The value of indigenous folk and acoustic music to regional tourism is something that is being realized in many parts of the US these days. Our cultural history doesn’t go back as far as our friends’ in Europe does, but people here are still fascinated by everything from native history to that of early settlers through more recent times.
This is especially true in the Appalachian region, whose musical and cultural traditions have so influenced the rest of the world. East Tennessee has built a thriving tourism industry based on the legends of mountain men, moonshine, and black bears in the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg communities. Kentucky tourism promotes bluegrass music along with horse racing and bourbon.
In Virginia, the effort to promote traditional music as a focus of tourism is coordinated by a consortium of regional municipalities called The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, who started back in 2004 to promote the old time, blues and bluegrass that has long typified the culture of the southwestern part of the state. It functions as a 501c3 non-profit organization, funded by local governments in the area, and staffed by professionals with experience in both the music and economic development.
The Crooked Road got its start as a true grassroots organization, spearheaded by a pair of individuals with a passion for the area and the music. Joe Wilson and Todd Christensen were both working in the arts and economic development, met at a conference in Asheville, and started discussing over beers whether traditional music could be the marketing device to help revitalize communities in southwest Virginia. They put together a group of volunteers who sold the concept to the town and city councils in the area, and held an introductory meeting at The Carter Fold in 2003. Within 18 months they were legally chartered, and hearing from interested potential tourists outside the US, and now they have their headquarters in Abingdon for their offices, a restaurant, and a theater for concerts and events near the campus of Virginia Highlands Community College.
The success they’ve achieved during their first decade is remarkable, bringing visitors to the region from across the world, offering a wealth of gig opportunities to local musicians, and helping to educate both visitors and residents about traditional music and the people who love it. As with any art of event, hotel, restaurant and gas station owners don’t have to be bluegrass or old time music fans to recognize the value of the folks who visit to hear it.
And in 2015, The Crooked Road is organizing and promoting its biggest event yet. Mountains of Music Homecoming will involve a blitz of music and cultural events along the trail, which runs along Virginia’s borders with Tennessee and North Carolina, over the course of nine days in June. Activities are scheduled across the region from June 12-20, 2015 in more than 50 communities. Anyone interested in touring the region will have a wealth of performance opportunities from which to choose, with more than you could possibly take in during that time.
The organization is hosting 30 special concerts, which added to more than 70 already scheduled events (jams, concerts, festivals) will offer the ultimate traditional music road trip for folks interested in experiencing it. Couple that with the scenic beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and it starts to seem like a vacation natural. Hiking, fishing, biking, camping and exploring options also exist along the length of the trail, on top of regional theater, wineries, and antiquing opportunities.
Each night during Mountains of Music, visitors will have their choice among as many as four concerts to attend, along with ancillary events put on by the local communities during the day. One could start at any point along the trail, and drive in either direction based on daily preference.
Jack Hinshelwood, Executive Director of The Crooked Road, said that they have spent the past three years planning Mountains of Music, which is set now to be an annual event each June. They applied for and received some funding from the state, but are proud at how they can now attract private enterprise for sponsorship as well.
“In the first decade, we did very well in the public grant arena, and we feel now that we have something very useful to offer to private sector sponsors.”
Food City, a major regional supermarket, is a top level sponsor, as is the Virginia Is For Lovers tourism office and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with a number of regional banks, Emory & Henry College, the Barter Theater and a number of others.
It’s as clear an indication as you could want that bluegrass and old time music are marketable on a large scale, and can be promoted internationally with some success. But Hinshelwood says it has to be the right place, with the right theme.
“This is where people have unforgettable encounters with a unique culture. Some visitors have said they felt like they found the real America along The Crooked Road, and it was because they were able to connect so easily with the people who keep this musical heritage and culture alive.”
Final plans for Mountains of Music are set to be announced this Spring, with a detailed list of events, artists, demonstrations and workshops to be released in April.
Hats off to The Crooked Road for pulling together such a wide-ranging event, with so much to offer lovers of traditional music. We’ll post further details as they are available.