I Finally Learn (Some) Flatfooting!

The Mts. of Music Homecoming event that was close to us today was a flatfooting workshop at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Even though we have been to this location a few times now, the prospect of learning flatfooting was an irresistible draw. I’ve been watching people dance for the past couple of weeks, and I really want the mystery of what they are doing to be removed. (I tried a flatfooting workshop at a festival a couple years ago and got absolutely nothing out of it. But hope springs eternal, and I once again thought it would be worth trying.) So we headed out to the Blue Ridge Music Center again, prepared to learn dancing, and prepared to enjoy music by the Buck Mountain Band.




The teacher of the workshop, Mary Ann Kovach, was excellent. She convinced us that we couldn’t do it wrong, and she broke down several of the steps into their essential elements so that we could imitate her. The band provided great music, and I managed to “get” a couple of the steps. I also took notes on the steps that were a bit beyond me, and maybe I will be able to figure them out on my own.


We also did some square dancing, and we thoroughly enjoyed having a couple of pre-adolescent girls as our square partners.

After the dancing lesson we headed north to camp at Claytor Lake State Park. This park is in the vicinity of several Mts. of Music Homecoming events, and we thought it would be a good place to locate ourselves for a couple of days.



At this point in the trip we faced a fork in the road, and we took it. Our original plan had us heading to the Asheville area and focusing on non-musical interests. There were no more Blue Ridge Music Trail events closeby. However, a few days ago E discovered that Virginia’s Crooked Road (which we explored pretty thoroughly in 2015) was holding a 10-day, Mts. of Music Homecoming celebration. There were all sorts of events going on all over southern Virginia from June 9 through June 17. We found that we would be able to catch quite a few of these events if we headed back up to Virginia at this point. This decision was a no-brainer.


The first event we decided to attend was billed as a “Feastival.” It was a catered church-picnic type of event, with a bluegrass/gospel band, a couple of highly accomplished musicians, and talks by two local authors who have written books about the food in Appalachia. E had already heard of one of these authors, and had recently placed a hold on her book at the library, so when she saw that we would be able to meet this lady and hear from her, it seemed like a great opportunity.


The event was being held at the Dinwiddie Presbyterian Church, outside the town of Hillsville, VA. A couple miles short of the destination our GoogleMaps directions brought us to a dirt road with a dark, forbidding entrance, low-hanging branches, and prospects of hills and switchbacks that I just wasn’t willing to face. I phoned our contact person at the event, and with some help, we were able to come up with a better route. The only problem was, now I had to turn the trailer around on this crooked road. With E’s help, and our pair of walkie-talkies, we made it happen. We arrived at the Feastival about 20 minutes late.


Fortunately, the eating hadn’t started yet. We missed some music, but there would be much more of that later.


The authors (Ronni Lundy and Libby Bondurant) told interesting stories, and they helped us understand more about the culture of Appalachia. I have become more and more convinced that the people of this area are judged very unfairly by outsiders. The stereotypes are hurtful, and for the most part very untrue.


The music was provided by a band named Changing Lanes, and they were joined by a guitarist named Mac Traynham and a banjo-player named Edwin Lacy. Evidently these two fellows are well-known mountain music “sages.” (Keep that name, Mac Traynham in mind as you read future posts in this trip of ours. We were to learn more about him later.) The music was good, and most of what they played was gospel. I love the fact that gospel music plays such a big role in traditional mountain music.



Oh! We found an RV park just a couple miles down the road from the Dinwiddie Church. Good thing, because it had been a very full day!

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A Warm Embrace

Back in the summer of ’96 the US Forest Service had decided to permit clear-cutting of the lumber on Bluff Mountain, just above the North Carolina town of Hot Springs. What the Forest Service did not take into account was how the local people would react to this decision. When the locals found out about it, they staged a protest. The protest took the form of a fund-raising, old-time music and dance festival. A year later a lot had happened. The Forest Service changed their plans and suspended consideration of Bluff Mountain for clear cutting. The folks in Hot Springs held a celebration. The celebration turned out to be the Second Annual Bluff Mountain Festival. Everyone had such a good time that they decided to do it again the following year, and every year since then. We attended the 22nd annual Bluff Mountain Festival on Saturday.


The Bluff Mountain Festival is still a fund-raiser, but now it is a fund-raiser for the Madison County Arts Council. There were performances all day long from bluegrass and old time bands, a storyteller, cloggers, ballad-singers, and others. One of the performers was a band that included a banjo-player named Laura Boosinger. I had become acquainted with this woman a few different times during my preparation for this trip. Most recently, we had learned that she was one of the 2017 inductees in the Blue Ridge Music Hall of fame (in the Wilkes Heritage Museum that we had visited briefly on Wednesday.) I was surprised to see her here today, because today is the induction ceremony in that hall of fame. When they introduced her they said that she would be leaving immediately after the performance to drive to Wilkesboro for the induction. I was able to snag her for a photo and a brief congratulatory “Thank You” for the work she is doing to promote and preserve Appalachian culture.


The performances at the festival all day long were wonderful. I sat back and let myself feel completely embraced by the warmth, hospitality, and art of the people of North Carolina.





Dark as a Dungeon

The main goal for today was to go underground to experience a real coal mine. We have talked about going into a coal mine for years now, but we’ve never gone out of our way to make it happen. Today would be the day. The City of Beckley operates and exhibition coal mine and reconstructed coal company camp. The mine was actually in operation from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, so it’s been out of production for quite a while. Still, we were able to learn a lot about how coal was actually mined in those days, and we got to physically experience being underground in an actual, dark, damp coal mine. It helped me understand better where the lyrics of the song came from.

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Our guide for the underground tour was a former coal miner named Marvin.

He says that he worked for 24 years in the mines. Obviously, things must have been a lot different for him than for the miners he was telling us about, because the mine we were in had been closed for some 50 years before he even began his work as a miner. The Exhibition Coal Mine employs only former miners as tour guides. As great as this is for tourists, it made me a little sad to see Marvin working as a tour guide, showing people a coal mine and telling them about it all day long. I suspect he would rather just enjoy a relaxing retirement. He probably needs to work. The coal companies today are going bankrupt at an alarming rate, due to increasingly demanding federal environmental regulations that are virtually designed to eliminate our use of coal as a fuel. Marvin was a great guide, however.

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The reconstructed coal company camp was fascinating too. In the schoolhouse we learned about the Mark Twain High School, closed since 1965. The main claim to fame of this school is that it was the school that the famous West Virginia US Senator, Robert C. Byrd attended. He was the valedictorian in the class of ’34. The guide told us that this school was nearby, but she didn’t tell us exactly where. She told us that now the school was completely gone, but that there was a historical marker in the location.

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After we left Beckley we were driving around the nearby towns and villages to get a feel for the area. Outside the town of Sophia we saw a sign indicating that this one particular street was a “Coal Heritage Site.” It didn’t specify what the site was, but we were curious, so we turned onto the street. The street left town and began to ascend a hill. The road became steeper and more crooked as we found ourselves getting further from town. Before long we were on a very narrow, very twisty, very steep road with no shoulders and no opportunity to turn around. It got narrower, more twisty, and more steep as we proceeded on mile after mile. I was very glad we were not towing our trailer at this particular part of our journey. My curiosity about the coal heritage site waned as I just started to want to turn around and return to town. But then, lo and behold, as we crested a hill, we came upon a historical marker and a small, old monument of some sort. We pulled over to take a closer look. Here is what we found:

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Without even looking for it we had located the site of Senator Byrd’s high school. If the guide had not told us about it, we wouldn’t even know the significance of what we were looking at. It was really quite surprising and very cool. I could barely imagine what life must have been like for a young Senator Byrd. Getting to school every day by walking or riding a bus up those roads must have been really something.

Two Hits and No Misses So Far

When we first heard of the Mountain Music Trail in West Virginia, we were exploring the different music venues and events, and we were struck by the fact that two of our very favorite Bluegrass bands (The Barefoot Movement and Balsam Range) would be playing on consecutive nights within a few miles of each other. These two events became the anchor points for the beginning of our trip. We would go to the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, WV on Friday, August 5 to hear The Barefoot Movement, and we would see Balsam Range at the Pickin’ in Parsons bluegrass festival on Saturday, August 6. In all our planning contingencies, these two events were the non-negotiables. So we made camping reservations at Blackwater Falls State Park to enable us to see these two bands without too much in-between traveling.

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Friday night the Barefoot Movement put on a tremendous show. They are full of energy, they are excellent musicians, and they perform great songs and tunes. By the end of their show I was slightly disappointed that they had not performed Tobacco Road, an original song by Noah Wall. When they made their encore appearance after a well-deserved standing-0, I shouted, “Tobacco Road.” Noah seemed a bit taken aback. She said that they hadn’t performed it in a long time, but since it was requested, and since it was an original song with them, she said they would do it. I was happy! They did a great performance of this salt-of-the-earth song.


On Saturday we spent the whole afternoon and evening at Pickin’ in Parsons. This is a smaller bluegrass festival than Greyfox, but it was a great experience. They had a super lineup of bands, and they saved the best for last. At 8:00 Balsam Range took the stage. We’ve heard them at two previous festivals (Winter Village Bluegrass Festival and Greyfox), so we knew we were in for a treat. Their performance was even better than we had expected. The highlight of the evening was when they performed Stackin up the Rocks. They explained the origin of the song. Buddy Melton, their fiddler and lead singer, had had a severe head injury in a farming accident about four years ago. His survival and ultimate recovery had been in doubt for a while. They sent out requests for prayer, and eventually thousands of people prayed for him. He experienced a miraculous recovery. After he was well again, he was meditating on the Biblical story of the rocks stacked up by the Jordan River to commemorate God’s act on Israel’s behalf. This became the impetus for the song, as a testimony of his miraculous healing. This was not the only Christian testimony that occurred in their performance. The entire evening was a reflection of God’s glory in their beautiful harmonies and uplifting music.


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It’s hard to imagine this journey getting any better following these two evenings of great performances by some of our favorite bands.