The Blue Ridge Music Center was established by an act of Congress in 1985 to celebrate the rich cultural history and ongoing musical traditions of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The 17,000-square-foot facility is particularly immersed in the Round Peak style of the North Carolina mountains and the Galax and Grayson County style of Virginia.
But the museum (and the concerts offered there daily) also explores bluegrass, old time, gospel, folk, old fashioned country music, and more, all of which emanate from the Appalachian region.
Located right along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 213, the Blue Ridge Music Center is operated jointly by the National Park Service and Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
The Blue Ridge Music Center’s museum is home to the permanent Roots of American Music exhibit, which tells the story of music history in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Free live music is available daily (when the center is open), and special concert events are regularly on Saturday nights throughout the season (May-Oct).
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Blue Ridge Music Center Info
ADDRESS: 700 Foothills Rd., Galax VA 24333
HOURS: May through October, Thur-Sun 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (with concert events on Saturday evenings)
ADMISSION: Free (Note that concert events do require tickets)
DRIVING DIRECTIONS: The Blue Ridge Music Center is located right off the Blue Ridge Parkway (Milepost 213), near the town of Galax, Virginia, just a few miles from the North Carolina state line.
From Galax VA
Leaving Downtown Galax, take VA-89S/S Main St for just under 7 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway intersection. Exit left and turn left onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Go east on the Parkway for 3 miles and take a right onto Music Center Rd. The Visitors Center is less than half a mile down this road.
Moving along I-77, take Exit 1 for VA-620 and turn left onto it, moving westward. After 4.6 miles, turn left onto VA-608 for a short 0.3-mile jump over to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Turn right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and travel southwest for a little over 6 miles until reaching Music Center Rd. Take a left onto Music Center Rd. and continue straight to Blue Ridge Music Center.
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History of the Blue Ridge Music Center
The history of the Blue Ridge Music Center begins centuries before anyone ever imagined its existence, in the songs and celebrations of the European settlers and enslaved Africans who were brought to this part of the world in the early 1700s.
From West Africa, an early incarnation of the banjo served as inspiration for the unique rhythms and melodies of the music of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
From Western Europe, the violin (a.k.a. fiddle) arrived as the voice of Old Time Appalachian music.
The music gradually spread throughout the mountains of the Eastern US, which were separated by peaks and valleys and generations.
Over time, the subtle regional distinctions became more and more pronounced, and the music became inarguably American in its roots.
Even today, in areas like Round Peak and Galax (two Blue Ridge Mountain towns that are less than 20 miles apart), experienced players and savvy listeners can instantly recognize the nuances of each region.
Collectively, this distinctly regional music form has become the beating heart of the Blue Ridge culture.
In the mid-1980s, the town of Galax donated 1,000 acres to the development of the Blue Ridge Music Center, which includes a museum, outdoor amphitheater, indoor performance venue, and hiking trails.
It became part of the National Park Service and a steward for the historical music legacy of the region.
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Things to Do at the Blue Ridge Music Center
1. Listen to the Midday Mountain Music Sessions in the Breezeway
There are daily live performances in the Blue Ridge Music Center by local musicians to demonstrate the regional flavors of Old Time and other music genres of the Appalachian mountains.
The performances are held outdoors in a covered space, known as The Breezeway.
Located right between the Visitors Center and the indoor theater, these concerts run from noon to 4:00 pm daily.
Musicians are instructed to perform informally, as if playing on a back porch somewhere, in order to provide an authentic feeling to the music. They usually add some stories and jokes in between tunes.
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2. Explore the Museum’s “Roots of American Music” Exhibit
The Roots of American Music exhibit doesn’t even try to encompass the entirety of US music traditions. However, for those with an interest in Appalachian mountain music, it’s an immersive experience.
The exhibit really explores the coinciding evolutions of the banjo, a traditionally African instrument, and the fiddle, a European contribution.
Aside from the historical aspect of Appalachian music, the museum also offers interactive experiences focused on songwriting, personal storytelling, and historical audio programs.
For our latest visit (due to COVID-19, the museum was closed for much of 2021), a volunteer was out with a fun demonstration of how string instruments get so many different sounds from so few strings.
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2. Blue Ridge Music Center Hiking Trails
The main draw of the Blue Ridge Music Center is, of course, the mountain music. But the two hiking trails on the property are wonderful walks.
The High Meadow Trail is 1.35 miles of easy walking through open fields, over bridges crossing Chestnut Creek, and amongst a host of North Carolina wildflowers and ferns.
This trail is also part of the TRACK program, which is geared towards entertaining and educating children. Free activity guides can be found near the trailhead at the Visitors Center.
The Fisher Peak Loop attaches to the High Meadow Trail on both ends, moving through pine-oak forests with higher elevations that support plenty of azaleas, rhododendrons, and mountain laurels.
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4. Attend a Mountain Music Concert in the Amphitheater
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Blue Ridge Music Center hosts (ticketed) Saturday evening concerts in the facility’s beautiful amphitheater.
It’s one of the best places in Southwest Virginia to see live music.
The amphitheater’s lawn area climbs up a picturesque hillside, with plenty of space for spreading out picnic blankets and mountain-style flatfoot dancing.
The Blue Ridge Mountains provide layers of landscape spreading out behind the amphitheater stage, which is perfect for setting the scene.
After Labor Day, as the weather cools, the concert series moves into the indoor theater and continues through the end of October.
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5. Travel the Music Heritage Routes
For those who have a more serious curiosity about the musical heritage of the Blue Ridge region, it might pay to know that the Blue Ridge Music Center is located at the crossroads of two musical heritage routes.
The Crooked Road is a 330-mile adventure through Southwest Virginia. It hops between more than 60 different performance venues that help visitors explore the region’s music and enjoy live concerts.
The Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina traverse 29 counties in the North Carolina mountains and visit 25 different Blue Ridge National Heritage Areas.
The route features countless fascinating stops and includes everything from established concert venues to local street dances. –by Jonathon Engels; photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted; lead image by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
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