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Southwestern Virginia
Southwestern Virginia
Land of Music, Crafts and Nature

By Corinna Lothar

Jack Hinshelwood, Executive Director of the Crooked Road
Jack Hinshelwood, Director of the Crooked Road at Heartwood

irginia is for lovers – of bluegrass music, crafts, gorgeous scenery. and friendly, hospitable people. Southwest Virginia offers all of the above to a visitor, along with some tasty traditional food.

Music serves as the glue in the region. Everywhere, be it the local diner, the craft center, a theatre, or just the street, a group will be strumming and singing, a jam session will be taking place. As Jack Hinshelwood, Executive Director of the Crooked Road, explains, “it’s what people do here; music is the every day fabric of life.”

The Crooked Road is Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, a driving route of 330 miles through the mountains of southwestern Virginia, with 9 official major music festival sites, along with dozens of unofficial smaller venues. Part of it is on U.S. Route 58, and part on minor roads. There are 60 affiliated venues for country music festivals, weekly concerts, informal gatherings and even a radio program on the road where the musical heritage of bluegrass, gospel and mountain music from England and the African Americans has been kept alive in families and communities for generations.

sign for the Crooked Road, southwestern Virginia
Sign for the Crooked Road


The three principal cities in this part of the state are Bristol, Abingdon and Marion. Bristol, situated on the state line between Virginia and Tennessee, is considered the birthplace of country music because the 1927 recording sessions in Bistol made country music available throughout the United States. This is where Jimmy Rogers and the Carter family were recorded by music executive Ralph Peer.

The Birthplace of Country Music museum opened this past August in what was once an old car dealership. The museum has hands-on exhibits enabling visitors to change the acoustics of a song, There are films about the old timers, photographs, and even a karaoke booth for the adventurous. Visitors will learn the difference between bluegrass and country and the origin of the term “hill billy” – “we’re just hill billies” said a good old boy in New York in 1925 when asked what his music was called. Originally, the term was descriptive, rather than pejorative.

sign over Main Street, Bristol, Virginia
Bristol sign over Main Street

For three days every September, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion brings together string talent from around the country. Sound stages are set up all over downtown and music takes over for the weekend. Music and food. You might have to wait in line for a "burger at the Burger Bar" – said to be where Hank Williams ate his last meal – but it’s worth the wait.

jam session on Main Street during Rhythm and Roots Festival
Jam session on Main Street during Rhythm and Roots Festival

A few miles west of Bristol in Hiltons is the Carter Family Fold, where every Saturday night, beginning at 7:30 p.m., a bluegrass group takes the stage to entertain the folks who come to hear good music and to do some flatfooting. Flatfooting is similar to clogging, except that shoes, often with taps, are worn. The dancers include everyone from four-year old children to 81 year old grandmothers. It’s what folks do on a Saturday night. The Fold is run by Rita Forrester, the granddaughter of Sara Carter, one of the original three Carters. She makes all the soups and sandwiches for the canteen. Visitors to the Fold can also tour the neighboring cabin, the birthplace of A.P. Carter.

sign over the entrance to the Carter Family Fold, Hiltons, Virginia
Sign over entrance to Carter Fold

The Fold has its annual festival every August and hosts the Clinch Mountain Music Fest in June. Not to be missed by lovers of the Appalachian sound is the FloydFest in June, when bluegrass, country, gospel, pop and others, along with artisans and good food abound. Floyd is a tiny town on Virginia’s Crooked Road.


History plays an important role in this part of Virginia. In the small town of Marion, named for Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War general considered one of the fathers of modern guerilla warfare, the 1929 Lincoln Theatre, a fine example of art deco Mayan revival, has undergone a renaissance. Six large murals, restored in 2004, represent national and local history. Originally a vaudeville movie house, today the Lincoln is the venue for bluegrass music. On the first Sunday of every month, The Song of the Mountains, a stage and television show, takes place at the Lincoln. Famous musicians, school bands, family bands, or teen-agers with their own type of picking perform old-time music. The show is carried on PBS stations throughout the United States.

The Francis Marion Hotel is a restored 1920s hotel with small, but comfortable rooms, and marvelous large old-fashioned bathrooms.

One of the town’s unique specialties is the Virginia Sweetwater Distillery, where Scott Schumaker makes his award winning War Horse Whiskey and clear, legal moonshine. Once a month, Mr. Schumaker offers a moonshine making class, and for $5 visitors can enjoy a taste from the still he calls “Miss Kelsey.”

Scott Schumaker at Appalachian Mountian Spirits
Scott Schumaker at Appalachian Mountian Spirits

Marion is proud of its Main Street that once was the “Wilderness Road” traveled by Daniel Boone to cross the Cumberland Gap. Marion was home to author Sherwood Anderson for several years and he is buried in Marion’s Roundhill Cemetery. Marion is also the home of Mountain Dew. The city’s renovated 1908 schoolhouse has been transformed into the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts.


Down Highway 81 in Abingdon, is the Barter Theatre, established in 1933 by Robert Porterfield, a local actor who had gone to New York to seek fame and fortune. He did well until the Depression brought about unemployment and hunger. So he invited a group of fellow actors to join him in Abingdon where he set up a theatre where he bartered performances for food. Ham for Hamlet. Today, the Barter has two venues and is one of America’s most successful regional theatres.

Across the street from the Barter is the elegant, beautifully restored Martha Washington Hotel, originally built as a southern mansion in 1852. Rooms at the Martha are large and well apportioned; the lovely library is a perfect place to enjoy a late-night glass of port; and the hotel’s spa offers relaxation and well being.

Abingdon’s William King Museum does not have its own collection, but has been showing traveling exhibitions since 1992. It also showcases local artists and has artists’ studios. The museum is named for William King who made his fortune in the salt mines in nearby Saltville.

Crafts are an important part of the heritage of southwestern Virginia, both folk art and traditional crafts in wood, glass, pottery, and weaving. Many of Abingdon’s artists and craftsmen belong to the Arts Depot collective, housed in a 19th century freight station, where visitors can watch the artists at work. The Holston Mountain Artisans shop is housed in a 1902 building, which was Washington County’s first jail.

Nancy Garretson demonstrating weaving art at the Arts Depot in Abingdon
Nancy Garretson demonstrating weaving art at the Arts Depot in Abingdon

Heartwood, just outside Abingdon on Highway 81, is a center for high quality craft and traditional American handmade instruments. It’s also a good place to enjoy some local cooking and local wine. The performance area features music strummed and sung by famous and perhaps soon-to-be-famous area musicians in the free concerts held every Thursday evening.

Good wine from this region is available not only at Heartwood but in many restaurants, both, for example, in the formal Tavern in Abingdon or the informal Wooden Pickle in Marion. The Tavern, which features sophisticated dining, is located in Abingdon’s oldest building, constructed in 1779. It served as a field hospital during the Civil War, and charcoal numbers used to designate soldiers’ beds can still be seen on the restaurant’s third floor.

The Great Outdoors

Southwestern Virginia’s beautiful forested hills, pretty hollows, its Appalachian hiking trail, and motorcycle and biking trails are attractions for the nature lover. The “Back of the Dragon” is a 32 mile drive, beloved by motorcycle riders, running from Tazewell to Marion with more than 260 curves and elevations of up to 3,500 feet. The route goes through the Hungry Mother State Park on the outskirts of Marion.

The Park contains about 20 miles of hiking and biking trails; fishing, canoeing and swimming in the lake; camp sites, cabins and a restaurant.

Hungry Mother State Park sign
Hungry Mother State Park

The Virginia Creeper Trail, which began as a Native American footpath, opened in 1990 and is a must for bike riders. The name, “Virginia Creeper,” comes not only from the vine of that name, but as a nickname for the steam locomotives that crept up the steep grades of the railroad track that ran along the trail from Abingdon to to Elkland, North Carolina, from the beginning of the 20th century until 1977, hauling lumber, iron ore, supplies and passengers. (The engine and tender can be seen at the Abingdon trailhead.)

The tiny town of Damascus is the center of the Creeper trail. There are 7 bike shops in the town, where bikers can rent a bicycle, get a lift to the top of White Top Mountain, and then ride down the mountain through the rugged, beautiful forests. On the weekend after Mother’s Day, the town celebrates Appalachian Trail Days with music and food.

Wherever you go and whatever you do in this part of Virginia, surprises await; beauty and enjoyment are everywhere in southwestern Virginia.

Related Articles:
Charlottesville, Virginia: Mr. Jefferson's Country; Dying in Virginian Skies; Chincoteague and Assateague: Islands that Cling to a Colorful Past; Myrtle Beach and Gullah Culture; NOLA: New Orleans, Louisiana; New Orleans: Where Anything Goes While the Good Times Roll!

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Let Corinna know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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I found a Mich Goss J. Grassmayr Innsbruck bell with Jesus, a crucifix and a flower on it. Do you have any information about it you can share with me? Many thanks.

--- Liz, San Bernardino, CA

I don't have any information on that specific bell. If she wants information, "Liz" in San Bernardino should contact the factory. Here is the information: Address Grassmayr Foundry and Bell Museum, Leopoldstrasse 53, Inssbruck, A-6010 Austria. Telephone: 43 512-59416-0. Fax: 43 512-59416-22. E-mail: or


Been there -- thought I'd done it -- you proved me wrong. Great travel coverage -- even for those who have lived there.

--- Bill, Redmond, Oregon

Corinna, my dear,

What a wonderful series of words you have collected together to paint a mesmerizing story about one of my favorite places. Even though I've traversed these same locales as you many times, your delightful descriptions made me want to book a flight this very second and see again some of the places that time did not allow me to linger in before. Your photos are also riveting, and I loved the pantyhose one - what a clever, sexy way to promote that article of the female form. Your colorful words make the entire region literally come alive before my eyes - a rare gift for any writer! Bravo and again Congrats on your top notch feature. Best regards.

Best regards,

--- John C., Palos Verdes, CA

Hello Corinna,

This is very roundabout ... I was recently teaching (Legal Reasoning) in Kabul and encountered Ann Geracimos, who said she knows you from the Times. She recently provided me with an electronic version of your 2007 piece about returning to Frankfurt (which I enjoyed very much). Jonelle and I are well (and enjoying our 3 grandchildren, who live within blocks of our house). I hope you are well. I will now look for your travel writing regularly.

Best regards,

--- Howard De Nike - San Francisco, CA

What an amazing background Ms. Lothar has! I enjoyed her article very much. I found it to be quite intriguing, especially the interpreter school bit.

--- Melinda, Boise, ID

I loved your article on Metz.

I was an exchange student living there from 1981-1982 and have always felt like Lorraine was the most overlooked part of Europe.

You really captured the feel of the city with your photo and articles.

--- Al Stewart, Seattle, WA

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