Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series of stories called “Find Your Park,” where we will highlight local, state and federal parks within this region of North Carolina and nearby Virginia communities.
Relative to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the National Park Service, the Blue Ridge Music Center is a newcomer in history. The outdoor amphitheater may have opened less than 15 years ago, but what it showcases — the music and musicians of the Blue Ridge Mountains — reaches back for several generations.
And while the traditional summer music season has past, the center remains open with daily activities through the end of October.
This hub for bluegrass, old-time, Americana, folk and country blues was envisioned by the late Joe Wilson, a passionate supporter of traditional music, and Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Gary Everhardt in 1977.
After years of development, including a gift of land from the city of Galax, Virginia, a crucial grant from the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, and key support from regional congressional delegations in North Carolina and Virginia, the outdoor amphitheater opened for concerts during the summer of 2002. The Visitor Center, exhibition space and intimate indoor theater followed in 2005.
Today, visitors can delve into the rich cultural legacy rooted in Southwest Virginia and Northwest North Carolina with daily music presentations, weekend concerts, open jams, and the award-winning and interactive Roots of American Music exhibit.
From May through the end of October, visitors are likely to be welcomed by the sounds of the fiddle, banjo and guitar during the Midday Mountain Music sessions at the Blue Ridge Music Center. These informal acoustic presentations of regional traditional music take place every day from noon to 4 p.m. on the breezeway of the Visitors Center. In 2014, the musicians were honored with the National Park Service Volunteers of the Year Award by the Blue Ridge Parkway and Superintendent Mark Woods. On Friday and Sunday, visitors are invited to join in the picking, plucking and strumming with open bluegrass and old-time jams.
Each weekend, regional and national acts take the stage at the outdoor amphitheater, which is set against the backdrop of beautiful Fisher Peak. Whether enjoying the music on the tiered lawn or dancing in traditional styles in front of the stage, the crowds come for an authentic mountain experience. Past performers have included Doc Watson and David Holt, Roseanne Cash, Steep Canyon Rangers, Bryan Sutton, Rhiannon Giddens and The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, Wayne Henderson and many more. The concerts also highlight regional favorites, including the Mountain Park Old Time Band, New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters, and the Whitetop Mountain Band.
Connecting the dots for concertgoers since opening in 2011, the Roots of American Music exhibit tells the compelling story of the region’s musical heritage and serves as an insightful complement to the Midday Mountain Music presentations and Summer Concert Series. Visitors can enjoy music while learning about the development and national significance of this intriguing part of Blue Ridge Mountain culture.
The exhibit is a hands-on experience allowing people to mix and match song lyrics, create mountain music, and hear personal stories of how music has influenced generations of Blue Ridge families.
The displays outline the evolution of the five-string banjo since its arrival in America with enslaved Africans. Travelers also can learn about the relatively few changes made in the fiddle, brought with Europeans who migrated to the mountains.
The blending of these two instruments was the beginning of virtually all forms of American music and was the ensemble that came to the Appalachian frontier.
There are also oral history programs of those who collected the music of the mountains in the past. How the recording industry and radio popularized and changed mountain music is also part of the story.
A hike along two trails from the Visitor Center reveals the inspiring beauty of this spot at milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Fisher Peak Loop Trail is a moderate 2.25-mile hike and the High Meadow Trail is an easy, family-friendly 1.35-mile jaunt (one way) in and along the edge of the woods. High Meadow is also a Kids in Parks TRACK Trail which features brochures with fun educational activities that lead children and families on an adventure.
It’s easy to spend an entire day at the Music Center soaking in a fascinating facet of mountain heritage. Here, the sounds of the Blue Ridge Mountain become intertwined with a way of life that’s hard to resist.
Since 2013, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has managed and funded the concert programming at the Blue Ridge Music Center in keeping with the nonprofit’s mission to ensure cultural and historical preservation, along with natural resource protection, educational outreach, and visitor enjoyment now and for future generations. People may obtain more information on how to help support the Blue Ridge Music Center by visiting www.brpfoundation.org.