Virginia’s musical tradition is calling out… can you hear it? The richness of the commonwealth’s musical past is always echoing, and throughout the state, you’ll find people and places that can help you learn about Virginia’s role in shaping music’s present — and about how you can contribute to its future. Here are a few of the museums and schools you’ll want to set aside time to visit, whether you’re picking up guitar for the first time or simply picking up facts about past.
Birthplace of Country Music Museum—Bristol
Rarely can you trace the genesis of an artform definitively to a single event, but the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, does exactly that, celebrating the legacy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Commonly referred to as the “Big Bang” of country music, those Bristol Sessions marked the commercial recording debuts of eventual legends like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and the BCM, opened in 2014, allows music fans to explore country’s roots via multimedia exhibits, a performance theater, instruments owned by significant figures like Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash, a radio station, a learning center, and more. There’s no telling what the American musical landscape would sound like had Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company not set up a temporary recording studio in Bristol that summer, and thanks to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, we’ll never forget how significant those sessions turned out to be.
Jammin’ Java is known as one of the country’s finest intimate concert venues — one of the Top 100 Clubs in the world as rated by Pollstar Magazine — having hosted national, regional, and locally renowned touring artists in Vienna, Virginia for nearly 20 years. But attendees may not realize the facility is also home to several learning opportunities, with private lessons available for drums, ukulele, guitar, voice — even songwriting. Plus, learners can show off their newfound instrumental talents thanks to open mic showcases, which are open to the public and feature current and former students, offering a refreshing alternative to the typical recital format. The educators at Jammin’ Java bring a wide variety of professional experiences to the table, from work as touring musicians to the development of innovative music curricula in academic settings — approaches that come together to form an atmosphere of learning and creativity. Alongside the popular Tot Rock kids’ concert series, the Music School at Jammin’ Java shows just how family friendly and community-focused a top-notch music venue can be.
Carter Family Fold—Hiltons
When you visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, you’ll likely leave with a deeper appreciation for the Carter Family — often referred to as the First Family of Country Music. To immerse yourself completely in the family’s story, head to Hiltons, Virginia and travel along A. P. Carter Highway until you find the Carter Family Fold. Part performance venue, part museum, and part historical site, the Fold offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to commune with Virginia’s musical roots. The Carter Family Museum is a great place to start — it houses performance attire, memorabilia, and tributes that tell the story of the family’s rise to fame. Just next door, you can step into the A. P. Carter Cabin and Birthplace, which was lovingly restored and relocated with the help of preservationists, archeologists, craftsmen, carpenters, and historians. (Keep an eye out for Johnny Cash’s rocking chair!) And if you’re there on a Saturday, you can wrap up your visit with a concert, held weekly in the main Fold building with a stunning stage, plenty of room for dancing, and accommodating stadium seating.
The Front Porch—Charlottesville
If you’re of the opinion that music is a force for unity, and that music is a universal language, then you’re reading from the same sheet music as The Front Porch — the nonprofit musical school that’s been located in downtown Charlottesville since 2016. The school began in the home of local educator Emily Morrison, but has since expanded to offer a diverse and inspiring set of programs and classes to teach instrumentalists young and old of all backgrounds and bring community members together. There are free weekly jam sessions that are open to the public. Tuesday Tunes outdoor concerts, thanks to a partnership with James Monroe’s Highland. Lessons in everything from bluegrass to blues and mandolin to fiddle, with scholarships available to expand the reach of their instruction. The facility represents a celebration of inclusivity — truly a testament to the common ground that can be found in the traditional music that Virginians are lucky enough to have inherited from past generations.
Blue Ridge Music Center—Galax
With a permanent exhibit detailing “The Roots of American Music” and a stunning amphitheater overlooking the Southeastern Virginia wooded setting, the Blue Ridge Music Center is a must-stop feature of the Crooked Road — Virginia’s music heritage trail. Located outside Galax, the center houses fascinating artifacts tracing the evolution of traditional instruments like the banjo and dulcimer alongside emphera and recordings documenting the region’s significant role in the founding of traditional country and bluegrass. Each day the center is open, you can hear Mid-Day Mountain Music from noon to 4 p.m. in the breezeway of the visitor’s center, and the nearby amphitheater plays host to a summer concert series and off-season shows in between. With so much music to soak in, and a picturesque treeline behind the facility, you may just end up kicking back on a rocking chair and soaking in the sounds of one of the most musically and visually beautiful spots you’ll find anywhere.
ESO Art Center—Belle Haven
Southern Accomack county is home to the Eastern Shore’s Own Arts Center, a non-profit community arts facility located in a classic, three-story brick building in the town of Belle Haven. Founded in 1984 as an adult theater troupe, ESO has since expanded to offer a wide range of spaces and services allowing local artists to perform, teach, and practice. You’ll find group music classes, from beginner youth chorale to adult string ensemble, and individual lessons for aspiring instrumentalists young and old, with opportunities for students to share what they’ve learned with the community via public performances and recitals. In addition, the ESO LIVE! Series welcomes local and regional artists for monthly nightclub-like shows, and the center presents a yearly production of the Nutcracker in December — a tradition that’s been held since 1991. And visitors in warmer weather have their own tradition to look forward to: the Eastern Shore’s Own Craft Beer & Music Festival, the center’s late-summer annual fundraiser.
Guitar Works provides Richmonders with a true best-of-both-worlds scenario: A centrally located shop — right in the heart of Carytown — selling fine instruments while offering a robust teaching program for players of all styles and levels. For more than 40 years, Guitar Works has been providing instruction, with lessons available Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Whether you’re interested in fine-tuning your guitar work, getting into banjo, strumming the mandolin or ukulele, or holding down the low end via bass, there’s teaching available in half hour or full hour sessions delivered by instructors who are passionate about helping students pursue their musical goals. And don’t forget — the storefront has all the gear, parts, and services to keep advancing your rig as your abilities develop. They’ve even got their own line of guitars, which began in 2000 with the aim of providing high quality, affordable acoustic instruments.
Virginia Musical Museum—Williamsburg
For a focused view of Virginia’s musical history, and insight into the lives of some of the biggest stars to hail from the commonwealth, spend some time at the Virginia Musical Museum in Williamsburg, located on Richmond Road in the Parker Piano Outlet building. The museum’s collection runs the gamut from antique modes of listening — music boxes, early phonographs, Edison’s tin foil machine — to memorabilia from famous native sons and daughters, including a stage outfit worn by Patsy Cline (born in Winchester) and a roaster owned by Wayne Newton (born in Norfolk). You’ll also find an impressive collection of antique and notable instruments, from organs and a piano gallery to a 1790 Joshua Shudi harpsichord — one of only two known to exist today. And they recently added an encore banjo, which is one of the earliest examples of an automatic music machine, dating all the way back to 1897!