Road Trips

Bluegrass and the Blue Ridge: A Mountain Music Road Trip

Hear the mountain music that has defined this stretch of America’s roadways. (Photo: Alamy)

Bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music pair beautifully with a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip — after all, the genres grew out of the area.

The English, Irish and Germans brought their fiddles when they settled on the west side of North Carolina and southwest Virginia. The area’s other key instrument, the banjo, got its start on the area’s plantations, where enslaved Africans tried to keep some of their own traditions alive.

Over time the traditional tunes and instruments of those countries melded to build something new and of the mountains. Bluegrass music is woven into the very fabric of the region’s culture, and some of the finest musicians and luthiers — the artisans who make the instruments — live in the area.

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches 469 miles between Virginia and North Carolina, and no matter which direction you drive or which section of the road you ramble, your bluegrass playlist will build and come alive through the people you meet, the songs you hear in any number of music venues, and the tunes that shake up your ears as you listen to some of the good local radio stations along the way.

Though there’s a near endless supply of delights if you road trip the whole route — and pop around other nearby roads and towns in the Southern Appalachian region — there’s no shame in hitting just one part of the Blue Ridge. After all, you’re going to want to return time and again. For your first time wandering the area, there’s no better way to go than on one of the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina.

Ready to go? How could you not be?

blue ridge parkway road trip
Even outdoor art leaves visitors with the urge to kick up their heels in Asheville, NC. (Photo: Alamy)

Start: Brasstown, North Carolina

Dedication to retaining the old ways of music-making lies at the heart of the classes and events at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Most Friday nights feature a concert of old-time, bluegrass or other traditional music.

The school brings some of the country’s best musicians to its outdoor stage, and they’ll teach you what to listen for with every note.

Bookmark the school for future trips to the region. They offer weeklong and weekend classes that’ll get you playing the local tunes or, even better, building your own instrument.

Stop 1: Franklin, North Carolina

Distance from Brasstown: 40.9 miles

Your next big night of music is also an outdoor event: Pickin’ on the Square runs every Saturday night in downtown Franklin. They do throw a bit of country and other genres in with their bluegrass. To guarantee a bluegrass or old-time evening, schedule your trip around the event calendar.

Stop 2: Asheville, North Carolina

Distance from Franklin: 68.2 miles

Get to town early on a Sunday. There’s no better kickoff to a bluegrass-themed trip than with the Bluegrass Brunch at the One Stop at Asheville Music Hall. Hosted by musician Aaron Woody Wood — son of Al Wood, a legend in the bluegrass world — the brunch will set the tune for the trip to come.

Next? More music, of course. (Or perhaps a nap after that big-old brunch.) Check out who’s playing at Isis Music Hall, once a movie theater, or for an anything-can-happen kind of night, Jack of the Wood, a bar and music venue.

Asheville hosts several bluegrass and old-time music festivals throughout the summer, and it’s seriously worth timing your visit to one of the events. Want to try your hand at making some music? Consider the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College. The Gathering’s weeklong music workshops provide a perfect starting point for your own life in bluegrass.

Stop 3: Nebo, North Carolina

Distance from Asheville: 42.3 miles

It’s hard to beat a day at a winery. But Nebo’s South Creek Vineyards & Winery manages to up the ante. The vineyard, which produces Bordeaux-style wines, runs a Vineyard Deck music series. Though the music isn’t always purely “out of Appalachia,” it’s usually steeped in the area’s wider musical roots. Go. Sip. Listen. And smile, smile, smile.

Stop 4: Marion, North Carolina

Distance from Nebo: 5.4 miles

Prefer playing music to listening to it? Events like Marion Mountain Music will keep you busy. The every-Thursday happening doesn’t book any performers. Instead, anyone who shows up toting an instrument is invited to play.

Just remember: There are serious musicians here. So unless you’ve got some serious old-time or bluegrass chops, listening may be the way to go. Read up on Jam Session Etiquette for more info on the all-in music scene.

But don’t get so busy that you forget to eat; check out Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant, which sits on three county lines.

blue ridge parkway road trip
Pick up a handmade instrument at Barr’s. (Photo: Alamy)

End: Galax, Virginia

Distance from Marion: 139 miles

Welcome to “Mountain Music Central” — and the perfect place to wrap up your trip. Galax puts on several bluegrass and mountain music festivals every year, including the Old Fiddlers’ Convention in August and the Galax Rex Fest in September, as well as a near endless stream of bluegrass shows.

But what’s a musician without her instrument? Visit Barr’s Fiddle Shop to see Tom Barr’s handmade instruments. And there’s a better than excellent chance that a bunch of guys will be hanging out front making some music of their own. Galax takes its music very seriously.

Try to time your visit to hit Galax on a Friday night so you can watch performers kick up a storm during WBRF’s Blue Ridge Back Roads, a weekly bluegrass and old-time radio show that goes out live from the Rex Theater. At just $5 a ticket, it’s a bargain to end all bargains. (Do not show up late. With just 475 seats sold the day of, it’s a hot ticket — and it sells out every week.)

The next day? More music, of course. The Blue Ridge Music Center offers live shows every day from noon to 4 p.m. and a fine museum that will answer any bluegrass questions still sticking in your craw. Then head down one of the Music Center’s hiking trails, where you’ll get one last great look at the land that inspired the music.