The nickname “The Bluegrass State” may already be taken, but no thorough exploration of the genre’s sights and sounds would be complete without devoting a generous amount of time to exploring the rich tradition of bluegrass in Virginia.
More than 70 years after the Stanley Brothers formed, bluegrass is still thriving in Virginia, and all over the state you’ll find venues, landmarks, and museums that tell the story of how this particular form of mountain music began and evolved. With so much to see and do, there’s no single path through the genre’s history, but here are a few stops worth factoring in as you plan your journey into the past and present of bluegrass in the Old Dominion.
The Lincoln Theatre—Marion
The Lincoln Theatre is a destination unto itself; one step inside the stunning space — with its colorful murals and red and gold glow — and you’re bound to realize you’re in one of the most gorgeous venues in the state. Not only is it on the National Register of Historic Places, the Marion, Virginia theater is also notable for playing host to Song of the Mountains, a PBS-syndicated TV series that’s carried on more than 150 stations across the United States. More than 10 seasons in, Song of the Mountains features some of the finest bluegrass you’ll find anywhere. Past performers have included the Seldom Scene, Ralph Stanley, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Grass Cats, and country legends like Doc Watson have also graced the Lincoln Theatre stage. It’s a beloved bluegrass tradition that’s well worth tuning in for — or even better, seeing firsthand. It’s part of the Crooked Road music heritage trail, a network of Southwest Virginia musical landmarks that offer bluegrass enthusiasts countless opportunities for listening and learning.
Listen on the way: Steep Canyon Rangers — Rare Bird Alert
Blue Ridge Music Center—Galax
So much of the shape and personality of the sound of bluegrass comes from the banjo, and some of its most prominent founding fathers made their name by innovating how the instrument is played, Dr. Stanley included. But the banjo’s story starts long before the Blue Grass Boys kickstarted the genre. Evolutionary versions of the instrument trace a path from West Africa and the Caribbean to America during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Blue Ridge Music Center has a collection of instruments showing just what that evolution looks like, including a reproduction of a fretless gourd banjo that would have been made in coastal Georgia or South Carolina in the late 18th century. Their Roots of American Music exhibit is packed with fascinating ephemera like this — guitars, dulcimers, fiddles, photos, and records — but the Center isn’t just a museum; it also plays host to regular jam sessions and concerts featuring bluegrass, among other genres.
Listen on the way: Punch Brothers — The Phosphorescent Blues
Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center—Clintwood
Any discussion of Virginia’s relationship with bluegrass has to include Ralph Stanley. He’s one of the genre’s giants, having pioneered his own playing style — continuous rolls, picking close to the bridge, tight and quick — on top of helping to popularize bluegrass via his work with the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. He earned an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University and he was inducted into both the International Music Hall of Honor and the Grand Ole Opry. In Clintwood, Virginia, just a short drive from Stanley’s birthplace of McLure, you’ll find the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, which seeks to preserve the banjo player’s legacy and promote traditional Appalachian music via workshops, seminars, and conventions. Stop by Monday through Friday to explore the life and sounds of one of Virginia’s true musical legends. (You might also consider a side trip to nearby Coeburn, the community in which the long-running bluegrass brother duo Jim & Jesse McReynolds formed.)
Listen on the way: Stanley Brothers And The Clinch Mountain Boys – S/T
Ralph Stanley Festival—McClure
Stanley fans can knock two items off their bluegrass bucket lists by making a pilgrimage to the Ralph Stanley Festival. Not only is it the event that Stanley personally curated for years, it’s also held in McClure, Virginia, Stanley’s birthplace. Stanley passed away in 2016, 50 years after his brother Carter (the other half of the Stanley Brothers). Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley II, now manages the festival. You’ll find him on the bill with the Clinch Mountain Boys alongside legends like Jim Lauderdale and Patty Loveless. The festival is typically held on Memorial Day weekend, and first-come, first-serve camping spots are available to those who want to bring the family for the full three days. Haven’t made it to the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center yet? Great news — a trolley runs from the festival site to the museum! Make that three items to cross off your bluegrass bucket list…
Listen on the way: Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II — Side by Side
Little Grill Collective—Harrisonburg
Old Crow Medicine Show and the Hackensaw Boys have quite a bit in common. Both have built large, faithful followings along similar timelines, and both incorporate bluegrass forms and instrumentation without being entirely defined by them, despite the fact that you’ll find their names on bluegrass festival lineups and award nomination lists. And both groups have roots in central Virginia, specifically at a single restaurant in Harrisonburg called the Little Grill Collective. The worker-owned restaurant doubles as a music venue and it served as an incubator for early versions of the bands. A visit to the Little Grill now means walking in the footsteps of some of Virginia’s most successful musicians and attending a show may mean seeing future stars in the making.
Listen on the way: Old Crow Medicine Show — O.C.M.S.
Wayne Henderson Festival—Mouth of Wilson
It’s rare, but sometimes it’s clear in the present that history is being made — that you’re witnessing something future generations will look back on as special. Wayne Henderson is a Virginia-based luthier who makes some of the finest acoustic instruments in the world, including guitars commissioned by the likes of Gillian Welch, Tommy Emmanuel, and even Eric Clapton. The production of Clapton’s instrument was chronicled in a book by Allen St. John called Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, which also discussed in detail how long you’ll have to wait if you want your own Henderson Guitar. There’s one shortcut, however: Just win the competitive side of the annual Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival & Guitar Competition! Only fast and flawless flatpickers need apply; the prestigious prize makes winning easier said than done, to put things mildly. (Be sure not to miss Henderson performing — he’s a world class player himself.)
Listen on the way: Wayne Henderson — Made & Played
We’re in the midst of a golden age for bluegrass — a time in which innovators like Chris Thile and his Punch Brothers compatriots are pushing at the genre’s limitations, incorporating classical music and zooming past previous generations’ benchmarks for musicianship. Bluegrass fans who grew up in the 1970’s might be experiencing a degree of déjà vu, since that decade likewise saw a dramatic expansion of what could be created with traditional bluegrass instruments. One of the region’s leading voices during that time was The Seldom Scene, a group with roots in Maryland that conducted a 20-year residency at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. That run of regular Thursday shows helped establish the venue as a prime spot for picking, and audiences to this day flock to The Birchmere for the best bluegrass Northern Virginia has to offer.
Listen on the way: The Seldom Scene — Act I
Birthplace of Country Music Museum—Bristol
A discussion of what is and isn’t bluegrass can devolve quickly into a matter of semantics. That’s because bluegrass, old time, country, folk, and gospel are woven so close to one another in the greater tapestry of American music, and there’s no better place to untangle those threads and get to know the genres’ common ancestry than the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia. The museum opened in 2014, and it’s a stunning facility, full of interactive exhibits, instruments, information and immersive experiences, many focusing on the landmark 1927 “Bristol Sessions,” country music’s “Big Bang” moment. But bluegrass fans have plenty to sink their teeth into, including a beautiful Gibson mandolin played and signed by Bill Monroe himself.
Listen on the way: Various — Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited
Your Local Record Store
The commonwealth has a long and proud tradition of record labels focusing on bluegrass, including Outlet Records (Rocky Mount) and Rebel Records (Charlottesville), both of which were active during the genre’s boom time of the 1970’s. In 1979, when the owner of Rebel was looking to sell the label, he found a willing buyer in Dave Freeman, the owner of County Records, whose web store County Sales bills itself as the world’s largest selection of bluegrass and old time music. Whether you shop there or stop by your local record store, be sure to look for which label released the albums in the bluegrass section. You may find an unheralded gem, like Clipping the Grass, an excellent collection of songs recorded by the Bluegrass Clippers and released by Outlet Records in 1983.
Listen on the way: The Bluegrass Clippers — Clippin’ the Grass