Cultural Preservation/Touristic Presentation: Constructing Music Heritage Trails in Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia

On either side of the North Carolina—Virginia border run state-endorsed music heritage trails that traverse one of the country’s most romanticized physical and musical landscapes. The Blue Ridge Music Trails of western North Carolina and southwest Virginia’s Crooked Road are built around three central objectives: to safeguard historic regional musical practices and significant locales (relating here to old-time, bluegrass, and gospel); to present those musics as vibrant, living traditions; and to encourage area economic rejuvenation by attracting tourist capital. These collaborative projects that bring into contact state and area arts councils, tourism boards, and parks services with participating local musicians and community members aid in the construction of persuasive state-centric (and sometimes controversial) musical heritage narratives.

Through a critical, comparative examination of the construction and maintenance of both trails (and resultant heritage narratives), this paper examines a central tension at their heart: that between the preservationist/educational motivations and the commercial/tourism-driven ones. This tension is manifest in the ways certain locales and musicians are chosen as suitable representatives of state musical heritage while others are excluded, and it emerges further in the ways they are presented in tourist-oriented literature. It is likewise visible in the negotiations between participating local communities and the federally-backed organizations that fund the trails. Drawing upon ethnographic work at sites on both trails and interviews with vital organization personnel, I situate my argument within broader considerations of cultural heritage tourism programming in North Carolina and Virginia, assessing the important role of music in these endeavors.