Ribs with Sauce on the Side

On Morning morning we make the drive across the county and into Virginia to the start of The Crooked Road, a musical trail of old-time and bluegrass music that stretches across the southwest part of this state. As we cross the state line and down the eastern slopes of the Appalachians we descend into the first farmland we’ve seen on our trip. Corn stalks sprout from the well tended fields and cattle graze the tough, horny grass. We decided to head for Floyd, a small town at the heart of much of the music scene but, knowing that it’s Monday, aren’t expecting much in the way of live entertainment. Still it will be good to just hand out for a day or two before our trip north.

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As we expect, much of Floyd is closed and the major music events have finished at the weekend. Still, it’s a fine small town. The stores open onto the street under wooden porches and awnings and seats are laid out to sit down and take a break from the sweltering sun – ‘loitering allowed’. We pop into a shop across the road from The Floyd Country Store and grab a coffee upstairs in a neat little coffee shop. After a bit of rooting around on the internet we discover a jam taking place in neighbouring Radford. We make a move for there after checking into our accommodation, deciding to eat in Radford as the jam is being held in a Bar and Grill.

When we arrive at 6ish, the place is hopping. Musicians line the wall and window fronting a large room full of patrons seated at simple tables and chairs laid out with the best of food. A double bass player is propped up in the very corner, with three guitar players, a banjo player, two mandolin players and two fiddlers in accompaniment.

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The bass thumps through and provides a deep grounding pulse to the electric music being played. This session seems to be a mix of old-time and bluegrass. We recognize many of the songs. All the men join in on the choruses and the harmonies seem relaxed but wonderfully detailed at the same time. At appropriate times each player takes an instrumental break on the bridges, sometimes being nominated with a nod, or a call of, “Fiddles on the B part”. It’s all stunning stuff and amazing to think that these breaks are for the most part spontaneous. The guitar players obviously have a love of G, C, F and D shapes as they capo on the second fret when tunes fall in A. You can see the G and C shapes facilitate a lot of runs. These guys are ‘cooking on gas’ as we put it. They sound fantastic and are obviously playing for a regular and enthusiastic audience.

We order - battered shrimp in hot sauce, shrimp and mussel creole, a side or ribs in BBQ sauce, grits, ‘slaw’ and a couple of Bud Lights– and settle in to listen for the night. The two older ladies we’re seated beside have other ideas however. When they find out that we’re from Ireland and play, they have a word with the musicians. These girls obviously have pull (we find out later that their son is one of the mainstays of the session) because we’re immediately invited in to play – I’m pretty sure we would have been asked in anyhow, so welcoming are the musicians. We hold off until we’ve eaten and enjoy the company of our new elder friends. Their accents are noticeably stronger than the younger people we’ve met. They absolutely love the music and it’s great to see the mix of old and young listening so intently to local musicians. A young boy gets caught up in the rhythm and gets up for a dance, “We’ve got him hooked, we’ve got him”, says an older man.

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We finish eating and join in the circle. The girls open with ‘The Flower of Magherally O’ and everyone listens carefully. We’re nervous but glad to have such interest shown in our music. Everyone claps appreciatively when we finish and we feel at home. The jam starts up again and I try a few licks with the boys. One lets me play his 1940s Gibson – a real treat. The chords are relatively easy, but the changes are quick and smooth, punctuated by fluid licks. All these guys have a loose wrist and it allows for some fancy footwork on the fretboard. I’m struggling to keep up! Another guitar player and singer arrives late, but stamps his impression on the music with a heartfelt ballad. We play a few more and everyone joins in. It feels great to have our music underpinned with the addictive rhythm section of these guys. Catherine treats the musicians to a bit of Irish dancing and we finish on ‘The Parting Glass’ to say thanks to everyone for having us. Young girls in the bar come up to Catherine and Mary and stare as they sing. You’ve got to wonder what’s running through their minds, listening to us in our strange accents with our strange music. We hope they like it. We say our goodbye’s but are held back for an impromptu session out on the footpath with some of the guys who obviously want to work a few more tunes out of their system. This is great fun. After a few more songs we have to go. Its been a wonderful, unexpected night; good food, even better music and wonderful company. Thanks y’all. We hope to be back soon.

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