Given Virginia’s natural beauty, you’d be forgiven for breaking out in song while standing atop one of its mountains or sinking your toes into one of its sandy beaches. And you wouldn’t be the first; songs mentioning Virginia, its landmarks, and its history are everywhere, and they’re penned by everyone from native sons picking guitars and banjos to Broadway-conquering hip hop historians. Here are five recommended tunes that will guide you toward the people, places, and stories that have come to define the commonwealth.
Old Crow Medicine Show—“James River Blues”
Americana headlining act Old Crow Medicine Show has roots in central Virginia, and on the group’s second album, Big Iron World, they paid tribute to one of the region’s defining natural resources, the James River, as well as the men who once transported goods along the waterway in flat, pole-propelled boats. “James River Blues” is written from the perspective of those bateaumen who, in the mid-nineteenth century, saw their work dwindle thanks to increased reliance on rail shipping: “They don’t need us anymore/Hauling freight from shore to shore/That big iron hauls much more/Than we ever could before.” Americana as a genre is at its best when it catalogs these moments of transition in our country’s history, and while “James River Blues” may lament change, the last verse highlights the narrator’s close connection to the James, allowing for a bittersweet final refrain.
If you float on down to Brown’s Island in downtown Richmond, you’ll find a bronze statue commemorating the contributions of African-American boatmen who served this vital role in early Virginia commerce. Sculpted by Paul DiPasquale and dedicated in 1993, “Headman” is the second sculpture of its kind (the first had to be replaced as a result of vandalism), and it served as the inspiration for the redesigned Richmond city flag that was adopted that same year. Virginians’ love affair with the James River has been centuries in the making, and current residents have endless options for forming their own connection with the waterway. Whether you’re looking to take on rapids in a raft, cast a reel for catfish, or simply float with the current on an inner tube, James River Runners can help you make the most of a beautiful day on the James. Consider wrapping up your trip near Legend Brewing; the veteran Richmond brewery has a gorgeous patio view of the city’s downtown rapids. (They have some delicious beers as well!)
Daniel Bachman—“Orange County Serenade”
Daniel Bachman is a Virginian guitarist who channels multiple forms of traditional playing to craft winding, prosaic instrumental compositions. He’s a student of history, both in terms of his understanding of style and in terms of his appreciation for his home state. Many of his song titles nod to the geography, flora, and fauna of Virginia, and while his tunes don’t feature lyrics, it’s easy to imagine musical phrases as descriptive of the places and experiences that Virginians of all stripes share just by living here. He even titled his 2014 album Orange Co. Serenade, and the title track’s back-and-forth bass notes replicate the loping gait with which you might explore the sights and sounds of one of the state’s most historic counties.
Strolling through Orange County certainly has its benefits, from world-class wine to presidential history. It’s where you’ll find James Madison’s Montpelier, the plantation the fourth president of the United States and his beloved wife Dolley called home. Montpelier makes a wonderful destination for families, history buffs and naturalists alike, with a wide array of galleries, exhibits, tours, and even 8+ miles of walking trails to explore. You can dive deeper into the country’s founding documents and then take a historic landscape tour to better get to know the natural surroundings. And you can taste the county’s history just a short drive away at Barboursville Vineyards. The winery’s Library 1821 has thoughtfully reserved select wines from the past, offering tastings Friday through Sunday with culinary pairings. You can even grab a glass of a current vintage from the Tuscan Tasting Room and make the short walk to the ruins of a mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Robbin Thompson—“Sweet Virginia Breeze”
Virginia actually has two official state songs: “Our Great Virginia” is the “traditional” state song, and “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” which was co-written by Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett, is the “popular” state song. It earned that designation in 2015 after years of campaigning by the songwriting duo’s passionate fans, and the timing turned out to be crucial; Thompson passed away later that year, but not before seeing his tuneful creation become a part of Virginia history. The song’s lyrics allude to several Virginia landmarks, regions and symbols, among them the official state bird: “You’ve got a red bird sitting on your window sill/You know everything will be alright.” Just as cardinals ride the sweet breeze that Thompson and Bassett wrote about nearly 40 years ago, this loving and upbeat song promises to drift through the commonwealth’s airspace for many years to come.
Those looking to spot cardinals or one of the rarer species indigenous to the state find that the Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail is a birder’s best friend. The first statewide program of its kind in America, the trail is divided into three regions — Coastal, Mountain, and Piedmont — linking some of the state’s more gorgeous areas for outdoor recreation and, of course, spotting birds. If you’re working your way westward, the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to start, with 1,200 acres offering viewing access across grasslands, salt marsh, forests, ponds, and barrier islands (and a list of species that nears 300). The Mountain region is home to the New River Trail State Park, following the river from Pulaski to Galax, and the Piedmont region offers the similarly named James River State Park — 1,500 riverside acres on which you can camp, follow trails, and keep an eye out for bald eagles.
Ralph Stanley—“Clinch Mountain Backstep”
Ralph Stanley, known to fans as Dr. Ralph Stanley, was born in Big Spraddle, Virginia and lived in nearby Coeburn, near the Tennessee border in Southwest Virginia. He went on to become one of traditional music’s giants, helping to popularize bluegrass and pioneering a distinctively crisp method of banjo playing now known as the “Stanley style.” He formed the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother Carter in 1946, naming the group after the nearby ridge that forms a portion of the Appalachian Mountains’ ridge-and-valley section. While “Clinch Mountain Backstep” doesn’t feature the group’s famed harmonies, it’s a wonderful way to catch a glimpse of the tight precision with which they zoom through melodic progressions. The song has been covered by countless bluegrass groups — including by Jerry Garcia’s Hart Valley Drifters in the Grateful Dead leader’s earliest playing years — but there’s no substitute for the Doctor’s swift and certain playing.
Whether you’re moving at the frenetic pace of “Clinch Mountain Backstep” or taking things in a little more slowly, the Clinch Mountain area is a dream for nature lovers. The Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area provides generous hunting and fishing opportunities, and the Brumley Mountain Trail affords 14 miles of hiking, from Hayter’s Gap to Hidden Valley Lake. Once you’re done soaking in the surroundings, you can get to know the Stanley story — and learn more about Appalachian music in general — by visiting the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, located in Clintwood, Virginia. And if you’re winding through the mountain roads on a weekend, be sure to stop by the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, where weekly Saturday evening shows carry forward the enduring example set by country music’s first family. (Be sure to bring your dancing shoes!)
Lin-Manuel Miranda—“Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”
New York may have been Alexander Hamilton’s adopted home state, but some of the most action-packed moments of the breakout Hamilton musical unfold in Virginia. Take “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” which chronicles the Siege of Yorktown — the October 1781 battle that pushed the British Army to surrender in the American Revolutionary War — from strategic planning (“When we finally drive the British away, Lafayette is there waiting in Chesapeake Bay”) and the moment of surrender to the battle’s immediate aftermath. Throughout the track, you can hear how MacArthur Genius Grant winner and Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda weaves together plot, character development, and musical motifs — “I am not throwing away my shot!” — all via a genre that few would have expected would work so beautifully as a vehicle for telling the story of an American founding father.
While Miranda’s telling of the Siege of Yorktown provides an excellent primer on the events that brought the Revolutionary War to a close, nothing beats being there in person and looking out over the waters in which those fated ships sailed. With the American Revolution Museum as your guide, you can enjoy interactive exhibits and artillery demonstrations to get a feel for what the battle was like. There’s also the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail, where you can walk, run, or bike in the footsteps of the French and American soldiers who assembled in Yorktown to secure a victory against the British. The surrender itself is memorialized by the Yorktown Victory Monument, a serene space that sits high on a bluff overlooking the York River. And just a short walk below is Yorktown Beach — 2 acres of sand perfect for family fun, relaxation, and listening to your cast recording of Hamilton.