While instrument making is an ancient art whose practice is alive and well along the Crooked Road, it has never been either a primary way of making a living in Southwest Virginia or the most common way that people here got their instruments. As Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College, told us the first U.S. Census to inquire about occupations (in the mid-1800s) listed no instrument makers in the Commonwealth of Virginia. On the other hand, Moore showed us a beautiful dulcimer inscribed “Floyd County, John Scales, Jr., August 28, 1832.” Clearly, people have been making instruments along the road for a long, long time.
Of course, as Moore explained, at the turn of the 20th century you could mail-order a guitar from Sears for the equivalent of no more than $20, so for quite a while it has been pretty inexpensive to buy a guitar from elsewhere. The same has been true for other instruments, and many of the old banjos that the institute has collected in the area over the years were manufactured by a company in Baltimore.
That economic pattern reflects a fascinating tension along the road between old-time culture and outside influence.
The tension itself is embodied in the person of Rob Yard, an instrument maker who describes himself as a “back to the lander” of the 1970s, who has lived in Floyd County for about 40 years. He grew up in British Columbia and went to college in the state of Washington. He went to school on a track scholarship as a pole vaulter. Having learned to vault in the days of bamboo poles, he developed a fascination with that material. Today he crafts beautiful bamboo flutes, didgeridoos, drums and other instruments in an open-air workshop next to the house he and his wife built.
His grown children have built houses of their own on the property that lies at the end of a long dirt road that dips beneath a stream before rising to the homestead. Though it feels like the end of the earth, and certainly way beyond our cell signal, when Martin looked at his phone he saw the indication, “wifi networks available.”