Virginia had an integral role in the history of country music, as evidenced in Ken Burns’ eight-part PBS documentary “Country Music.” From the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol to the countless musicians who call Virginia home, the options for exploring the history, hometowns, and attractions of Virginia’s country music greats are plentiful around the Commonwealth.
Here are a few ways to experience the history of Virginia’s musical greats.
The Crooked Road—Southwest Virginia
The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail is a driving trail through Southwest Virginia that takes you through one of the most scenic and culturally unique regions of the United States. It also takes you through some of the most musically significant areas in the U.S. for Bluegrass and Traditional Mountain Music. The trail itself is more than 300 miles, including more than 60 cultural music venues across 19 counties, four independent cities, and more than 50 towns.
The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center—Clintwood
Dr. Stanley passed away in 2016 at the age of 89, but his tradition is alive and well in Southwest Virginia. The definitive repository for Stanley scholarship and celebration can be found in Clintwood at the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center. The center houses an extensive collection of memorabilia, offering visitors an opportunity to learn about the legend’s life, as well as the history of mountain music. And fans of the genre flock to McClure each Memorial Day for the annual “Hills of Home” bluegrass festival, now organized by Stanley’s son, with spots for camping and three days of fast-picking instrumentalists, including appearances by Ralph Stanley II and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Birthplace of Country Music Museum—Bristol
Rarely can you trace the genesis of an artform definitively to a single event, but the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, does exactly that, celebrating the legacy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Commonly referred to as the “Big Bang” of country music, those Bristol Sessions marked the commercial recording debuts of eventual legends like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and the BCM, opened in 2014, allows music fans to explore country’s roots via multimedia exhibits, a performance theater, instruments owned by significant figures like Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash, a radio station, a learning center, and more. There’s no telling what the American musical landscape would sound like had Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company not set up a temporary recording studio in Bristol that summer, and thanks to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, we’ll never forget how significant those sessions turned out to be.
Blue Ridge Music Center—Galax
With a permanent exhibit detailing “The Roots of American Music” and a stunning amphitheater overlooking the Southeastern Virginia wooded setting, the Blue Ridge Music Center houses fascinating artifacts tracing the evolution of traditional instruments like the banjo and dulcimer alongside emphera and recordings documenting the region’s significant role in the founding of traditional country and bluegrass. Each day the center is open, you can hear Mid-Day Mountain Music from noon to 4 p.m. in the breezeway of the visitor’s center, and the nearby amphitheater plays host to a summer concert series and off-season shows in between. With so much music to soak in, and a picturesque treeline behind the facility, you may just end up kicking back on a rocking chair and soaking in the sounds of one of the most musically and visually beautiful spots you’ll find anywhere.
Carter Family Fold—Hiltons
To immerse yourself completely in the Carter Family’s story, head to Hiltons, Virginia and travel along A. P. Carter Highway until you find the Carter Family Fold. Part performance venue, part museum, and part historical site, the Fold offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to commune with Virginia’s musical roots. The Carter Family Museum is a great place to start — it houses performance attire, memorabilia, and tributes that tell the story of the family’s rise to fame. Just next door, you can step into the A. P. Carter Cabin and Birthplace, which was lovingly restored and relocated with the help of preservationists, archeologists, craftsmen, carpenters, and historians. (Keep an eye out for Johnny Cash’s rocking chair!) And if you’re there on a Saturday, you can wrap up your visit with a concert, held weekly in the main Fold building with a stunning stage, plenty of room for dancing, and accommodating stadium seating.
The Lincoln Theatre – Marion
The Lincoln Theatre is a destination unto itself; one step inside the stunning space — with its colorful murals and red and gold glow — and you’re bound to realize you’re in one of the most gorgeous venues in the state. Not only is it on the National Register of Historic Places, the Marion, Virginia theater is also notable for playing host to “Song of the Mountains,” a PBS-syndicated TV series that’s carried on more than 150 stations across the United States. More than 10 seasons in, Song of the Mountains features some of the finest bluegrass you’ll find anywhere. Past performers have included the Seldom Scene, Ralph Stanley, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Grass Cats, and country legends like Doc Watson have also graced the Lincoln Theatre stage. It’s a beloved bluegrass tradition that’s well worth tuning in for — or even better, seeing firsthand.
Opened in 1941, Rex Theater originally functioned as a movie theater, but the historic building screened the last film in the 1980s. After closing, the town of Galax decided to renovate the space and host live bluegrass performances every Friday evening, as well as vintage movie screenings and special events throughout the year.
Floyd Country Store—Floyd
This authentic country shop is over 100 years old, and while the Floyd Country Store functions as a general store and restaurant throughout the week, visitors and residents flock the site for the Friday Night Jamborees, featuring gospel, old-time, and bluegrass bands.
Patsy Cline House—Winchester
Another notable spot to visit if you’re a music history buff is the historic Patsy Cline House in Winchester. As the first solo female singer in the Grand Ole Opry and the first woman to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Cline is an iconic character in the history of Virginia music. Her small home speaks to her modest beginnings, and visitors can pay tribute to the late country star at her final resting place, right outside the city limits in Shenandoah Memorial Park.
All episodes of Ken Burns’ eight-part documentary series, “Country Music” are now streaming on PBS.
The Virginia artists featured in Ken Burns’ “Country Music” include:
A.P. Carter (Episode 1,2)
Anita Carter (Episode 3)
Carter Stanley (Episode 3)
Don Reid (The Statler Brothers) (Episode 1,5)
Emmylou Harris (Episode 2, 5, 7, and 8)
Ernst Van “Pop” Stoneman (Episode 1)
Helen Carter (Episode 3)
June Carter (Episode 2, 4, and 5)
Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) (Episode 1,2, and 8)
Mac Wiseman (Bluegrass Singer) (Episode 2,3)
Maybelle Carter (Episode 1,2,3,5, and 6)
Patsy Cline (Episode 4,5, and 8)
Ralph Stanley (Episode 3 and 6)
Roy Clark (Hee-Haw) (Episode 5, 6)
Sara Carter (Episode 1,2)
Steve Earl (Episode 8)
The Carter Family (Episode 1,2 and 4)
Contributions to this article made by Davy Jones, Andrew Cothern, and Patricia Keppel.
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