One of my favorite outdoor concert venues – near one of my favorite daytrip destinations, and along one of America’s favorite roadways – debuts its 2015 concert series on May 30.
It’s the Blue Ridge Music Center, at Milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Galax, Va. And the summer Saturday night concerts are an inexpensive and impressive showcase of mountain music.
For authentic Appalachian cultural authenticity, Galax is hard to top. It’s just over the Virginia Line, off I-77... only two hours due north of Charlotte and tucked between the Blue Ridge and the big mountains to the west.
I wrote this thumb-mail of Galax for the Observer a few years back:
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“The main highway through Galax – U.S. 58/221 – was the westbound road to the Cumberland Gap in colonial times. Tidewater immigrants owned violins; slaves brought banjos; others toted dulcimers. Enough instruments and music stayed in the area to create a ‘blender’ effect.
“This corner of Virginia stayed isolated and rural until after the Civil War, when big-time logging arrived. Mill towns like Fries (pronounced ‘Freeze’) arose, where laborers were paid – and poorly – in company script.
“Henry Whitter left Fries for New York in 1923 to record a song about a horrific train wreck near Danville, Va. At the time, phonograph records were not made for rustic Americans: It was assumed there was no market for them. But Whitter's “Wreck of the Old 97’ became a sensation, and the news – and recording – got back to Fries.
“In Galax, 12 miles away, some guys in Alderman's Barbershop – including the barber, who also fiddled – figured they could play mountain music better than Whitter and headed to Manhattan. They called their band the Hill Billies and dressed like yokels. And when the Hill Billies found success in stage, radio and film, other mill musicians packed their instruments, bought outlandish proto-’Hee Haw’ costumes, and went looking for contracts.
“That original fiddle-banjo-guitar sound is now called ‘old-time’ and comes in an array of styles.
“Bluegrass, the most famous derivative, is a post-World War II version tweaked to match recording technology.
“Folks in Galax say they can hear the difference between old-time and bluegrass. Ask for specifics and you'll hear long and short explanations and maybe an argument or two.”
With the Blue Ridge Parkway coming through the outskirts of Galax, and the growing respect for mountain music, Galax grew as a music destination. Helping it was the live Friday night music show at the 450-seat Rex Theatre. The show is consistently better than what you hear Saturday noons at the “WPAQ Merry-Go-Round: in not-far-away Mount Airy.
Downtown Galax is studded with serious music stores and great places to eat – notably the The Galax Smokehouse (great barbecue; amazing smoked mashed potatoes).
An area transplant named Joe Wilson – he managed country legend Marty Robbins in Nashville and produced international music tours for the cultural arm of the State Department – pushed to get the Blue Ridge Music Center established on the BRP at Galax. It’s a great place to tour, and has a splendid outdoor amphitheater attached.
Late May through early September, the amphitheater features stellar Saturday evening concerts.
Kicking off the 2015 season May 30 at 7 p.m. are The Amigos and The Barefoot Movement.
A release about the concert describe The Amigos, who’ve played the BRMC before, as “accordion-infused Americana music blending folk rock, zydeco, Cajun, and hot jazz.”
The Barefoot Movement won the 2014 IBMA Momentum Award for Band of the Year.
Both bands? Just $10. And the Galax Smokehouse will be selling barbecue and more at the venue that night.
Order tickets – and see the full Music Center schedule – at www.blueridgemusiccenter.org. Note: The famous Steep Canyon Rangers are on the bill for the Aug. 29 show.