When you are driving through West Virginia, it’s a good idea to turn off your Spotify and put on the radio instead. You’ll likely hear some local bluegrass—emotive, American roots music that is still very much a part of life in this Appalachian state.
When the song ends, you might catch a live event featuring folk songs that define the genre. Taking in some live music is practically a requirement for West Virginia travel; it’s one of the state’s finest offerings and can illuminate the region’s culture.
“Radio is key,” says Megan Darby, who teaches music at Glenville State College, the first institution to offer a four-year degree in bluegrass. It’s one of the ways the state is trying to preserve bluegrass music.
If tuning in to one of the local stations doesn’t lead you to a bluegrass session in a barn (a typical jam-session venue), just ask anyone around. The pride behind bluegrass means West Virginians are eager to share the music and bring you into the fold. “It’s how we live. It’s how we celebrate,” she says. “It’s our way of life.”
Those unfamiliar with traditional bluegrass may be relieved to know that the lyrics are often about universally relatable topics—hardships, hard times, or a broken heart. And then there are songs that showcase the state’s history, its people’s lives, or working in the coal mines. The best and the most powerful songs paint a picture. “You’re going to see the mountains in front of you, and you’re going to see a little cabin home on a hill with a light on,” Darby says, describing the scene-setting element integral to the music.
Though you may be able to see the Blue Ridge Mountains in all their glorious hues through music, West Virginia is ripe for getting up close and personal with its majestic landscape, and a visit begs for some outdoor adventure. So after a night of jamming to bluegrass, switch gears the next morning and go out and see the West Virginia you’ve heard about in the songs. From camping and skiing to kayaking and rafting, the Mountain State has it all.
On any given night, there may be beans and cornbread, hot dogs with chili sauce, fried chicken tenders, french fries, and coleslaw. Pepperoni rolls if you stumble into the right bluegrass jam session. Joy Malinowski, the owner of bed and breakfasts in Thomas and Davis, describes them as pepperoni baked into a cheap white roll. “They are inexplicably delicious,” she says.
For more highbrow tastes, in early spring there is a bounty of ramps, or wild leeks, and she confirms they are everywhere once the season hits. “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a ramp stand,” she says. “Seriously, the gas station sells pizza, booze, cigarettes, and ramps. And pepperoni rolls, of course.”
Whether it’s foraged Appalachian cuisine at a pop-up dinner or a good and greasy service station pepperoni roll, you can wash it down with local beer or cider and tip your glass to the locals you’ve just befriended at the bar.“This is not a busy place. It’s not a big city,” Darby notes. “The people of West Virginia still see a clear view of all the stars at night.” And there couldn’t be a purer way to end each day.