Fred C. Fussell
Blue Ridge Music Trails: Finding a Place in the Circle
Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003. 288 pp., $15.95
By Art Menius
Original publication in Bluegrass Unlimited
During the 1930s the Works Progress Administration funded a set of state guidebooks. The series pointed out historic, geographic, and scenic features alongside America’s burgeoning, under the New Deal, roadways and thus spawned yet another industry feeding off the automobile. In recent years, cultural or heritage tourism has emerged as one of many nostrums offered to compensate for the loss of the manufacturing jobs that lured folks off the farms after the Civil War. Spurred by the NC Arts Council, the confluence of these two streams in the form of the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative has produced two guidebooks for cultural tourists: The Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook and the subject of this review, Blue Ridge Music Trails: Finding a Place in the Circle by Fred Fussell, director of Georgia’s Chattahoochee Folklife Project. Fussell hopes that his volume offers a vehicle through mountain music and dance for visitors to experience genuine interactions with people who live roughly between Charlottesville, VA and Waynesville, NC. To a large degree the handsome book, richly illustrated with historic and gorgeous new color photographs by Cedric N. Chatterley, seems to succeed.
Blue Ridge Music Trails divides this heartland of bluegrass and old-time music into nine regions, roughly containing counties through which the Blue Ridge Parkway (another WPA project) passes and those contiguous to them. Organized therein by county, Fussell invites readers to jam sessions in barber shops, abandoned railroad depots, and fast food restaurants, fiddlers’ contests and festivals old and new, huge and tiny, recording merchants like County Sales and Heritage Records, radio stations, and a variety of other roots music sites. In other words, the book provides a portal for the outsider to a wonderful world of old-time, bluegrass, gospel, and ballad singing. Those of us who live just outside the region can joyously recall discovering some of these places on our own while flipping through the pages.
And that’s one way how Blue Ridge Music Trails is best used – simply flipping through and reading this article and that. Over a few most pleasant hours the reader can take a magical music armchair tour of a changing region. Also, the book can be straightforwardly used to plan roots music junkets through the region from jam session to festival to Appalachian dance hall.
The best features come from the brief interviews with practitioners of mountain music and dance of a variety of ages from teens to retirees. Fussell profiles such respected figures as Wayne Henderson, Tom and Stevie Barr, and Shelia Kay Adams. The writing shines when Fussell’s prose indicates he has actually visited the site. He brings to life, to cite just one example, Sims Country Bar-B-Cue “centrally located in the middle of nowhere” in Dudley Shoals, NC and worth the trip as “part restaurant, part park, part music stage, and part dance center.” Fussell’s “you are there” style, while often entertaining, can sometimes seem cloying, however, perhaps from simple overuse. Often, too, the articles seem based only on others’ research notes, not personal experience. This helps lend a sometimes hodgepodge feel to the book, as does the organization by county rather than road routes like the old WPA guides. Both hillbilly radio and festivals receive somewhat inconsistent and sporadic treatment.
The prefactory “History of Blue Ridge Music” by Joe Wilson and Wayne Martin, an otherwise quite useful 13 page article, devotes but one sentence to bluegrass. That mention, moreover, rather inaccurately presents bluegrass as evolutionary from string band music. This ignores the far more fascinating story of how the revolutionary music of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs so quickly became a genuine part of Appalachian traditional music. Errors are to be expected such as misspelling Don Pedi’s name, but this guidebook contains a couple of geographical whoppers. At one point, US 15 magically moves 120 west to Wilkes County. Most egregiously, Union Grove, home of Fiddler’s Grove, SmileFest, and other events, somehow finds itself in Region Three nearly a hour’s drive distant from its Region One home. Oddly, the old Union Grove Schoolhouse, where it all began, appears in the correct place.
That said, Blue Ridge Music Trails proves a lovely and ultimately quite useful tome. Fussell had pulled together years of local knowledge about dozens of musical communities. Any reader of this magazine would find a wealth of places and happenings they would love to visit within its pages. AM