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Echoes in the Hills: Galax, Virginia’s Vibrant Music Scene

welcome to galax sign
Visitors quickly discover that music in Galax is more than just fiddles and banjos.

Entering Galax, VA, from either east or west, it’s clear that the town is serious about its music: the greeting signs read, “Welcome to Galax, the World Capital of Old Time Mountain Music.” Students of traditional American music confirm that this claim is true. But music in Galax is much more than fiddles and banjos. Here in Galax—a favorite stop along The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Musical Heritage Trail—music is more than a tenuous link to the past; it’s a living, breathing, way of life.

On a sunny afternoon in Galax, the air vibrates with the strumming of guitars and the sweet melodies of fiddles, weaving through the streets like threads in a well-loved quilt. Walking down Main Street, you might see musicians performing at the open-air Farmer’s Market or at a street festival. Or perhaps a group of young Junior Appalachian Musicians heading into the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts for music lessons. Glance down East Grayson Street, and you’ll see which national acts are playing at the Rex Theater. You’ll pass the iconic Barr’s Fiddle Shop, and if your timing is right, there might be an impromptu jam session on the sidewalk out front.

The list of musical gatherings goes on: seasonal daily performances in the breezeway at Galax’s Blue Ridge Music Center; festivals at Felts Park, including the world-famous Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention (now in its 85th year). Jam sessions abound, so bring your instrument. Don’t play an instrument? In that case, listening opportunities abound: Galax cafes and brewpubs offer a variety of live music, from Blues and Rock n’ Roll to North Carolina Beach Music and traditional Irish. This isn’t just background music; it’s the heartbeat of a town deeply entrenched in musical tradition.

If dancing is your passion, try out your North Carolina Shag steps with some Beach Music, or hook up with a line dance to some Country favorites. Galax is the right spot if Old Time Music gets your toes tapping; Old Time Music and flatfoot dancing go together like peaches and cream. Attend any event with live music, and someone will set up a dancing platform or throw a piece of plywood on the ground and start flatfooting.

traditional musicians jamming
Traditional musicians rehearsing at Felts Park.

A Symphony of History and Culture

The musical roots of Galax run deep, stretching back to the early 18th century when settlers brought the tunes of old Europe into the Blue Ridge Mountains. These melodies simmered for decades in the hills and hollers of the Blue Ridge to form the broth of old-time mountain music. Listen closely, and you might recognize melodies from your family’s musical traditions because the music scene here blends influences from across the globe.

In Galax, you walk in the footsteps of music legends. This is where some of the greats of country music—like Pop Stoneman and Eck Dunford—sharpened their skills before making history at the iconic Bristol Sessions. These sessions are often referred to as the “big bang” of country music, and they started right here, with talents honed in the hills around Galax. As you explore the town, be sure to stop at the Hillbilly Barbershop Museum, adjacent to Barr’s Fiddle Shop. In 1924, the museum housed the barbershop in which musicians Joe Hopkins and Tony Alderman met and formed The Hillbillies. By the late 1920s, the band had recorded for OKeh, Vocalion, and Brunswick, received substantial radio play, and become regulars at fiddler’s conventions, vaudeville shows, and political rallies. Their Galax Sound is a seminal part of early country music. Residents and visitors can immerse themselves in this musical tradition, and opportunities abound for musicians of all skill levels to participate.

fiddlers convention
After an active night, afternoons at the Fiddlers Convention are fairly calm.

The Old Fiddler’s Convention

At the heart of Galax’s musical allure is the Old Fiddlers’ Convention, a beacon for musicians and music lovers worldwide. Launched in 1935, this festival has grown to be one of the largest of its kind, drawing thousands to Felts Park each year. The Convention is a competitive event, pitting instrumentalists, bands, dancers, and vocalists against one another for cash prizes. Winning at “Galax” is a feather in the cap of any performer, and careers have been made based on the results. Despite the competition, the camaraderie among the performers is evident, and audiences delight in the interaction of the performers.

As you step into Felts Park, you’re greeted by a symphony of sounds—from brisk fiddle tunes to the steady rhythms of banjos and guitars. Auxiliary performance tents and vendors line the midway. The sounds and the cooking aromas entice. The park is filled with campers, some in upscale motorcoaches, others in pup tents. Walking among them, you’ll find impromptu jam sessions everywhere; feel free to listen, dance, or join in. If you pass out of earshot, you’ll soon encounter another jam.

The Old Fiddlers’ Convention is more than just a competition; it’s a week-long celebration of mountain music heritage. Newcomers and veterans are encouraged to participate, making it a fertile ground for learning and sharing. Whether you’re there to compete or to soak in the vibrant atmosphere, you’ll find the spirit of inclusivity and encouragement hard to miss.

But the musical canvas of Galax isn’t limited to this famed Convention. Various other festivals sprinkle the calendar throughout the year, each with its unique flavor but the same welcoming ethos. Whether at a barbecue competition in the summer, an art festival in the fall, or a holiday celebration in December, musicians find open arms and stages, inviting them to showcase their talents and revel in the shared joy of music-making.

music jam session at Barr's Fiddle Shop
An impromptu jam session in front of Barr’s Fiddle Shop.

Local Jam Sessions: Where Community and Music Meet

Venture beyond Felts Park, and you’ll discover that the music never stops in Galax. In nearby Fries and around Galax, regular jam sessions ignite spontaneous bursts of creativity. Picture this: a circle of chairs, each occupied by a musician with an instrument in hand, gathered under the warm light of a café. Or perhaps sitting around the porch at the Matthews Living Farm Museum, socializing at the Tuesday Pot Luck Dinner, engaged in lively conversation while your toes tap to the music. These gatherings are the community’s heartbeat, pulsing with tunes passed down through generations.

These jams are open invitations; whether you’re a seasoned player or a curious visitor, you can join the circle and add your voice to the chorus. Beginners are as welcome as the seasoned pros, each finding a spot in the circle. The old-time tunes you’ll hear are more than just music; they’re a bridge connecting the past with the present, created by those who value their cultural heritage. It’s common to see a fiddler sharing a bowing technique with a young enthusiast or a guitarist passing chords to a novice. This camaraderie is a testament to the inclusive, nurturing nature of the Galax music scene.

ccsa music lessons
Chestnut Creek School of the Arts is the go-to place for those looking to improve their musical skills.

Educational Workshops: Learning from the Masters

Chestnut Creek School of the Arts is the go-to place for those looking to improve their musical skills. Right in the center of downtown Galax, it offers workshops for various interests and skill levels. You’ll find a supportive environment to build your skills, whether just starting with the fiddle or mastering advanced banjo techniques. Galax offers a welcoming stage, a supportive community, and a chance to be part of a living tradition. Here, every note played contributes to the enduring legacy of mountain music, and every musician, no matter their level, is invited to join in the chorus that makes Galax unique.

Listening Opportunities for Music Enthusiasts

From the lively strums heard in local eateries to the grand stages of theaters and festivals, Galax offers an array of listening opportunities that captivate and charm.

Take a casual stroll through the streets of Galax, and you’ll soon be drawn in by the rhythmic sounds emanating from Creek Bottom Brewery. Known for its craft beers and energetic atmosphere, this local favorite is a hub for ale enthusiasts and music lovers. On any given night, you might find the place filled with the soulful melodies of blues, the upbeat twangs of bluegrass, or the heartfelt tunes of classic country. The best times to visit? Friday and Saturday nights when the brewery really comes alive with local bands that set the tone for a lively weekend.

Not far from the brewery, Briar Patch Cafe offers a different vibe. Here, music is a gentle companion to conversation, making each meal memorable and leaving diners with a sense of satisfaction and nostalgia.

Rex Theater Marquis Galax
This restored Art Deco theater hosts regular music events showcasing regional talent and visiting artists.

Concert Venues and Events

An Evening at The Rex

For those who prefer the glamor of a stage and the excitement of live performances, Galax’s Rex Theatre is a cornerstone of cultural life. This restored Art Deco theater hosts regular music events showcasing regional talent and visiting artists like Rhonda Vincent and The Rage, the Lonesome River Band, and the Appalachian Roadshow. The Rex is also home to “Blue Ridge Backroads Live,” a weekly radio show featuring Old Time and Bluegrass bands broadcast live by Classic Country 98.1 FM. This broadcast is heard in five states. It can also be listened to “live” on the internet.

brmc concert
A performance at the Blue Ridge Music Center Amphitheater.

The Blue Ridge Music Center

Embracing the natural beauty of Virginia and the musical heritage of Galax, the Blue Ridge Music Center (BRMC) is a standout in Galax’s music scene. Positioned on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, the center offers concerts featuring prominent figures of folk and bluegrass. Weekend concerts at the outdoor stage have included such notables as Molly Tuttle, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Alison Brown Quintet.

The rolling hills of Fisher Peak serve as a backdrop for impromptu performances in the Music Center’s breezeway on weekdays. Here, surrounded by sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, music finds a spectacular home, and listeners can immerse themselves in sounds as pure as the surrounding landscape.

The museum at the BRMC offers visitors a curated view of the area’s rich musical heritage. Exhibits feature a fascinating array of instruments, recordings, and memorabilia, bringing to life the stories of influential musicians who shaped the local and national music scene.

Summer Concerts at The Depot

Just a few minutes from Galax and offering striking views along the New River, the hamlet of Fries is a perfect addition to any Galax-centered itinerary. The summer concert series at the Fries Depot is a vibrant community gathering spot. The relaxed atmosphere invites you to bring lawn chairs or picnic blankets while food trucks and local vendors offer tasty snacks and meals. It’s the perfect setting for families and friends to enjoy a summer evening together.

galax smoke on the mountain bbq
Music at the annual Smoke on the Mountain BBQ Championship ranges from Beach Music to Blues.

Music and Downtown Events

In the heart of downtown Galax, annual events like Smoke on the Mountain and Hillbilly Daze offer yet another flavor of local music. Smoke on the Mountain, Virginia’s state BBQ championship, pairs smoky flavors with danceable North Carolina Beach Music, creating an energetic atmosphere. Hillbilly Daze, on the other hand, takes a more whimsical approach, with old-time tunes playing against a backdrop of festive activities and traditional games.

Each of these events provides a unique listening experience, offering music and a way to connect with the heritage and the people of Galax. From the intimate settings of cafes to the expansive stages of festivals, the city’s music scene is vibrant and inclusive, resonating with joy, community, and artistic expression.

Music is Mountain Made in Galax

So, whether you’re a local or a visitor, Galax invites you to tune in and turn up the volume of your musical journey. Here, every chord strikes deeper, every melody sings sweeter, and every beat perfectly syncs with this mountain town’s heart. Grab a seat, take in the sounds, and let Galax’s music scene carry you to where every note feels like coming home.

Wayne Jordan is a Galax-based writer and storyteller. His Scots-Irish ancestors settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1760, and he has deep roots there. The author of four books, Wayne is a retired Senior Editor for WorthPoint Corporation, a long-time columnist for Kovels Antique Trader Magazine, and a contributor to regional newspapers and travel publications. He blogs at BlueRidgeTales.com.

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