Our Crooked Road explorations were gearing up as we prepared for our first weekend. (There are generally many events to choose from on weekends, so you have to plan carefully and be a bit selective.) We had read about a venue called Lay’s Hardware Center for the Arts in Coeburn, VA. It seemed like it might be a worthy spot to visit, so we headed to Coeburn, which is about 45 minutes from our campground. We were greeted at the door by a genie!
While Elaine went to find a seat, I struck up a conversation with Deb Wells, a volunteer at the Center for the Arts. Deb is a former English teacher in the local high school, and she gave me a brief background on the hardware store and the Center for the Arts. She remembers buying her schoolbooks here when she was a young girl.
When I went to join Elaine she informed me that the band that was setting up was not a bluegrass band. What? It turns out that on nearly all Fridays they have bluegrass, but tonight’s group was a country music band. I do not like country music. What a dilemma.
Then, the folks began to introduce themselves and welcome us. It seems that “outsiders” are quite a novelty here. They made a real fuss over us to make us feel welcome. Deb took us on a tour of the upstairs of the hardware store, which is where the arts and crafts lessons take place. She showed us remnants of the old hardware store, including the old safe, old samples of paint and roofing material, an old storage cabinet, and the old neon sign.
Just before the music began the MC introduced us as their visitors from New York, and they gave us a gift! They gave us a really fine print of a pencil drawing of some bluegrass musicians, the Lay’s Hardware sign, and the Crooked Road logo. It was touching! But it made our dilemma worse. Here we were, in store for an evening of music we don’t like, on a journey of 2000 miles that was supposed to bring us into contact with a lot of the music we love. And it was Friday night. There were other options. Could we leave? Not really. Not after they had made such an effort to embrace us. We spent an hour there while the band played and folks danced. Then we snuck out (me out the front; Elaine out the back) and headed out to find another venue. We felt a little like creeps, but what are you going to do?
The next challenge was to find our way to another location. The bass player at Heartwood last night had told Elaine about a jam in nearby Nickelsville that would be taking place tonight: Allen Hicks’ Jam. We located an address and asked Elaine’s phone for directions. The directions got us started down a stretch of road that was winding, hilly, and narrow. Soon we had no cell service. So here we were, in the wilderness, not sure of where we were going, and abandoned by our GPS. The road got narrower, steeper, darker, and much more twisty. There were hairpin turns that somehow seemed to spiral up and down the mountains. We did find our way into Nickelsville, thanks to an old-fashioned paper map that I had picked up earlier. But then when we headed out on the specific road identified as the address for this jam, the road, unbelievably, became even worse than anything we had yet been on. By now it was dark, we were miles outside of town, and the road was getting worse with every curve. I decided to give up, cut our losses, and head back to town.
In town, the hot spot was evidently Tommy’s Restaurant, the local ice cream shop. Lots of people were there, and the place was doing a lively business. I went in and asked Tommy if he could tell me how to find Allen Hicks’ Jam. Of course, he knew, and he showed me on a very good and detailed map, a simple way to get there. Well, now we were back on the road, this time with confidence. It’s a good thing I had seen it on a map, because once again we were into the narrow, tight curves, the steep mountain grades, and the utter darkness of these back-country roads. At just the location Tommy had indicated, we rounded a curve, and there was Allen Hicks’ Jam. In the middle of the dark nowhere of these hollows, there was Allen’s barn, all lit up with dozens of cars and lots of people enjoying a bluegrass band.
In the band we recognized the bass player and the banjo player from the night before. When they saw us, they recognized us too, and they welcomed us as the “New York visitors.” Again – the hospitality here is amazing. The music was great, and I was so glad we had persevered to find this place.
When the music ended, I asked about Allen Hicks. Someone pointed him out, and I went to introduce myself. Allen has been making mandolins for several years, and he wanted to show them to me. Here he is with one of the mandos:
Allen is a lovely man, and a real gentleman. He is a wonderful example of the very sort of person we came to meet. He has been hosting jams at his place, as well as encouraging young musicians for decades. He showed us a number of pictures and told us stories of various musicians he has helped over the years. Meeting Allen and enjoying the music at his place really brought a sense of redemption to the evening.
Then, we had another 40-minute drive through the dark, steep, winding back roads to get back to our campground. Crooked road trip, indeed.