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Old Fiddlers Convention in Va. is the oldest of its kind

by Amy Kingsley

They call it the Crooked Road, but it’s actually a network of highways that wind like a wild hair through the southwest corner of Virginia. Beginning in Dickenson County – the heart of Appalachia – and ending near Roanoke, the main features of the road are beautiful vistas and colorful signs.

Yes, signs. Signs with banjos to remind you that you are in the spiritual and physical cradle of American old-time music.

Some scholars have gone as far as declaring these hills and hollers the birthplace of country music. Among those who decline to make such sweeping statements, it is generally agreed that southwest Virginia, and parts of North Carolina, did produce bluegrass in a series of fits and starts that culminated in the 1940s.

The Crooked Road passes through Galax, a large town straddling the border of Grayson and Carroll counties that was named after a flowering plant common to the area.

Little Galax, pop. 6,886, is the “World’s Capital of Old Time Music.” And every August, it becomes a magnet for every banjo-playing, dulcimer-hammering, jug-blowing and fiddle-bowing old-time connoisseur in the continental United States.

This year’s Old Fiddlers’ Convention begins on Aug. 4 and ends five days later. It is expected to draw hundreds of musicians from around the world who will engage in competitions ranging from autoharp and flatfoot dancing.

The Old Fiddlers’ Convention is the oldest musical competition of its kind. Galax’s Moose Lodge #733 concocted the first one in 1935 and has hosted it ever since in Felts Park, home to a renovated amphitheater designed to accommodate the annual gathering.

Campers are encouraged to put up tents in the parking lot and campgrounds surrounding the park. Camping areas open almost a full week before the beginning of the competition, which means there is plenty of time to work up a passable version of “Peg and Awl” before the reigning champs blow into town.

But you don’t have to stay on the campgrounds. There’s plenty to see in Galax proper, including the historic Rex Theater, the site of WBRF 98.1 FM’s weekly live broadcast “Blue Ridge Back Roads.” Old time and bluegrass music performed at the Rex is beamed to five surrounding states and onto the internet every Friday evening.

If you can’t get to Galax in August, the town hosts the Leaf and String Festival in June. This noncompetitive event celebrates the arts of the Blue Ridge region with a particular emphasis on music and literature. Authors Gloria Houston, Jayne Jaudon Ferrer and P. Buckley Moss will take their turns in the author tent erected on Grayson Street as old-time bands from the surrounding counties do their thing.

There is also an exhibition of traditional mountain crafts from quilting to whittling, and dance performances conducted by local school children.

The Rex Theater will host the world-famous Alberti Flea Circus on June 14. The intimate, 500-seat venue should be an ideal place to watch the miniscule Dardenell swan dive and microscopic Captain Spaulding play cannonball.

The Galax Leaf and String Festival is a family-friendly event – sort of like the Old Fiddlers’ Convention minus the corn liquor-fueled all-night jam sessions.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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