SHELF LIFE- Mountain music: Winding down the Crooked Road

A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail

By Joe Wilson

225 pages, $19.95

John F. Blair Publisher

Creative, independent lives. In Southwestern Virginia, they have a term for musicians who march to their own beat: they're said to follow the "crooked road."

The Crooked Road is also a term that refers to a 253-mile stretch of U.S. 58 that spans southwestern Virginia, linking the Piedmont plateau and some of the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge to the Cumberland Mountains. Officially designated as Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, this road is the birthplace of a great musical tradition, symbolized by the marriage between the European fiddle and the African banjo. 

Joe Wilson, a music historian and folklorist who grew up in the Blue Ridge, has devoted much of his career to this unique musical heritage. He spoke at the New Dominion Bookshop downtown last Thursday about his new book, A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail.

Published last year as part of a state-sponsored initiative to promote the unique musical culture that still flourishes in the small towns and hollows, the book serves both as a visitor's guide– complete with maps and travel tips– to the area and as a primer in this traditional American music, said to be the origin of what we call country.

At New Dominion, Wilson spoke with a warm, laid back good humor reminiscent of Midwestern radio personality Garrison Keillor.  The audience, a group of 15, was attentive but informal.

When he speaks of their "fierce devotion" to music, it seems that he's talking as much about himself as he is about the artists.   

"I suppose some who love the ancient music of Virginia will wonder if we may ruin it by making it more accessible to visitors," he writes, noting that the musical tradition of Southwest Virginia continues to evolve and flourish in spite of any interest from the outside. 

"No one expects or wants the music to become a pop phenomenon," Wilson says, assured by the thought in the back of his mind, perhaps, of violinists who play "crooked tunes"– tunes in which the fiddler, possessed of some primal artistic spirit, wanders away from the original song structure, leaving the accompaniment and the audience somewhat bewildered. To be sure, a flourishing musical tradition is as difficult to define or explain as it is to control or contain.