news from the Crooked Road

road endsLast month my wife and I spent a few days driving around the southwestern corner of Virginia, a stretch of U.S. 58 that boosters call the “Crooked Road,” musician slang for an unpredictable solo.

There’s a lot here to like, including the road itself, winding as it does through small towns and gorgeous scenery. There’s good food and authentic regional accents, and other reminders we’re not in California anymore: an abundance of churches, and designated smoking areas bigger than a doorway. (In fact, cigarettes are everywhere: you can drive up to a window and order them like tacos.)

At the eastern end of the road is a countercultural outpost called Floyd, with left-leaning bookstores and a reminder that even on the mountainous side, Virginia runs purple, not red.

And then there’s the reason we came, which was to hear the music.  It’s abundant, sometimes playing in the corners as an afterthought. At the welcome center in Abingdon hundreds of locally produced CDs are on sale – hundreds—and they’re all good, available to sample for free, recorded by people you’ve never heard of. The depth of talent and material, from a place that’s not all that populous, is astounding.

IMG_20140621_214550_623We were there early in the week – a Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday – and many of the venues were dark, either until later in the week or for good, replaced by an Applebee’s or a Red Lobster. But those were the exceptions: the Crooked Road falls only a little short of its promise.

Which had us wondering, what would take it the rest of the way?

How much of “dark on Sundays” is the Old Dominion keeping the faith, and how much is because there’s not enough demand for more? Could venues along the Crooked Road cultivate a bigger market by spreading their evening shows across more of the week? Or would that kill the very culture they’re set up to share?

And if there was interest in any build-out, then is there a role for Virginia’s public universities?

 

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The whole state has a stake in the answer. As April Trivett explains from the Heartwood Cultural Center in Abingdon, the Crooked Road has been a boon, and gives the state’s poorest region hope for an economic base less problematic than tobacco or coal.

Her comment reminded me of other states looking to public higher education to help diversify into cultural and intellectual economies, goals I hear via my counterparts in Louisiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Michigan has made its commitment especially clear, launching a public-private partnership with its universities expressly to reverse the state’s business fortunes.

The benefits will cut both ways.  I’ve often thought (and written once or twice on this blog) that as higher ed gets more comfortable with virtual delivery, our brick-and-mortar operations will need to emphasize their local roots to justify themselves. Real-world campus life has always had unique benefits, including the physical facilities, the face time with experts, the community interaction, and the sheer serendipity you get with proximity. What’s new is that now we have to emphasize them.

As we do, we’ll be sounding a little like the people who promote the Crooked Road: some places are still worth the trip.

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