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The Blue Ridge Music Center started as an idea shortly after the 50th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1985, and has since brought thousands to its concerts, jams, exhibits and visitor center.
Local music historian Joe Wilson told how the Blue Ridge Music Center came to be, after he hit it off with Gary Everhardt, a former superintendent of the parkway, while he worked for the National Council for the Traditional Arts. When Wilson worked in Washington D.C., in 1976, a woman had introduced Wilson to Everhart.
When he met Everhardt, Wilson spoke proudly of where he was from — the North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee area, he said — where Everhardt had ties.
“'We'll have lunch,'” he told Wilson, and the two quickly struck up a friendship.
During the 50th anniversary celebration, the Blue Ridge Parkway hosted bluegrass and old-time concerts at Cumberland Knob, Rocky Knob and Grandfather Mountain. After the concert was over, Wilson got to thinking — “We should do more of this here. We need to celebrate our music,” he said.
This also needed to be a place where tourists could come to find out about the history of music in this area where American music first started, and where locals could find out about their own roots
“Of all the musical places on Earth, Galax is the place for a formal music center,” said Wilson. “There's music everywhere, and it is what has made this a special place.”
He contacted Everhardt with his new idea. “The one thing you don't do is hassle Everhardt,” Wilson said with a laugh. He told Wilson to come back with a plan.
Wilson went to Galax City Council, and its members were friendly to the idea.
The city donated 980 acres at Fishers Peak — the biggest expansion of land on the parkway since its origin — in return that the land around the music center and the watershed would be preserved and kept pristine. Now, there's more than 1,000 acres at the center.
Wilson then went to Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Abingdon), who was in the early days of his political career. As Wilson talked about the concept, Boucher, who was sitting back in his chair, began to lean forward. “We have to do this,” Boucher told Wilson. “This is important.”
Even though Wilson and Everhardt began talking about the idea in 1986, it wasn't until the early 1990s when funding for the music center became available.
“[Former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich came along [in the U.S. House of Representatives] and said it wasn't going to happen,” said Wilson of the backlash in congress over “pork barrel” spending, with which the music center was lumped. “But Rick Boucher thought differently and went back to work to get it done.”
Boucher helped to get funding reinstated. “It took 25 years, but that's how the music center got started,” said Wilson.
Several grants and many years later, the Blue Ridge Music Center turned into a progressive project, with a stage, amphitheater, restrooms and what is now the luthier shop being built in 2001 and the visitors center and auditorium being built in 2005.
In 2003, Wilson became executive director of the music center, which now hosts dozens of concerts throughout the spring and summer each year, bringing thousands of visitors to the center.
A new exhibit is set to open in spring 2011 at the music center, which will tell the story of how American music began. It will include interactive video and audio about the beginnings of string music.
“The music center has became a place that improves local lives with tourism and one thing this area needed,” said Wilson. “We will create a stir with this because nothing like this exhibit has ever been done. We're showing the evidence of how music started here.”
Wilson believes travelers from all over the world will come to the new exhibit, where they can see and relate to the foundation of American music.
The center will host a variety of programs during the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is expected to bring 30,000 to the Galax/Cumberland Knob area this weekend.