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Musical Artery

Author and Virginia-music champion Joe Wilson on the state's musical bloodline.



"A Guide to the Crooked Road" (John F. Blair Publisher, $19.95), Wilson's second book, is a 200-page musical and historical road map and two-CD set that takes its readers on a tour through 10 southwestern Virginia counties and the annual festivals, musical events, hometown diners and individuals who have helped shape the path of the Crooked Road. Travelers on the Crooked Road will find the hometowns of such greats as the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family, the first sightings of the American banjo, fiddle and guitar, and the more recent birth of the hillbilly.

A native of the Tennessee Blue Ridge Mountain area, Wilson currently resides in Galax,Va., with his wife and dog. He talked to Style about why he writes, why he shouldn't have his guitar and his passion for all things music.

Style: What is your musical background?

Wilson: Well, my earliest memories are of sitting under the table listening to my uncle and neighbor play guitar and banjo. My great aunt played banjo on Bristol Radio when it went on the air in 1929. She had a 15-minute program and had time to sing three ballads. My whole family is musical on both sides. My dad sang gospel in a little a cappella quartet, my mom knew ballads, one uncle played fiddle, and another played harmonica and guitar at the same time.

Do you play any instruments?

I'm terrible. I have a Henderson guitar, but I don't deserve it. I can play for my little dog Martha and that's enough.

What drove you to form this compilation?

I don't know; I've been working towards it all my life. I learned about these things through a lot of years of caring about them without intending to write a book. The Crooked Road is an organization, a group of venues that talk to each other. Todd Christensen, one of the members, who works for the state of Virginia, was a burr under my saddle. I mostly worked on it in motels at night, doing it as I could, with two other jobs at the same time. Between midnight and 7 a.m., not many people bother you.

If you had to recommend one destination above all others, which would it be?

Well, I love all of these things, and there are reasons to love all of them, and of course I'm terribly prejudiced about the Blue Ridge Music Center, which I've been working on for 21 years. We are going to build a world-class museum that will show how Irish, German and African music blended in Virginia in the 1600s and 1700s. It needs a little honoring and understanding, and we're going to deal with that with the museum up there on the mountain. Some of the first tune books printed in America come from the Shenandoah. A lot of people in Virginia don't know this.

Also, I love the Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax. Out of the 50 [thousand] to 70,000 people that go, one third are musicians. I don't care how much you know about music, you just walk through the parking lots and the camping areas you'll hear something that knocks your socks off. S

The Fiddler's Convention in Galax runs Aug. 6-13. Visit for more details.

CD REVIEW: Going Down the Road

It's no secret that Southwest Virginia has a rich musical tradition whose influence has been felt the world over.

But the regional history of old-time, bluegrass, Appalachian gospel, Piedmont blues and Anglo-American ballads is so varied and deep it can be difficult to fathom. For the uninitiated, this two-CD, 52-song collection sampling a century's worth of music born and bred along the so-called "Crooked Road" is a great place to start.

Narrated with brief, down-home intros to each song by Joe Wilson, these book companion CDs showcase a variety of material (in random order) recorded between the 1920s and 2006 — representative music from the state where African banjo and European fiddle first met, and where the term hillbilly was born.

Even though the original musicians often lived only a few miles apart, the diversity of sounds is remarkable. By mixing genres and time frames, Wilson is able to informally compare old musicians and styles with new ones, and show how traditions have been steadfastly upheld and updated.

Among the many highlights: the joyous ukulele and kazoo playing of street musician Rabbit Muse of Rocky Mount (1980); a common eastern Blue Ridge tune ("The Devil's Dream") by Saltville's great multi-instrumentalist, Hobart Smith (1960); "Darling Child," featuring banjoist Sammy Shelor, recorded last year in Richmond at the National Folk Festival; Kay Justice of Abingdon singing a lovely version of "Deep Settled Peace" in Charlottesville (1993); and the feel-good, black string-band tune, "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind" by Smyth County native Frank Blevins and His Tar Heel Rattlers (1928).

I'm not well-versed enough to say whether any criminal oversights occurred here, but with Wilson's academic and firsthand understanding of the area's history, this seems unlikely. More important is the breadth of what is included and the kindred spirit that illuminates these recordings — the heartfelt dedication of a still-thriving breed of small-town Virginia musician who plays for the selfless love of music as an integral part of friendship, fellowship and daily life. — Brent Baldwin

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