Fiddling Away on the Crooked Road in Southwest Virginia

August 16, 2006 4:09 PM0 comments

While this area was suffering from 101-degree heat last week, there was a pilgrimage to a city 15-derees cooler and 300 miles away.

Their destination was a city of 6,900 residents in Southwest Virginia that was named for a small, evergreen shrub.

Galax, Virginia, was the center of the universe for lovers of traditional music as the 71st annual Old Fiddlers Convention began last Monday.

It is a little over 100 miles from Bristol, Tennessee, where A.P. Carter, his wife, and sister-in-law first recorded the songbook of country music in 1927.

Held by Lodge 733 of the Loyal Order of Moose, the annual event started as a fundraising competition in the high school gym in the spring of 1935.

A second “convention” was planned for the same venue that fall, but so many entered the contest that it was moved outdoors.

It has been held in 18-acre Felt’s Park every year ever since, except when bad weather has forced it indoors and one year during World War II.

Originally, a handful of fiddlers from the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge competed on a Saturday night.

This year, there were 1,896 entrants in 13 categories, performing over six days and nights, starting last Monday.

Situated on U.S. Route 58, known locally as the “Crooked Road,” Galax became the temporary home of almost 50,000 people last week.

They filled the local motels and created a city of tents, campers, cars, and buses behind and around a large yellow tent that surrounds the wide stage.

On this stage, homage is paid to America’s musical heritage in the oldest and largest event of its kind in the world.

In front of the stage, spectators watch from rows of lawn chairs. Behind them, others sit under an overhang in rows of concrete benches built into a steep hill.

To the left of the stage, those of all ages who get the urge are found flatfoot dancing on plywood sheets laid out to keep them out of the mud.

“Richard’s Roadkill Eatery,” “Nancy’s Fried Pies,” a Pizza Hut tent, and other food vendors can also be found in the park.

Interspersed with them are vendors selling CDs, musical instruments, many handmade, memorabilia, and clothes.

To supply electricity to them and the campers, a plethora of extension cords going in all directions are found hooked to banks of electric supply boxes.

In attendance for the past five years has been the Airstream Travelers Association, with members from as far away as Texas and Kansas.

On Monday, the Youth competition, in six categories for those under 15, began at 6:00 p.m. and the 114 performances lasted until almost 2:00 a.m.

For the rest of the convention, competitions for each musical category, dance, and folk song begin at 7:00 p.m. each night.

 On Saturday, an additional performance at 12:00 noon is added for the song and dance competitions.

The convention culminates Saturday night with competitions of the bluegrass and old-time bands, composed of no more than seven members.

The Moose Lodge sponsors a “Poor Man’s Supper” of barbeque, baked beans, and cole slaw at 6:00 p.m. that night.

Under a pavilion on the top of the hill overlooking the park, this is the place for politicians around the Commonwealth to see and be seen.

Among those in attendance was Governor Tim Kaine, who played the harmonica in an impromptu duet with a young fiddle champ.

He could later be found backstage singing an a capella version of Johnny Horton’s hit, The Battle of New Orleans, with an all-woman bluegrass band.

In fact, it is backstage and among the trailers where musicians jam together that the real performances can be heard.

One of the highlights of the evening was the appearance of Ronnie Stoneman, who was performing with a bluegrass band.

Born as one of 23 children in Galax, she is a member of the Stoneman family,well known in the D.C. area.

Famous from her comedic performances on the old Hee Haw television show, she is also a master banjo player.

One of the few female practitioners of the five finger roll technique, her band played a bluegrass version of the House of the Rising Son

She then honored her musical mentor, Earl Scruggs, with a fast paced solo performance of Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

The evening ended well after midnight as the winners of each competition were named. They shared a total of $20,000 in prizes.

You can go to oldfiddlersconvention.com for a list of the winners and information about the Old Fiddlers Convention.

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