Cara Ellen Modisett
Cara Ellen Modisett
Once a month or so, I drive southwest out of Roanoke to rehearse with a fiddle player friend of mine. I drive out and up, leaving behind our office, the traffic lights, the Kroger stores, the five-lane intersections, Cave Spring Elementary School, the suburban neighborhoods with their stone entrances, the very last Starbucks. The road begins to curve more and more sharply, and soon I'm passing hillsides and meadows, grazing cows, old farmhouses.
Not far out of town, the land tilts up suddenly as the road begins to climb Bent Mountain – U.S. 221, curve after mountain-hugging curve, nearly impassable a few weeks ago when we had our (last?) snow, not even that deep. I feel as if I'm physically pulling myself up the mountain, pivoting the wheels right and left, following the arc of the pavement, being passed by pickup trucks, occasionally imagining what might happen if I just went flying off the side of the mountain into space.
And then, without fanfare, I'm at the top. My ears pop a few times, and the road settles into a gently rolling, fairly straight stretch with some turns here and there. I'm on the plateau, passing through little communities like Check, past barns, vegetable stands and an entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
About a half hour after I've left home, I reach the endpoint, halfway to Floyd, a little church on the left, the Copper Hill Church of the Brethren. It reminds me of the church I grew up in, small, familiar, a sense of age to it, unpretentious. If I'm there before my friend, Mike Mitchell, then I'll look out over the cemetery to the hills I've just driven through, back towards the city.
This week it was just past the time change – daylight savings had begun, and so at 7:30 it was no longer a winter night, but an early spring evening, with the sunset glowing in the sky.
Rehearsal itself is always good. We're playing violin tunes, actually, not fiddle ones – Bach, Handel, Massanet – though Mike will throw in a fiddle lick here and there, a not-so-Baroque embellishment at the end of a not-so-Irish gigue.
Mike is classically trained, in his late 30s, plays a lot of bluegrass, owns a school and a new music store in Floyd. We talk about the bluegrass world, the classical world, and the times when they meet – for instance, when we play Bach.
And we talk about the fact that really they're not that far separated – the mountain music we hear in Floyd and Galax is cousins removed from Irish reels, cousins removed from Baroque dances.
His bow is singing music not out of an old Italian violin but a more recently made instrument, built not even a county away by Arthur Conner, 85 years old, who's built fiddles for decades. Ricky Skaggs and Gene Elders have played his instruments. They're built for bluegrass, so playing Bach on them changes the music a little, gives it a little more edge, sometimes a not-unpleasant roughness, a little echo of these mountains.
To me, this music, and these trips, are part of the beauty of living where I do. I'm especially reminded afterwards, when I get back in my car and drive back to Roanoke, with the moon floating along the horizon to my left, deer watching from the edge of the woods and the spread of city lights like magic when I reach the edge of the plateau.
As with any magic, it fades away when you get close those lights rematerialize into the grocery stores and traffic signals I left a few hours back. But what stays with me is that the mountain isn't far away. It takes less than half an hour to get to the top of it. Every day, we live in our city, with its history and art and music, in sight of the mountains, with their history and art and music, and love both.
Same with Bach and Handel and bluegrass. I think Johann Sebastian, and George Frederic, must enjoy hearing our takes on their three-centuries-old music. The lines of connection between us all – fiddle and violin, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and the English Suites, city streets and backroads, Arthur Conner and Stradivarius – are more direct than we realize. It's the meeting in the middle that's magic.