I Think We’re All Hillbillies on This Bus

Or, getting straight with the new bluegrass faithful on Virginia’s Crooked Road

This was the first long piece I ever wrote, my first time traveling for a story, and the first time (but certainly not the last) that a story made people angry. In many ways a milestone.

I am in Galax, Virginia, near the North Carolina border in the far southwestern snout of the state. I am far from my home, eating a “busted onion” (which is more commonly referred to as being “in bloom”) and meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables in a restaurant called Bogey’s. I am here with a group of travel writers, our Virginia Tourism Corporation minders, and assorted locals. Sitting across from me are Spencer Strickland and his wife, Leah, who are both 22. Spencer is a second-generation bluegrass musician, and I am attempting to talk to him about music.

Spencer plays guitar as well as the mandolin, so I ask him what he thinks about Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. He doesn’t, apparently. I try to come up with music that has a little more twang, and ask him if he likes the alternative country band Wilco, or the White Stripes. He looks at me blankly, until Leah reminds him that the guy from the White Stripes recently made an album with Loretta Lynn. “Oh yeah,” Spencer says of Jack White’s effort. “That was all right.” I throw more names at him—Cole Porter, Ryan Adams, Mozart, Eddie Van Halen—but the reaction is about the same. Then Spencer, who looks like Beaver Cleaver and won Best All Around Performer at the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention when he was 19, tells me that Chris Thile from Nickel Creek is the greatest musician alive. Nickel Creek is a huge-selling progressive bluegrass band whose members look like poster children for Young Life, and whose music is not exactly an MTV staple. Spencer turns and looks at Tamra, the flak for Virginia Tourism, who has her Blackberry sitting next to her plate. “Look at that phone,” Spencer says. “You’re like Paris Hilton!”

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