Traditional Arts. It was refreshing to witness the collaboration between the performers and the audience, as we clearly realized we were witnessing something authentic and magical. It was a welcome peek back into Americana’s roots, and showed that the spirit lives on, centuries later. To steal a line from the traditional encore, “how sweet the sound.”