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Bluegrass in the Blue Ridge

On Monday nights, the bluegrass jam is the place to go in Ferrum, Virginia. The sounds of old-time and bluegrass music fill the air at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum (BRIM) on the campus of Ferrum College. 


“We have all kinds of events here throughout the year,” says Bethany Worley, the executive director of the BRIM. We are a major venue on the Crooked Trail, Virginia’s music heritage trail.” 


Founded in 1973, the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum was created by Ferrum College to document, interpret, and present the folk heritage of the Blue Ridge region. Over the years, it has grown in size and importance, with a longstanding national reputation for quality and authenticity. Today, the entire museum is the largest folk life museum in the state, with two free galleries plus the archives. An 1800s living history farm is the site of events and tours. “We have a 1796 log barn where we house heritage animals,” Bethany says. 


Bethany attended Emery and Henry College, where she studied geography and Appalachian studies. “I am a cultural geographer,” she says. After working at the BRIM for a few years after college, Bethany moved to Memphis. She returned to the area ten years ago and was hired back at the Museum. “This is my dream job,” she says. “I grew up going to bluegrass festivals with my grandfather and loved everything about it.” 


The Museum has become a repository of many important artifacts, including photographs, audio and video recordings, books, and documents related to the folk life of the Blue Ridge, Appalachia, and Virginia as a whole. The archives are used by scholars, other museums, teachers, and students. They are open to anyone interested in regional folk culture. 

“People schedule time in advance to do research with us, and we will pull what they need. This was meant to be an educational facility and is a tremendous resource for scholars. Many are working on documentaries or books. Ken Burns did a good bit of his research for his Country Music documentary here at the Museum.”


Bethany says the museum has one of a few sets of the Galax fiddlers’ tapes and the most extensive collection of recordings of African American music in the South. 


“We’ve been around for fifty years,” says Bethany. “We are able to preserve a history that could easily have been lost. Thankfully, folks knew enough to go out and record people in the field, including Black people, and now those recordings are ready to be digitized.” A climate-controlled archive assures these treasures are preserved for future generations to enjoy. “People know that what they donate will be safe with us.”


In addition to “tons of music,” Bethany says they have an incredible collection of photographs and documents. “So much of what we have is donated, but we also purchase items. We have been around for fifty years, and that has made a big impact on our collection.” 


The “Moonshine: Blue Ridge Style” exhibit is one of the more intriguing collections. “While we don’t condone moonshiners, we do recognize that it is an interesting aspect of Blue Ridge life,” Bethany says. For over a century, mountain distillers went from making “mostly legal” whiskey and brandy for nearby markets to producing millions of gallons of untaxed “sugar liquor” for customers in urban areas such as Philadelphia. “Souped-up cars became important for moonshiners so they could outrun the law,” laughs Bethany. The Museum has presented a moonshine heritage car show, and they have had a panel discussion with some of the “haulers” from back in the day. 


The “Sipping in the Blue Ridge” exhibit explores the history and culture of untaxed liquor in the mountains of Virginia. “There is no doubt that it has been the most visited exhibit we have ever done.”


While the BRIM has a staff, they also depend on the help they get from work-study students and volunteers. “Many of our students are museum studies majors,” says Bethany. “We have one student working with us during his junior year of high school. He is now a student at Ferrum.” Bethany says they work closely with the community and have a regional reach. “It’s all about the culture of the Blue Ridge. The music, the foodways, the culture, and more.”


The Museum has presented specialized events such as an herb lore gathering and events that appeal to the masses, including the annual Blue Ridge Folk Life Festival. “We stick with original old-time and bluegrass music, as well as Gospel,” Bethany says. “If the weather is nice, we’ll have 15,000 people at the event.”


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