The Mountains of Music Homecoming is held along The Crooked Road that winds throughout Southwest Virginia, but it has ties to Cape Breton, an island in Nova Scotia, Canada.
"Three years ago we first started thinking of it as a concept," Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of The Crooked Road, says. "We went online to see if we could find other events like this that we could learn from. We looked at South by Southwest, which is a phenomenally successful musical festival in Austin, Texas. We looked at The Virginia Arts Festival, but each was different from what we wanted to do. Austin is a very urban place and it's one location, so that's not exactly a match to what we wanted to do. The Virginia Arts Festival is multi-location but not held on consecutive days.
"We finally found Celtic Colours on the Internet. Celtic Colours is a nine-day islandwide celebration of Cape Breton's musical heritage. It was exactly what we wanted to do. I went there. They were so gracious and helpful and gave us lots of great advice from their 17 years of experience. They were a great asset for us in our first year, just trying to figure out what would work here."
The Homecoming is more than music; it includes cultural events, such as instrument making demonstrations, community meals, barn dances, wine and craft beer tastings, canoe floats and other events.
"The music here is unique to this place, it's an integral part of the culture here," Hinshelwood says. "However, it's just one facet of the culture. So, this is a much richer experience we're trying to create for people. We want them to almost get immersed in a unique culture that happens to have this rich musical heritage. The music is one of the most interesting aspects, but it's only part of a much bigger puzzle."
The Crooked Road puts on 23 concerts during the nine-day festival. The Crooked Road books and pays for those bands. The community venues provide volunteers to staff the events.
This year, Hinshelwood is particularly excited about the All-Star Bluegrass Band. "We have three massively popular and award-winning bluegrass bands with ties to this region, Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, and Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice," Hinshelwood says.
His idea was to put together an all-star band from these groups. The group consists of Sammy Shelor (banjo, The Lonesome River Band), Junior Sisk (guitar and vocals, Rambler's Choice), Billy Baker (fiddle, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys), Wayne Taylor (bass and vocals, Blue Highway) and Shawn Lane (mandolin and vocals, Blue Highway).
"This is really special and historic. Baker is a first-generation part of bluegrass history combined with the leaders of bluegrass today.
"These guys are doing three concerts. One concert is at The Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Virginia, and they are doing a music camp for kids and adults. This is a great opportunity for kids to get with bluegrass legends," he says. The workshop consists of individual teaching with the all-stars and other instructors. Then they'll have lunch. After lunch, the All Stars perform a demo concert, where they'll play a song and talk about how to work as a band, how to work a mic or how they arranged the song."
Other special events this year are the guitar masters performances. One is at the Rock School in Damascus, Virginia, and the other at the Mountain Lake Lodge, Pembroke, Virginia. Houston Fest is also a part of the Homecoming this year. Houston Fest is a huge bluegrass and old-time music festival in Galax, Virginia.
"This year, they quit fighting cold rainy weather and moved it from May to the first weekend in June. This meant it fell into the Mountains of Music window, and we could help promote it. It's a two-day doozey of a festival," Hinshelwood says.
They also record every concert and then produce a CD from the best of them. Last year there were 34 concerts, about 75 hours of music, which were boiled down into one CD.
They are also working on a project that's a follow-up to "A Treasury of American Music," which includes 50 of the current artists of The Crooked Road. It's called "A Century of Heritage Guitar Music." This compilation includes not just current guitarists but historic ones. It goes back and includes Mother Maybelle Carter, and then comes forward to add Wayne Henderson and everyone in between.
"We sent out a call to artists to be on the compilation, and we got unbelievable stuff. We got stuff we didn't know about, and that's what's cool. There will be tracks on here of people that everybody knows. To me the really cool thing is it brings to light people who don't make music for a living but who just play unbelievable stuff. To be able to capture that and let people hear that is, to me, the essence of The Crooked Road. The Crooked Road is about music of this place. It's not about people making a living in the bigger music industry; it's about people who make music as a part of their daily lives. It also shows just how damn good it is. It's amazing," Hinshelwood says.