As soon as the caller put his bow to the fiddle strings, and the first notes of mountain music sang out in the warm, dry country store, I was a goner. My eyes teared up as feet tapped, and teeth shined, and white-haired heads bobbed in time with Old Time Appalachian music.
My parents are in town, stopping through Virginia to see us as they embark on the great adventure of their lives: an RV journey from their home in Georgia, across the US and Canada, to the wilderness of Alaska. Another rainy day in Blacksburg derailed our plans to take them hiking, to show them the spring green of our Appalachian forests. Rather than stare at each other in the confines of our living room while the rain came down, we decided to escape to a different kind of Appalachia before they drive out of these hills: an open jam session at the Floyd Country Store.
Sitting in a circle in folding chairs on the warm wooden planks were eleven musicians, some newcomers, some old timers, all hunched over their strings, their left hands moving up and down fret boards as they played Turkey in the Straw. Their shoulders shrugged in time as they picked banjos and mandolins, twitched bows across fiddles, strummed guitars (pronounced GIH-tahrs), and as one burly, bearded mountain man thumped an upright bass with a meaty hand. All of the instruments were stringed, but the leather sole of a mandolin player’s shoe slapped time on the floor, an unofficial drum. Throughout the four rows of folding chairs behind the bluegrass circle, feet tapped, heads nodded, and shoulders bumped as the audience seat-danced.
The leader of the jam called out, with his chin clamped to the instrument on his shoulder, and his bow racing across fiddle strings, “The floor is open here in the middle.” He tipped his head to the center of the circle. “If anyone wants to dance, it sure helps us out.” I looked at our daughter and raised my eyebrows, “Do you want to dance?” Her eyes got wide as she licked her ice cream cone and she shook her head. No way.
The group moved into their next song, which was even more irresistible than the first, and as fiddle bows fluttered, the man from behind the counter, who had served me my coffee, stepped into the circle and began dancing. (It turns out he is local flatfooting champion Rick Sutphin). My mom leaned over and said in my ear, “You’re going to have to learn how to buck dance, Andrea!” A silver haired man with pressed, stiff, indigo jeans stepped in after him and began flat foot dancing as well. My eyes teared up again to see the joy on their faces, to see bliss in the smile of the fiddler in front of me. Wrapped up in this music and this Riverdance type jig is the rich Appalachian history of Celtic immigrants climbing into the mountains to find affordable farming land. The banjos and mandolins and slapping feet tell a story of isolation beat back by coming together for country dances, for fiddling, for celebrating the harvest. The twangy sounds, and the rhythm that moves men to buck dance, preserve a rich history, the pulse of which still beats in this mountain music of Virginia. A history that depended on creating community, on participation, for mountain folk to escape the remoteness of their homes in the hills, and that brought a sense of giddiness and joy on the occasions they came together to put their lives into song. How can you not be moved by that?
Apparently it was easy for our nine year old, who was ready to leave just as the silver haired man collapsed into his seat, panting and grinning, and the group moved into a waltz. Our daughter was captivated, though, as was I. I wanted more.
We left reluctantly, and on our way home we asked our daughter, “Do you think you’d like to play an instrument?” She wanders around the house, the campsite, bopping in her booster seat, singing, clapping, dancing little jigs. I crossed my fingers, begging in my heart for a musician in the family.
She thought a minute as she watched at the wet green mountainsides pass by her window. And then she said, “Yes.” She picked at her jeans. “I want to learn the guitar.”
The Floyd Country Store broadcasts The Floyd Radio Show from their Friday Night Jamboree, which features gospel music, skits, and dance bands (previous shows available on podcast). Tickets go on sale no earlier than 4:30 on Fridays. On Saturdays they host a free Americana Afternoon starting at noon, followed by an open mic session at 1:30, and on Sundays from 2 to 4 pm, the Floyd Country Store hosts a jam with a local Old Time or Bluegrass band who leads the jam session. The jam session is free. More information on the On Stage page of their website.
If you are interested in Appalachian Music, I highly recommend the movie (and soundtrack) Songcatcher.