I’m driving down a long and winding road in the back hills of Virginia. My GPS can’t identify my location, my cell phone has no coverage, and I’m really not concerned. I’ve got the top down on my convertible, the bluegrass music playing, and I feel full and happy.
Wait a minute, back up here. The bluegrass music?
The bluegrass music!
I have enjoyed the small snippets of bluegrass music I’ve been exposed to over the years. So I finally decided to fully immerse myself in the genre by attending a bluegrass festival. My friends in the know who keep up with the music scene told me that the Graves Mountain Festival of Music is the best bluegrass festival in our region. I put the word out on Facebook and Twitter and casually asked around among my friends to drum up support for a group to go together but no dice. I have friends who I can call on in an emergency, friends who will pray with me, friends who will drop everything and fly to London for dinner, but apparently no friends who are interested in “that twangy bluegrass mountain music”.
So I went by myself.
I drove up to Graves Mountain Lodge Friday afternoon and squared things away with regard to my check-in (I already had tickets for the festival and reservations for a room at the lodge) before heading up to the dining room for dinner. At Graves Mountain Lodge, three meals are included with each night’s stay. Dinner was fresh river trout, cornbread, potatoes and a lot of other delicious food. The food was phenomenal. I was feeling a bit shy so even though the meal was served family style and I was elbow to elbow with strangers I really didn’t talk to anyone. I just finished my meal and then walked down to the pavilion area where the musicians were performing. I had my fold-down chair like everyone else, and I settled into a row close enough to get a great view of the stage but far enough back that I had a shady refuge under a tree.
There were a few different bands performing Friday night and they were all pretty good. Everyone sang about family, about love, and about God. The last band to take the stage was IIIrd Tyme Out. These guys are headed up by Russell Moore, who is one of the most decorated Bluegrass artists in history. The words he sang, the melodies he led, they all brought me to tears.The group played plenty of traditional bluegrass but also introduced me to a cappella gospel and it’s so beautiful and compelling that I have trouble understanding how one can grow up in the south listening to this type of music and not be wholly invested in Christianity.
While they played, I looked around at the audience and listened in on some neighboring conversations. Most people were very different from me in the way they spoke, the clothes they wore, and the things they talked about. There’s a real Appalachian mountain culture and these people are it. Thick southern accents, gentle smiles, and the constant refrain of God, family, and country. Despite the differences in our day to day livelihoods, everyone I met was so friendly to me and made me feel welcome. A lot of these folks have large, extended families who live nearby and a sense of “place” that I envy. I suppose the other side of the coin here is that those of us who don’t have a tie to a specific community, those of us without a sense of “place” affixed to a set of geographic coordinates are more easily able to adapt, to move across the country in a heartbeat and start all over as needed to pursue new opportunities.
As the weekend wore on, I opened up more during meal times to fellowshipping with more of the festival goers and I learned that there are some other common strains of sentiment flowing through this crowd – an appreciation for manual labor and the trades, a general dislike of the federal government, and a real and visible compassionate love for those within the culture and for outsiders wanting to be a part of it. There is such a conviction among this culture that their way of life is best and that our country is THE best that it’s admittedly a bit off putting because that compassion and love is pulled back a bit if you’re not interested in being a part of their group and adopting their core outlook. This is not a group that’s ok with agreeing to disagree and letting everyone hold to their own truth while we all remain good friends. Not at all. Also, patriotism runs really deep here and it makes me a bit uncomfortable because it runs counter to my liberal college brainwashing: it’s always better to have an open mind, to embrace differences, to see that all of humanity is family and that nations are nothing more than artificial lines drawn in the sand to exclude others. I fit in as a Christian conservative this weekend and was welcomed with open arms, but when I think about many of my friends (liberal, gay, transsexual, socialist, hindu, foreigners who have no interest in embracing American values, etc) I can’t honestly say I can envision the welcome mat rolled out for them. So this dip into Appalachian mountain culture this weekend gave me a lot to contemplate.
Back to the music. Whereas the groups on Friday moved me with their voices and Christian sentiments, the best performers on Saturday brought me to my feet in awe and left me stunned by their instrument playing. Steep Canyon Rangers, in particular, boast a fiddle player who is classically trained and bluegrass oriented. His handwork on the fiddle left me (and most of the crowd) speechless. I’ve included the video below – take a look at his mastery of the fiddle.
Aside from the beautiful music, staying at Graves Mountain Lodge afforded me the chance to get to know a handful of new people, hike in the Virginia mountains, enjoy a leisurely swim, and chow down on some of the best southern food I’ve ever eaten – fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, fresh cherry pie, strawberry shortcake, marshmallow fluff salads, mashed potatoes with sawmill gravy, and more. It’s a great place to get away from it all and just relax.
I’ve already signed up for next year’s festival.