Crooked Road Ramblers
Like their namesake The Crooked Road, southwest Virginia’s 333-mile-long “heritage music trail,” the Crooked Road Ramblers take listeners on a journey into the Blue Ridge region’s rich heritage of old-time music. “Old-time” is a term born from 1920s musical marketing, referring to the early, rural string band traditions that developed through the New World meeting of the African banjo and European fiddle in colonial times. This uniquely American sound is deftly carried on by this energetic, intergenerational sextet.
The Crooked Road Ramblers came together in 2004 through the efforts of then-22-year-old Kilby Spencer, who “started the band in hopes of carrying on the driving southwest Virginia ‘big’ band sound that makes people want to dance.” This desire to keep old-time music vital comes naturally to Spencer, who grew up on Whitetop Mountain in a family committed to continuing the region’s musical traditions. His uncle, instrument maker Albert Hash, founded two of the institutions central to the preservation of traditional music in Grayson County: the string band music program at the local Mt. Rogers School, and the Whitetop Mountain Band, one of the most celebrated old-time bands in southwest Virginia. Kilby’s parents, Thornton and Emily Spencer, have played a central role in both. When Kilby started his own band in 2002, he looked to master musicians from both his own and his parents’ generation.
Three members of the band are fellow Grayson County residents who’ve played with Kilby Spencer—or his parents—for years. Guitar player John Perry of Independence is a veteran of the beloved New River Ramblers, and, as the story goes, was playing with Thornton Spencer the night Kilby was born. Hailing from Galax is bass player Karen Carr, two times the Best Old-time Bass awardee at the legendary Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention. From nearby Fries comes outstanding rhythm guitarist Donald Hill, whose father was also a Whitetop Mountain Band alum. Clawhammer banjo player Kelley Breiding joins the band from just over the border in Crumpler, North Carolina. And from nearby Russell County, Virginia, comes mandolin player and retired coal miner Wayne Dye, who “can play anything with strings.” Joining the band in Richmond this year is Julie Shepherd-Powell, who will call a square dance during the festival weekend.
Together the Crooked Road Ramblers have taken first place honors in numerous regional old-time band competitions. Best of all, they’re making good on Kilby Spencer’s dream of a band that inspires audiences and dancers by playing “traditional music with drive!”