Virginia has square dancing as the state folk dance and milk as the state beverage. Now it may boast "Song of the Mountains" as the state television series. The senate passed a bill to add the bluegrass concert TV program to Virginia's official list of emblems and designations.
The measure, approved by the House of Delegates on Jan. 25, now heads to the governor's desk.
Del. Jeffrey Campbell, who introduced HB 1927, hails from Marion, where "Song of the Mountains" is taped. Nearly every month, country music artists and a live audience converge at the historic Lincoln Theater in Marion for bluegrass, old-time and Americana jams.
The concert series is taped live and distributed by PBS to more than 120 public television outlets across the country. The show is on its 13th season and has featured local, national and international guest performers.
The Appalachian Music Heritage Foundation, which owns the rights to "Song of the Mountains," called the series "a strong attraction for visitors from out of town, an economic engine for Historic Downtown Marion and a significant contributor to downtown Marion's renaissance – a phenomenon that is the envy of so many small towns throughout Virginia and beyond."
However, "Song of the Mountains" has faced financial problems in the past. The program was once owned by the Lincoln Theatre, and in 2015, the theater's board began a restructuring of the show in the face of funding troubles. Tim White, longtime host of "Song of the Mountains," was fired, leading to an outcry from fans and Marion business owners who expressed fears for the future of the program. Eventually, "Song of the Mountains" was acquired by the Appalachian Music Heritage Foundation, and White was reinstated as host.
"Song of the Mountains" draws tourists to Marion and the Lincoln Theatre every season, but bluegrass aficionados in Virginia say the music genre is not just limited to the southwest region of Virginia.
"You take people like the Seldom Scene, and they were from around Washington, D.C., and they were instrumental in bringing bluegrass a long way," said Mike Nicely, a bluegrass musician and board member of the Virginia Folk Music Association.
"There's bluegrass throughout Northern Virginia and D.C., and there's a lot of roots that come out of that area. I'm not saying it doesn't come out of Southern Virginia and it doesn't come out of the mountains, because it does, but it really comes from all over," Nicely said.
Virginia has two state songs – "Sweet Virginia Breeze" (the official "popular" song) and "Our Great Virginia" (the official "traditional" song). "Song of the Mountains" would be the only representation of bluegrass and country music on the state's list of "official emblems and designations."
It would join such symbols of Virginia as the northern cardinal (the state bird) and dogwood (tree) as well as the big-eared bat (Virginia's official bat), Nelsonite (the state rock) and performances of "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" in Big Stone Gap (the official outdoor drama).
For Nicely, the General Assembly's designation of "Song of the Mountains" as Virginia's official television series is part of an upward trend of bluegrass music's popularity, spurred by the genre's humble roots.
"A lot of bluegrass music is based on true stories that've happened to people over the last couple hundreds of years," Nicely said. "A lot of songs have been written about different things that have happened – tragedies and so on that people have written about. That's a lot of bluegrass, a lot of storytelling. It's just an interesting part of history of the nation.