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Except for the sounds of circling ravens, swirling streams, turkey song and an occasional passing car, the Blue Ridge Music Center has been quiet this spring — but it won’t stay that way for long.
Starting this weekend Fisher Peak, which looms behind the visitor center and amphitheater, will echo the sounds of fiddles, banjos and guitars being played on the main stage during the summer concert season, which runs from May through mid-September.
Tourists from across the United States and even from Europe flock to Galax to enjoy scenic drives, breathe fresh mountain air and hear the traditional old-time and bluegrass music the region is famous for.
The facilities at the Blue Ridge Music Center include a 3,000-seat capacity outdoor amphitheater with state-of-the-art sound and lights, an indoor theater for films and more intimate performance talks, hiking trails and an exhibit area where the new permanent exhibition, "The Roots of American Music," which just opened.
All are sheltered beneath the tree-shrouded Virginia mountain ridges that rise into Fisher Peak, a rocky bluff that overlooks the North Carolina piedmont.
After years of planning, "The Roots of American Music" will officially open with a free, three-day celebration on Memorial Day weekend. A public ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday from 1-4 p.m. will be followed by two days of free concerts, jam sessions and other festivities.
Planned by historians and Appalachian music specialists, the exhibition celebrates the living musical heritage of the Blue Ridge region and tells how, in the early days of our nation, the mixing of European and African musical ideas in Virginia and Appalachia created new sounds that profoundly influenced the development of American popular music.
This exhibition is dedicated to the musicians of the Blue Ridge, both present and past. It honors their joyful keeping of America’s folk music traditions.
Along with weekend concerts and The Roots of American Music exhibition, there are free Mid-Day Mountain Music presentations daily, in the Visitor’s Center breezeway.
These feature different musicians every day, who gather to play traditional music, jam and tell stories. Visitors often bring a lawn chair and stay awhile to enjoy these wonderful songs and it is not unusual to see someone flatfoot dance if the fiddle tune inspires.
One of the most seasoned of those musicians, Jim Marshall, 80, first picked up a guitar when he was 5. The music was a handed-down tradition that Marshall learned from musicians who came to his home to join his father, a fiddler, in making music on the porch in the summer and fall when the farm work was done.
Surprisingly, the fiddle is about the only instrument that Marshall doesn’t play and he’s best known as a banjo player and songwriter who composes tunes about people, places and traditions of the region.
He’s also known for his hospitality and the group of friends he brings along to play on Friday afternoons varies from week to week. "I invite everyone I know, and I know a lot of musicians, h Marshall said. "I never know who's going to show up.
"Last year, we had folks from England and France who sat in and played with us. We had one boy who was French and couldn't speak English, but his dad asked if he could play. He only knew one song, but he played with us and they sent me a postcard after they got home. The other week there was a fellow from Scotland. We take them from anywhere we can get them."
That's an approach for virtually any of the Mid-day Mountain Music sessions, which in many ways recreate the porch-playing of Marshall's youth, and the jam sessions that are often the highlight of any fiddlers' convention.
Musicians are welcome to sit in on tunes they know, just as the audience, enjoying the tune from rocking chairs and other locations, may join in on a well-known song.
While the daily music in the breezeway of the visitors’ center is very popular, and the new exhibition is fascinating, a big draw of the Blue Ridge Music Center are the evening main stage concerts featuring the most sought-after touring bluegrass, old-time, blues and gospel bands.
Families and friends get comfortable in their lawn chairs and blankets at sunset and see their favorite stars up close for a fraction of the cost of concerts in most cities.
The average ticket price for big shows at BRMC is $10. Many of the concerts are also preceded by free performance-talks in the very intimate, small theater. Reservations are recommended.
"We've never been," admitted Shannon Leslie, sitting with her husband and two children in folding chairs near the top of the amphitheater risers during one of last summer’s concerts. A resident of Fancy Gap along the parkway, the drive to the Blue Ridge Music Center isn’t a long one. "We've seen the signs and the children love music."
So, on a Saturday in late June, Leslie and her family packed a picnic dinner, loaded up the car and headed south. "We were just hoping there was a concert tonight," she said. "My 2-year-old brought her recorder so she could play along."
Leslie said it's the first time her children, ages 2 and 9, had been exposed to the traditional mountain music that surrounds them. Both sat absolutely rapt as the New Ballard's Branch Bogtrotters, hailing from only 10 miles away in Galax, played old-time tunes on string instruments that could have been played in the hills hundreds of years before.
Around the family others gathered with lawn chairs, blankets and a scattering of picnic baskets. Many like the Leslies came from nearby towns, but others traveled several hours from North Carolina, central Virginia or Tennessee, or included the concert in their vacation trips from further away.
"We'd be here every weekend, but we're from Arizona," quipped one man asked about tickets for an upcoming show.
Another volunteered that they were from Pennsylvania and had included the stop on a trip south, even buying advance tickets for the show.
Many, however, decided at the last minute to take in the concert, letting their mood and the weather determine if they’d make the drive.
The Blue Ridge Music Center is a state-of-the-art performing arts facility built to preserve and promote the historic music of Virginia and the Blue Ridge. The site is near the Virginia and North Carolina state line, and the center itself sits on the borders of Grayson, Carroll and Surry counties.
The Blue Ridge region has produced more old-time and bluegrass musicians per capita than any other and it is the heart of many of America's living music traditions.
BRMC was built through the efforts of three organizations. The City of Galax donated 1,000 acres of land on Fisher Peak near the Blue Ridge Parkway, originally purchased to protect the city's watershed. The Blue Ridge Parkway (a division of the National Park Service and U.S. Department of Interior) owns the facility and maintains it. The National Council for the Traditional Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of traditional music, programs the music center.
Weekend events kick off BRMC summer season
After more than 20 years of planning, a new, permanent interactive exhibit will open with a free, three-day celebration on Memorial Day weekend. Planned by historians and Appalachian music specialists, The Roots of American Music celebrates the living
musical heritage of the Blue Ridge region and tells how, in the early days of our nation, the mixing of European and African musical ideas in Appalachia created new sounds that profoundly influenced the development of American popular music.
Opening Weekend Events
All events are free. Small theater events have limited seating. Call to reserve.
• 1-4 p.m. — Grand opening, ribbon cutting and dedication of the exhibition.
• 3 p.m. — Country Music Beginnings: The Stonemans. Theater.
• 5 p.m. — Bluegrass in the Family: Dan Paisley & Southern Grass. Talk. Theater.
• 7 p.m. — Dan Paisley & The Southern Grass/The Stonemans. Main stage.
• 1 p.m. — Travis Frye & Blue Mountain. Main stage.
• 2 p.m. — Blue Ridge Hits the Big Time: Kilby Spencer & The Crooked Road Ramblers. Talk. Theater.
• 3 p.m. — Roots of American Music Road Show concert. Main stage.
Concerts are at 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted. Seating opens at 5:30 p.m.
• June 4 — Blues in the Blue Ridge: Nat Reese, Phil Wiggins & Emily Spencer. $10
Talking About the Blues, 4:30 p.m. Theater. Free.
Harmonica workshop with Phil Wiggins. 3 p.m. Theater. Free
• June 11 — Quebe Sisters/Kelley & The Cowboys. $12
• June 17 — Doc Watson & David Holt/Wayne Henderson & Friends. Free
• June 25 — Ronnie Reno & The Tradition/New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters. $10
• July 2 — Blue Ridge Dance Traditions: Roan Mountain Hilltoppers/Whitetop Mountain Band and flatfoot dancers from five states. Dance workshop with Martha Spencer. Concert and workshops: Free
• July 9 — Heather Berry & Friends/Jeanette Williams. $10
• July 16 — Historic Church Music of Virginia. $10
Pre-concert talk on Old Regular Baptist singing, Harmonia Sacra, Shapenote and more. Theater. Free
• July 23 — Slate Mountain Ramblers/Lester McCumbers Stringband. $10.
Pre-concert performance-talk on old-time music. Theater. Free.
• July 30 — New North Carolina Ramblers/Costa, Campbell & Lloyd. $10. Pre-concert talk on minstrelsy and early recording stars. Theater. Free.
• Aug. 7 — Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper/Houston Drive. $20.
• Aug 20. — Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice/Rich in Tradition/Sonrise. Free.
• Aug. 27 — Jesse McReynolds/Gerald Anderson Band. $15.
• Sept. 3 — Blue Ridge Music in the 21st Century: Youth Bands. Free.
• Sept. 10 — Toast String Stretchers/Zephyr Lightning Bolts. $10.
Pre-concert flatfoot dance workshop with Ira Bernstein. Free.
HOURS AND INFORMATION
The Blue Ridge Music Center is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through Oct. 30, seven days a week.
BRMC is located ten miles south of Galax, at milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For more information and a complete event listing, visit www.BlueRidgeMusicCenter.org, e-mail email@example.com or call (276) 236-5309.
Main article submitted and written by Angela Schmoll