A! Magazine for the Arts

Photo of the Braswells by Debra McCown.

Photo of the Braswells by Debra McCown.

Capo's Music Store Opens

February 8, 2010

ABINGDON, Va. - Growing up in Southwest Virginia's coalfields, Amy Braswell never liked hearing trash talk about Appalachia.

"It really, really bothers me," she said of the region's negative stereotypes. "The idea kind of implanted in my mind of what can I do as an individual to try to break those stereotypes."

When she says Appalachia, she's not referring to a tiny town with a legendary football team. She means a whole region, defined by its mountains, its music and its culture.

And when she says stereotypes, the Cleveland, Va., native means the questions people from outside the region often ask: "Do you have indoor bathrooms? Do you wear shoes?"

Ironically enough, she said, the very thing that once made this region the butt of jokes -its rural, traditional mountain culture - recently has become its biggest tourism draw.

So Braswell hopes the store she opened here with her husband three weeks before Christmas - Capo's Music Store - becomes a stop for visitors interested in the region's culture as well as an answer for natives searching for books and music reflecting the place they call home.

"Being from here, I wanted to have a place in Abingdon where you could get music and books and information and just sort of a little taste of Appalachia," she said. "It was kind of a marriage of our two visions."

Her husband's share of the vision is on the music side: Gill Braswell wanted a place where people long steeped in mountain music could feel comfortable to play, even as newcomers to bluegrass sought advice on where to start.

Capo's is named for a well-loved dog, said Gill Braswell, a one-time Barter Theatre musician who works as an Upward Bound instructor and church worship leader. But a capo also is a device that allows the player of a stringed instrument to change keys without re-tuning.

Simply put, Gill Braswell said, the capo makes playing traditional music more accessible to novice musicians - and that's what he hopes to do with the music store.

"When my parents and I went searching for my first guitar [years ago], we knew nothing about what we were looking for," he said. His focus is not on just selling instruments but on helping people immerse themselves in the music he loves.

The store, which features guitars, banjos and mandolins made in North America, also sells dulcimers and psaltries made in the nearby community of Whitetop, among other Appalachian instruments that range in price from $40 to $4,000.

The store has an art room, a music heritage room, an education room and a reading lounge full of books written about the region and by Appalachian authors.
Amy Braswell said she tries to keep it "as local as possible."

After quitting her job as a community service program director at Emory & Henry College to run the business full time, she said it's worth the risk: The region's culturally based tourism economy is on the rise, she said, and she won't be surprised if similar businesses begin to pop up around Southwest Virginia.

"It's a tough decision in this economy," she said, "but sometimes you have to step out on faith, that if you believe in what you're doing ... everything's going to be OK."

She said the economic recession hasn't hit people as hard in Southwest Virginia as in some places, partly because in a coal-dependent region they're used to living in cycles of boom and bust. When times go bad, historically, they fall back on what they know: their culture.

What's changed, she said, is that people outside the region have begun to wake up to the rich cultural storehouse that's been maintained here and, all of a sudden, that culture is marketable in its own right.

"It's not just coal here," she said, "and it's not just tobacco."

With the end of tobacco subsidies that once lent an element of stability to the region, money has been made available to find alternative economic drivers - including the development of heritage-based tourism.

For would-be entrepreneurs, she said, that's the sound of opportunity knocking - an opportunity that's actually had a boost from the nation's recent economic downturn.

"With the [down] shift in the economy ... people have more appreciation for the good old days, for being able to create something on your own and hoping that will carry you through," she said. "People are looking at it more as a career and something they can do with their lives."

Gill Braswell said the nation already has taken a cultural turn toward its roots. With regard to musicand Appalachiathe critical point was in 2000, with the release of the film "O Brother Where Art Thou," which, he said, sparked a resurgence of roots music.

In the years that followed, a broad spectrum of cultural venues began to coalesce in Southwest Virginia once the people who live in and around the birthplace of country music realized their back-porch tunes had again gone national.

"We haven't seen this in the United States in a long time, and it is a very special thing," Gill Braswell said. "A lot of people in New York City would love to have the Carter Fold right down the road."

The new chord struck in the national psyche by mountain music also helped with the stereotypes, he said, a generation after another film set in the rural South, titled "Deliverance," encouraged suspicion of all things rural. "Deliverance" was a 1972 drama about the inbred terror that can befall those who wander too far intothe mountains, with an infamous tune that married banjos and backwardness in the minds of a generation.

Reversing that image, the film "O Brother Where Art Thou" puts a comical Depression-era twist on the ancient Greek story of Ulysses, and features various forms of Appalachian music as it follows a trio of escaped convicts who are ultimately redeemed by their old-timey songs. The film might prove a redemption of sorts for the places where those songs were born.

For the Braswells, a 1928 house-turned-music store along The Crooked Road is a part of bringing that cultural renaissance to bear.

"People from here can get stuff that's about here," Amy Braswell said. "We want to be a house for Appalachian Arts."