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This column by Dan Casey originally was published in The Roanoke Times.
Editor’s Note: The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, includes the City of Galax, Carroll and Grayson counties and the towns of Fries and Hillsville; along with such local venues as the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, Blue Ridge Music Center and the historic Rex Theater in Galax. While several localities in the region passed resolutions of “non-support” for the Crooked Road’s plan to become a National Heritage Area, leaders in Galax and the Town of Fries passed resolutions in support of the concept. On March 14, the Crooked Road organization announced that it will discontinue its efforts to seek a National Heritage Area designation. This column was published the day before that decision was made.
By now you may be getting tired of listening to the Tea Party ramble on about weird United Nations conspiracies and other threats to the American dream.
Recently they’ve come up with a new bogeyman, which over generations has subversively insinuated itself deep into the fabric of southern Appalachia: bluegrass music.
On the surface, fiddlers and banjo players don’t look like the one-world government gang. But certain extremists view them as witting and unwitting tools in the latest devious land grab: efforts to have the Crooked Road heritage music trail designated as a National Heritage Area.
The Southwest Virginia Tea Party, which covers Abingdon, Bristol and Washington County, is leading the charge against this. Bizarrely, they’re gaining traction. Recently, Russell County supervisors passed a resolution of nonsupport 4-3. Last week, the Washington County supervisors agreed 5-3 to draft such a resolution.
As you might expect, opponents of the heritage-area designation link the Crooked Road to Agenda 21, the reputedly nefarious U.N. scheme to take over land-use planning all over the world. The facts are somewhat less alarming.
Nine years into its development, the Crooked Road comprises 19 counties, four cities and 50 towns or distinct communities. All are places that gave rise to Appalachian music and its future stars.
“Just about every community in the entire region, if you turn over a rock, you’ll find heritage music,” says Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of the Crooked Road.
On its western end, up against the Kentucky border, the Crooked Road begins in Dickenson County. In dog-leg fashion it meanders southwest then pivots east, where it skirts the North Carolina border and winds up in Franklin County after passing through Patrick and Floyd counties.
A National Heritage Area designation would mean two things, Hinshelwood told me.
“Basically, it says, ‘What happened here is of national significance; we have a national treasure here.’” There are also dollar-for-dollar matching federal grants available for economic development and promoting the region.
In most places, an NHA designation is noncontroversial; Congress has established 49 of them since 1984. Those include two Civil War sites in Virginia.
National Heritages Areas receive between $150,000 and $750,000 in federal matching funds annually, depending on how developed their plans are and how much local money they can raise, Hinshelwood said.
Most of the localities involved have not yet taken a formal position on the Crooked Road’s NHA designation. Among those in support are Dickenson, Giles and Montgomery counties, the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton and Radford and 15 towns, including Floyd, Fries and Rocky Mount.
Besides Russell and Washington counties, Wythe County is on the record against an NHA. So is the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, which sent a strongly worded letter to Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Morgan Griffith in December. It closes by calling the designation “an attack on private property rights.”
Griffith, a conservative Republican, and Warner, a moderate Democrat, are both working for an NHA designation.
Hinshelwood noted that Congress drafts each NHA separately. The Crooked Road’s draft language explicitly leaves land-use planning under local control. That hardly satisfies opponents, however.
One of the headlines on the Southwest Virginia Tea Party’s website calls it “The Crooked NHA.” The article states:
“UN Agenda 21 is Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development — no matter how sweet it is made to sound — is UN Agenda 21. And the management plan for The Crooked Road National Heritage Area is one and the same.”
I called and asked them for elaboration.
“It’s not a direct link, you can count on that,” said Charlie Hargis, the group’s chairman. “That’s the way Agenda 21 operates. Most people don’t realize how advanced Agenda 21 has become. Much of the money that’s used in those grant programs originates from the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives.”
ICLEI is the outfit The Roanoke Tea Party has been screaming about for months.
Read Hargis’ quote again. He’s arguing that the proof of the conspiracy is the lack of any direct evidence of one. That’s not logic — it’s the opposite of it.
Floyd County’s Woody Crenshaw, president of the Crooked Road and chairman of its board, sounded frustrated when I asked him about this.
“It’s not a real argument, it’s a political argument,” Crenshaw said. “There’s been a groundswell of misinformation about property rights. The Crooked Road is a music advocacy organization, and we have become very uncomfortable being involved in politics.”
The bottom line is, kooky and extreme right-wing politics are being used to derail the promotion of bluegrass music.
That’s how weird it’s gotten out there — and it’s only getting weirder.