Unspoken Tradition, a western NC bluegrass band, credits the Blue Ridge Music Trail with incubating their careers as well as other traditional bands in the area. (Image via Unspoken Tradition) Blue Ridge Music Trail
Unspoken Tradition, a western NC bluegrass band, credits the Blue Ridge Music Trail with incubating their careers as well as other traditional bands in the area. (Image via Unspoken Tradition)

“Western NC has really punched above its weight in terms of influencing American music,” says one expert. There’s no better way to explore that influence than the Blue Ridge Music Trail.

One of Brandon Johnson’s favorite parts of the Blue Ridge Music Trail (BRMT) is the Shindig on the Green concerts in downtown Asheville. “Just about anyone can get on stage and play two songs,” Johnson, program manager for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, explains. 

Sometimes, that means playing with his 6-year-old son. Other times he’s  filled in for bands who are short a player. “It makes me feel like I’ve got a direct link to a musical tradition that has led all the way to the present moment.” 

Once, after jamming with mandolinist Michael Hunter, Johnson realized he was one degree of separation from the “King of Bluegrass,” Jimmy Martin, who played with Hunter one year at Shindig.  

Shindig is just one of the highlights of the Blue Ridge trail, which today spans 29 counties, encompassing music festivals, year-round concerts, historical sites, local bluegrass venues, and more than 400 local musicians. 

For Johnson and other traditional musicians, including upright bassist Sav Sankaran and vocalist Laura Boosinger, the BRMT has not only been an inspiration but sustained their careers. 

The Big Bang of Bluegrass

“Western NC has really punched above its weight in terms of influencing American music,” Johnson explains, pointing to NC musical titans like Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and Lester Flatt. The trio’s first shows in 1946 are often referred to as “the Big Bang” for Bluegrass. 

Influential guitarist, Doc Watson from Deep Gap, NC applied fiddling techniques to the electrical guitar and revolutionized the way musicians play the instrument today. It’s influenced chart-topping contemporaries like Balsam Range, a Haywood County-based band that’s won numerous awards from the International Bluegrass Music Awards.

“There are people in the Asheville area who were on their high school clogging teams,” says Johnson. “Yes, high schools here had clogging teams within the last 50 years.” 

Western NC is also home to the oldest folk festival in the country, The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, which started in 1928 and brings together Appalachian ballad singers, string bands and square dance teams. 

But the BRMT is not just about preserving history, says Johnson. “Our undying goal is to hit younger audiences to continue to get younger people involved in listening and performing our traditional music.” 

Bluegrass, It’s More Diverse Than You Think

While many people assume that bluegrass merely stems from Scottish Highland dance tunes, what actually makes bluegrass distinct is its combination of diverse influences: Scottish tunes mixed with banjo (originally an African-derived instrument) and different styles of dance. 

One of the groups on the BRMT that celebrates this nuanced history is Unspoken Tradition. The group’s bassist and singer, Sav Sankaran, is a first-generation Appalachian, the son of Indian immigrants.

“I’d like to think our music is endemic to western NC, a reflection of ‘modern mountain culture,” he says. We try to make music that reflects all the diversities and complexities of modern Appalachia with one foot in the traditional music that precedes us. 

READ MORE: NC Music Is Deep and Diverse: Here Are 10 Songs by North Carolinians to Add to Your Playlist

Unspoken Tradition’s latest album, Imaginary Lines, invokes familiar bluegrass imagery on the song “Back on the Crooked Road.” There’s the winding, country road, but the singer’s returning after a long sojourn in the city. 

“I was born on a crooked road / I grew up where the trees would bend in the winter wind/ I walked many a mile on a path too straight and narrow /Now I’m back on the crooked road again.”  

Sankaran credits the Blue Ridge trail with nurturing his career as a young musician, and introducing the group to an international audience.

“I have been playing American roots music since my teens and the BRMT and the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area have been staunch supporters. The BRMT sponsors performances, highlights our existing performance calendar through their channels and inculcates an atmosphere in which traditional arts and artists are given credence,” Sankaran explains. 

The Next Link in the Chain

You have to continue to prime the pump if you are going to drink from the well,” says Laura Boosinger, a veteran North Carolina banjo player and singer who’s been inducted in the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame. 

Boosinger’s a consultant for the Blue Ridge trail now, and she sees her induction into the genre as a model for future generations. 

“I was always given entry by the older folks in our community,” she says.I now feel that is my responsibility. 

Many  music venues closed for months or even years during the pandemic, so it can be hard for new artists to break in. Recovering venues are more likely to book a musician that they know will draw a crowd. 

BRMT has long supported younger musicians with promotion and grants to the Junior Appalachians Musicians, a western NC nonprofit connecting kids with traditional music and bluegrass. 

The trail is now in the early stages of a  a mentorship program. 

For veteran BRMT musicians like Sankaran, mentoring is the part of the trail. 

“The ability to give back to the community, BRMT included, that helped me create and sustain my own career is one I relish,” Sankaran says. 

The easiest way to enjoy the BRMT, is to head over to their upcoming events calendar–there are multiple performances listed per day–or use the interactive map to add a dose (or 12) of bluegrass to your next visit to the mountains. 

READ MORE: The Rise and Rebirth of North Carolina’s African American Music Trail