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The Crooked Road: Musical Heritage and Economic Development

Econ Focus
Fourth Quarter 2019
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JAM Band

Image: Jonathan Romero for The Crooked Road

The New River JAM Band performs in the Youth Music Series at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace.

The Crooked Road officially refers to a 330-mile stretch of road in southwest Virginia that winds through the Appalachians and features stops where visitors can experience and learn about the region's traditional music. It more informally includes other places that celebrate the region's rich cultural history. The tourism spurred by this celebration has helped rebuild a struggling economy.

The economy in southwest Virginia had long been built on coal, tobacco, and manufacturing. A decline in these industries in the late 20th century led to job losses and weakening economic conditions. In an effort to revitalize the region, state and local leaders sought to tap existing cultural assets, particularly music. In doing so, they ushered in a creative economy, that is, one built on assets such as culture that are unique to a region but are not traditional economic drivers (for example, as coal mining has been in southwest Virginia).

In 2003, the city of Bristol was featured in an annual folk music festival hosted by the Smithsonian, the Folklife Festival, which brought national interest to the music of the region. State and local groups capitalized on this momentum to create the Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail to boost economic activity in the region. The driving trail was later designated an official trail by the state. The state government, particularly the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, worked together with towns and communities, the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, the National Park Service, and various local groups. State and local tourism boards collaborated on marketing the trail.

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Before the creation of the Crooked Road brand, the region already featured venues with folk and bluegrass music. But creating one united trail increased awareness of the area, attracted new tourists, and encouraged people who may otherwise have visited one venue to stay in the region longer or come back to visit others.

Tourism as well as local and state funding allowed towns in the area to create or improve attractions. Today, the Crooked Road spans 19 counties in southwest Virginia and features over 60 music venues and many music festivals throughout the year. Many cities, such as Galax, Bristol, Marion, and Clinton, have seen increased tourism, resulting in overall growth. For example, hotels have opened, restaurants have more business, and downtowns are livelier, bringing in money and making the region a more attractive place to live. A 2015 study by the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development estimated that the Crooked Road directly brought $6.4 million in tourism spending to the region each year, resulting in a total annual impact of $9.2 million to the region's economy. In recent years, the creative economy built upon culture in southwest Virginia has expanded beyond music to celebrate arts and crafts, natural beauty, and outdoor activities.

According to Steve Galyean, the former tourism director in Abingdon, Va., and the current planning and partnerships director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the goals of the Crooked Road were to preserve musical heritage, promote visitation, and aid in community revitalization in southwest Virginia. Says Galyean, "These three goals have been met and continue to be the backbone of the Crooked Road programs." The Crooked Road offers a model of a successful creative economy, one built around cultural assets that revitalized a region both economically and culturally, while offering tourists a unique and authentic experience.

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