Joe Wilson walks down picturesque Main Street, with Barbara Holum and me in tow. He sidesteps the antique stores and gift boutiques to reach the doorway of 105.
The neon window sign reads “Barr's Fiddle Shop,” and violins inside hang by the neck from a long, high rack, like musical chickens prime for plucking.
It is clear from the clutter of guitars, Dobros and other instruments that Barr's is an old-fashioned store where music is taken seriously. And when serious shoppers stop to test-twang instruments, an impromptu jam can result.
No surprise: Galax is known as home to the Old Fiddler's Convention, a late-summer draw that began in 1935.
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But like N.C. 89 – the ribbon from Interstate 77 through Bottom and Low Gap to this mountain town just two hours north of Charlotte – Galax offers unexpected and illuminating twists.
Tom Barr and his son Steve own this shop, and Barr Senior is nationally known for the violins and banjos he crafts by hand. Steve is an old-time/bluegrass virtuoso on both instruments. Banjos here go for a serious $899 and up – a Strelling carries a $2,499 tag.
Barr-made instruments? Not here. “Those start upward of two grand, but would fly off the shelves,” Wilson says. Tom Barr makes them elsewhere, usually pre-sold to an aspiring owner – after an interview.
Wilson is the author of “A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail” – a Galax essential. And after a career that careened from writing Madison Avenue jingles to managing country legend Marty (“El Paso”) Robbins. For several decades he staged international folk tours and festivals, some featuring pre-famous Ricky Skaggs.
These days, at 70, Wilson helps steer the Blue Ridge Music Center, which he pushed to establish just outside Galax on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its purpose: Preserving the music of the mountains. Wilson knows his stuff.
Holum, a weekend visitor from the Washington area, is taken with the Barrs' inventory, notably the new fiddles – commodities from Japan.
But Wilson goes through a passage to a practice room. His research indicates this side chamber was a barbershop in 1924, and there, over haircuts, a stray conversation sparked today's country and bluegrass industry.
Who would've guessed? It is a Galax moment.
Mountain music exported
The Blue Ridge Music Center tells the story of Blue Ridge music through its most famous practitioners, including Pop Stoneman from the Galax area, the prolific Carter Family from farther west in Maces Spring, Va., and N.C. fiddler Tommy Jarrell, from the Round Peak area just a ridge or two over from Galax.
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 what Wilson calls 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.
Much of this back story is detailed at the Blue Ridge Music Center.
Catch a live show at the Rex
But a weekend in Galax has to begin downtown at the city-owned Rex Theater, a one-time movie palace that stages free, live Friday night concerts. The Rex seats about 450. Doors open at 5:30; just walk in.
Most Fridays, the show is broadcast live on WBRT-FM (98.1). Cell phones don't work in Galax, but the station's mountaintop transmitter throws its signal almost to Charlotte.
You may have caught the Saturday morning “WPAQ Merry-Go-Round” live show at the Downtown Cinema Theatre in Mount Airy. The Rex is a larger, nicer venue; the music is more high-powered, too.
This Friday, a four-piece country/western-swing outfit called Kelley and the Cowboys riveted the half-filled house for two hours.
Most amazing was the vocalist, whose finely nuanced take on Patsy Cline standards was breathtaking. Kelley is Charlotte native Kelley Breiding (South Meck, class of '96).
Rex bands are usually more traditional, but Breiding and bassist Nick McMillian have another Galax group, Back-Step, that played the Music Center amphitheater the following night.
Back-Step plays ultra-orthodox “old-time” in the local Round Peak style. It's high-speed and filigreed Appalachian Celtic all the way. Breiding switches to banjo and McMillian picks up the fiddle. With them in the trio is Nick's father, Chester McMillian, who played guitar with fiddler Tommy Jarrell back in the day.
Back-Step will tour internationally next year with its new “Rise and Bloom Again” CD.
“There are Round Peak cities you would never have imagined,” Chester says. “Who would've guessed we'd have a following in a place like Port Townshend, Wash.?
“Hard to believe, but another hotbed for Round Peak music is metropolitan Tokyo.”
Fresh veggies, old-time tunes
Get up early Saturday and head for the compact Downtown Farmer's Market at Main and Washington.
I counted 10 vendors there – including area farmer and market manager Sara Fennell. She was raised in Charlotte's Chantilly neighborhood, had a small plot in Plaza Midwood, and then moved two hours north to raise salad veggies, herbs and potatoes on one of the eight acres she bought near Galax.
Area truck farmers like Earl Cherry Jr., from Comers Rock, were there with cherry tomatoes and peaches. So was Dawn Rhudy, who raises organic lamb in Elk Creek. And Tim Gregory, a rabbi who strayed into the area and is trying to get his Kabalah Coffee company up and running.
Buy a cup. Wait to see if musicians turn up.
Joe Mama, of Marathon, Fla., arrived quickly. He uses that name when he plays guitar in the tiki lounges in the Keys. Owned a Harley dealership down there, too.
This morning he delighted kids and parents with Jimmie Rodgers' classic “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” and other country antiques.
With him, plunking a banjo, was John Holum – Barbara's husband, Joe Mama's friend and self-described sidekick, and a fan of old-time and bluegrass.
Joe Mama passed through Galax with a hippie string band 40 years before, met Tommy Jarrell, and is the closing act at the Music Center's amphitheater tonight.
Seven days a week through Nov. 2, there's old-time/bluegrass between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in the Music Center's breezeway, between an exhibit hall and the little cinema. You're invited to bring your instrument and sit in. Like the indoor exhibits and the movie – a documentary about Tommy Jarrell – it's free.
(Every Saturday evening downtown, there's also free-to-hear picking at the String Bean Coffee House on South Main.)
In warm months – through Sept. 13 this year – the big to-do most Saturdays is the $3-$10 concert series at the Music Center amphitheater. It's on a picturesque Parkway slope, with the stage pointing uphill; bring your lawn chairs or blanket or sit on the lawn. The stage also faces west; performers, not listeners, squint into the sunset. Behind the stage building is a stunning herringbone of ridges, with Fishers Peak in the distance.
This Saturday's show kicked off with the Toast String Stretchers, a once-in-a-while aggregate of Jarrell devotees that features Paul Brown on violin.
This thin, owlish amateur played well enough, and was clearly enjoying himself. Watching him from campstools out front were Barbara and John Holum in their red monogrammed Joe Mama jackets.
The three were conspicuous – yet blissfully anonymous. When not behind his violin chin rest, Brown is an award-winning reporter for National Public Radio's “Morning Edition.”
In the 1990s, she was a commissioner of the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission. He served eight years in the Clinton administration, eventually as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
Tonight, he has his banjo backstage.