Inclusive Mission, Inclusive Music: The Virginia Mountain Music Festival

Boo Browning
Innovation Showcase

Almost heaven. At least, that's what folks attending the annual Virginia Mountain Music Festival near Richlands, Virginia, are inclined to think. The festival, a 30-year-old tradition, is held on the campus of Southwest Virginia Community College, nestled at the foot of the Clinch Mountains on 185 acres of hills and rolling valleys.

It's all part of the college's commitment to the community aspect of community college. "This event is our gift to the deserving people of our service area" is how Charles King puts it. President since Southwest's establishment in 1967, King sees to it that the college dedicates its services to area citizens. "Real Education for Real People for the Real World" is Southwest's motto.

Held each June, the Mountain Music Festival features local bands with colorful names like Pack'n the Grass, Bluegrass Kinsmen, and Tazewell County Cornshuckers. But the two-day event attracts international bluegrass acts as well: Recent years have seen Lost and Found, Pounding Mill Grass, and Fescue, and this year's headliners are 2005 International Bluegrass Music Association Artists of the Year Rhonda Vincent ("The Storm Still Rages") and Larry "John Deere Tractor" Sparks.

Although a perennial gift to the community, the Mountain Music Festival attracts plenty of outsiders, too. Word gets out. According to Southwest spokesperson Jackie Hartman, the phone calls from surrounding states and beyond begin in early spring. Some bluegrass fans even pool their resources and hire a bus for the trip to Richlands. Along with music, they come for the Appalachian crafts, the hot dogs, and the Native American drawings on Paintlick Mountain--within sight of the Southwest campus grounds.

And the best part (aside from the music): It's all free. When King, his faculty, and the staff at Southwest keep referring to the festival as a "gift," they're just being real.

Southwest Community College as a setting for a bluegrass festival is completely appropriate. After all, bluegrass is a most inclusive and welcoming musical genre. It arose in the late 1930s when a handful of Appalachian musicians meshed fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar in a hybrid of gospel, blues, and country sounds. Bluegrass pioneers included Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, the Blue Grass Boys, and Bill Monroe. More recently, its practitioners include the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Ricky Skaggs. Widespread in the region, which includes Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee, bluegrass music seems a natural aural accompaniment to verdant hills and gentle rivers.

And Southwest Community College itself is a hotbed for the high lonesome sound. With what other sound would the hills surrounding Paintlick Mountain be alive? "What we have here," says Bob Sutherland, dean of learning resources, "is a traditional music program. We're a rural community college, and we're kind of the only game in town." The college's traditional music program has about 200 students, studying everything from mandolin to voice. "We get every kind of student: elementary kids, grownups. And then we have a jam session on Thursday nights and a big showcase in January. And it's all free."

Just down the road a piece, at McClure, Virginia, lives the legendary Ralph Stanley, whom producer T Bone Burnett has called "one of the most important country musicians in the world today." Although Stanley has made more than 200 albums, bluegrass neophytes will recognize him as the lead singer on the landmark "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack. That record, produced by Burnett, won multiple Grammy awards, as well as 2000 Album of the Year. Stanley, who recently turned 79, was also the first recipient of Southwest Virginia Community College's annual Cultural Ambassador award.

"Bristol was the site of the first country music recording, back in 1927," Sutherland points out. "And then we have a state-supported bluegrass museum in honor of Ralph Stanley just a few miles from here, in Clintwood, Virginia. The music itself just has its history here."

Southwest places high priority on cultural, aesthetic, and global awareness. Along with the Virginia Mountain Music Festival, the college also holds an annual Festival of the Arts, held in April, that features music, literature, and drama from around the world. The college works hard to see that students in the service region get an opportunity to attend. Approximately 80 percent of Southwest's students qualify for some sort of financial aid, and during 2004-2005, 634 scholarships were awarded a total of $494,000 to students.

Part of Southwest's broad vision stems from the Virginia Community College System's Dateline 2009 retention, graduation, and transfer goals. Dateline 2009 gives a strategic direction to Virginia Community Colleges to move toward becoming a world-class community college system. This plan consists of seven major components:

  1. Enrollment;
  2. Workforce training;
  3. Graduation, retention, and placement rates;
  4. Transfer to four-year colleges and universities;
  5. Affordable tuition;
  6. Dual enrollment with high schools; and
  7. Private funding.

"Southwest is committed to reaching the goal of providing a college education to anyone who can benefit from that education," says President King. "We're not there yet, but we've come a long way. Scholarships have made it possible for us to assist thousands of students in achieving their dream of acquiring a college degree."

The Virginia Mountain Music Festival is part of the dreaming. The hills will come alive again June 9-10. And this year, says Sutherland, the college is promoting "camping in the rough" as a truly laid-back accompaniment to the music. "We've got a few hookups. Not a lot," he says, "but this year, we're really going for it."

Boo Browning ( is Associate Editor for the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Editor's Note: Earlier in her career, and before joining the League staff four years ago as associate editor, Boo Browning was a popular culture and music writer for several newspapers, including The Washington Post, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Phoenix Gazette. Her work has also appeared in the Village Voice, the International Herald Tribune, and USA Today. Not surprising to those of us who know her well, Boo took an immediate interest when Jackie Hartman contacted us about Southwest Virginia Community College's Virginia Mountain Music Festival. In a departure from the League's usual practice, Boo wrote this piece for Innovation Showcase, and she did so in her own distinctive, delightful style. We hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as we enjoyed preparing it, and we thank Ms. Hartman and her colleagues at Southwest Virginia Community College for indulging us in this issue of Showcase.