You don’t have to be near the ocean to enjoy beach music, and you don’t have to go to Vienna to hear a good waltz, but there is something special about experiencing music where it was born. It is, Jack Hinshelwood says, “the difference between having someone describe ice cream to you and eating it.
“There’s something more there to latch on to. There’s an opportunity to understand how places shape people and shape their culture and shape their music … It’s an opportunity to become immersed.”
Hinshelwood is executive director of the Crooked Road, an organization that connects 19 counties, four cities, and more than 70 venues and festivals in Southwest Virginia dedicated to traditional Appalachian music. Something happens along the Crooked Road every day, but the annual Mountains of Music Homecoming is the big hootenanny, a nine-day celebration of the region’s music and culture held at theaters, music centers, and public fields—from Ferrum to Breaks Interstate Park.
One of the most exciting events this season will be the Galax Best All Around Performers Concert, featuring musicians who were named top artists at the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention—one of the biggest fiddlers’ conventions in Appalachia, first held in 1936.
Among those performing this year are Jake Krack from Nicut, West Virginia, and Eddie Bond from Galax, who has won the honor twice. National Heritage Fellow Wayne Henderson, from the tiny mountain community of Rugby, is another.
The theme for this year’s Homecoming is Songs in the Key of Blue. That’s meant to evoke the Blue Ridge and bluegrass, but it’s also a nod to the blues and to African-Americans’ influence on the region; each year, the Homecoming features artists from a musical tradition that has had an impact on Appalachian music. For 2018, that’s Beltonia, Mississippi, bluesman Jimmy Duck Holmes along with National Heritage Fellow and blues harmonica master Phil Wiggins and his Piedmont blues-playing House Party.
Read about them in the Mountains of Music Homecoming Guide—80 pages of schedules, photos and information about everything from how to get there to stories about the region’s cultural traditions. Award-winning poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni, who has two historical markers dedicated to her, wrote a poem for this year’s guide, which also features essays about black Americans’ influence on mountain cuisine, music and culture.
Some big deal bluegrass names will be at the festival, too, including Del McCoury, Sammy Shelor, Doyle Lawson and others.
Fittingly, cover art on the guide,designed by Chilhowie native William Fields Way, includes a sign over the doorway to a barroom with a biblical invitation to those who labor. “Come unto me,” the verses begin, “and I will give you rest.” It is a homecoming, after all—even if you’ve never been there before. MtnsOfMusic.com
Artists to Watch
Erin and the Wildfire
Fiery Charlottesville group ignites stages at LOCKN' and FloydFest.
Is there humor in today’s music? Thank goodness for Erin and the Wildfire, an energetic, smile-inducing Charlottesville band that formed when a group of University of Virginia grads—guitarist Ryan Lipps, vocalist Erin Lunsford, drummer Nick Quillen and bassist Matt Wood—got together to play rustic country music. Horns, as they always do, changed things. When they were added to the Wildfire, the group’s sound turned seriously slinky and funky, which matched well with Lunsford’s chameleonic vocal sass.
What we have now is a genuine party band, one that isn’t afraid to play with the form a little bit, like their tune, “Every Single Song On My CD Is Gonna Be a Hit, Pt. I,” which explains the rules behind R.I.A.A (Record Industry Association of America certification, which tracks the sales of published music). Or their ace dance rave up “Hot Slice,” about loving pizza just a little too much. Lunsford and the boys have a way with a sad one too, like the slow-burning soul ballad “Meant For Me.”
Returning this year to LOCKN’ Festival in Arrington and FloydFest in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the group has a new release, Thirst, recorded at Richmond’s Montrose Studios, that offers a warm afterglow of the Wildfire sound. But the hard-touring festival band really ignites on stage. ErinAndTheWildfire.com
Since the 1990s, when he was a Steve Earle-protégée in the Knoxville-based band the V-Roys, and later with his own band the Commonwealth, singer Scott Miller has been a consistently solid voice in Americana music. Miller’s semi-retirement from music to help run his Shenandoah family farm was documented in a short film released in 2015, but he still records—his latest album, Ladies’ Auxiliary, features work with an all-female band. Ahead of his upcoming (and very few summer concerts), Miller wants you to buy a T-shirt that reads, “Why ain’t Scott Miller here?” If you get your photo taken in your shirt at a festival Miller wishes he was playing—he’ll tell you which ones on his Facebook page— he’ll refund your money. But there’s one place you won’t need your new shirt—Miller will be onstage July 13 at the Red Wing Roots Festival in Mt. Solon. ScottMiller.Vectorstaging.com
Being the best psychedelic surf-rock exotica band in Roanoke is easy when you’re the only psychedelic surf-rock exotica band in Roanoke. Los Chupacabras is a hot, young Southwest Virginia ensemble currently taking over area clubs like the Spot on Kirk and the Phoenix, steeped not in bluegrass, country or hard rock—valley staples—but in the faux Latin American and Polynesian traditions of Martin Denny and Les Baxter, with side excursions into the go-go lounge surf rock of Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, and the spaghetti western atmospherics of Ennio Morricone.
How the crowd at this year’s FloydFest (July 25-29 in Floyd) will react to a sudden invasion of kitschy world music is anybody’s guess. But if this tongue-in-cheek unit’s intoxicatingly sleazy version of the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” doesn’t send the masses on a stampede for umbrella drinks at a tiki bar, maybe we’re just not ready for an exotica invasion. The seven-piece band, equipped with mood-enhancing horns and bongos, recently returned from a tour of Mexico, so Los Chupacabras may soon be known as the best psychedelic surf-rock mariachi exotica band in Roanoke. Somewhere, Esquivel is smiling. LosChupacabrasMusic.com
Cora Harvey Armstrong
The powerhouse singer takes the Gospel to the Richmond Folk Festival this October—and then some.
Gospel singer and composer Cora Harvey Armstrong used to be wary of performing for secular crowds. “I don’t feel that way now,” says the 62-year-old King & Queen County native. “Now I really like the fact that I’m performing for people who want to be entertained. Because once they get there, they can’t help but feel something.”
Armstrong was a powerhouse presence on the Virginia Folklife Stage at the Richmond Folk Festival last year, singing and playing keyboards with her band—which is a family affair that includes the voices of her sisters and nieces. For this year’s festival in October, she returns as a featured headliner, performing spirituals as well as original songs like “Joy in Paradise” and “Greater is He” multiple times on various stages throughout the three-day event.
Music and religion have been integral to Armstrong’s life since she was a young girl, taking music lessons at the age of five and playing the piano for First Mount Olive Baptist Church when she was 12. She began writing her own songs when she led the gospel choir at Virginia State University. “People tell me that there’s all kinds of ways to write songs but the lyrics come to me first. After I write the poem, the melodies come.”
Her powerful and expressive voice and easy on-stage presence could translate easily to soul music. “I wanted to be the next Aretha Franklin. I wanted to sit at the piano and sing rhythm and blues music. As I got older, and things changed, I really lived a salacious lifestyle. I still played music in the church, but I went through real low points.” Armstrong hit rock bottom in 1999 when her father died.
“That changed everything for me,” she says. “I mean, I had heard about Jesus, and I was singing about him all the time, but I realized that I had no real relationship with him.”
For the past two decades, Armstrong’s mission has been clear. “I’m supposed to show up and show people the love of God through the music he has given me,” she says. That includes performing on stages in Italy and Japan, and giving a myriad of church concerts across the country. Last year, she sang for inmates at the Richmond City Justice Center, part of the Folk Festival’s community outreach. As for performing before thousands at one of the most popular folk festivals in the country, Armstrong is undaunted—she’s seen bigger challenges. “When you’re in the ministry, you come to realize that you are not for everybody. You are for somebody ... somebody that’s there listening to you.”
Cora Harvey Armstrong performs on various stages at the Richmond Folk Festival, Oct. 12-14. Admission is free. RichmondFolkFestival.org
Front Row Vibes
It isn't just a quick escape from reality: it's a commitment.
It was the last of the Saturday night sessions at the Richmond Folk Festival in 2015, on a cool and rainy night. The crowds had faded, and I figured I might as well hear the beginning of the Ensemble Shanbehzadeh, an Iranian father-son act, as it turned out. I had no idea what to expect.
The next thing I knew, I was being swept away, as Saeid Shanbehzadeh spun around the stage like a genie, singing and wailing on his high-pitched double-reed goatskin bagpipe, while his 22-year-old son, Naghib, kept apace, hands a blur on goblet drums. The crowd rose to its feet writhing to the desert sounds, and the party—a spontaneous act of common humanity—had begun.
Music festivals can do that. They connect their audiences and performers in unanticipated ways, sometimes deep and sometimes charmingly ephemeral, like that time at New Orleans Jazz Fest, when, following a set by the indie folk-rockers The Head and the Heart, we ran into the band’s Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell in the porta potty line. They mugged for photos with my daughter and her friend—a treasured moment.
Whereas music concerts are more like sprints—intense, and over in a blaze of glory—festivals are marathons, or at least 10Ks, with multiple stages, space to explore and discover, and plenty of time to meet up with others and bond over the music, local or international fare, and craft ales. Open up to their mojo, and you just might find yourself locked with performers and audience in a fit of wild abandon.
A good music festival is far more than just a slew of simultaneous concerts strung together over days. It’s a carefully curated and orchestrated celebration of a genre or theme, one that gains energy from a rich overlapping of performances and the sustained presence of artists who may at any moment unite in ad hoc jam sessions on stage or otherwise.
For festival goers, it’s a state of mind, a chance to discover new performers and sounds, and to participate—whether that means piling onto the dance floor for a soul set or swaying side to side in a crowd of thousands, or simply being swept away by the emotive power of a transcendent voice.
It isn’t just a quick escape from reality: It’s a commitment. And naturally, the more you put into it, the more you reap from it. Before Firefly (125 bands playing over four days) I listened to recordings of every one and ranked them according to how much I wanted to see them. But no need to always stick to a plan, because festivals are full of unexpected joys. I almost always head home with a new obsession, like the Quebe Sisters (a trio of champion Texas swing fiddlers) or BRONCHO (a weird noise pop band).
And, I mean, who knew that Paul McCartney—at age 70+—could still rock like that, or that John Fogerty would join Springsteen for a rousing version of “Proud Mary”?
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Be sure you like the band you are paying to see. There is nothing worse than going to a show and realizing that the majority of the music being played isn’t really your thing. Browse the line-up, listen to some tunes and choose wisely.
DON'T BE THE GUY WITH
One of the most disappointing experiences of a live show is not being able to see it. People love to wave flags during their favorite songs, but please don't do it in front of the rest of us.
LIMIT TIME IN THE MERCH TENTS
Albums and t-shirts are typically priced higher on-site. Take note of the prices, then check out the same merch online after you get home; it will save you a few dollars.
Bring your essentials—basic toiletries, flashlight, a few changes of clothes—only. This is a music festival, not an evening gala with diplomats and politicians.
DON'T BRING A POCKETKNIFE
Far too many people have to toss
their vintage jackknives just before
entering a venue.
Plus, you’ll feel
like you’ve done something horribly
wrong as security
gives you a thorough