Don’t Miss Out on the Big Ticket Shows & Small Town Charm in Rocky Mount, Virginia
It’s a Tuesday night at the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount, and Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the indie folk duo Shovels & Rope, are doing it all. At any given moment during the near-sold-out show, the Charleston, S.C.-based pair is playing four or five different musical instruments. And singing.
And it’s obviously working for them, because once they’ve stopped crooning and put down their guitars, harmonica, tambourine, drumsticks and accordion, the audience—which has yelled “I love you!” so maNY Times it’s become a running joke—begs them back to the stage for more.
The same could be said for Rocky Mount itself, which over the past few years has launched an all-out campaign to attract visitors to the Southwest Virginia hamlet. And obviously, it’s working.
In 2011, the town bought an old International Harvester dealership and turned it into a first-rate music hall that, according to assistant town manager and Harvester CEO Matt Hankins, has attracted music lovers from 39 states and nine foreign countries.
“We’re really excited that we’ve had that kind of reach,” Hankins said, adding that the Harvester draws “pretty consistently” from about a two-hour radius that includes Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Blacksburg and other cities.
“We’ve also had a fair number drive down from D.C. because they want to see a particular act play and can’t get tickets up there, or whatever. … They’re staying in bed-and-breakfasts and hotels here and enjoying the experience—coming and seeing world-class music and enjoying themselves without the hassle of traffic.”
When Hankins says “world-class music,” he’s not lying. Over the past few months, the Harvester has seen the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Gregg Allman and George Winston. Upcoming shows include, among others, the Indigo Girls on June 17 and The Bacon Brothers—actor Kevin and brother Michael—on Aug. 23.
Music lovers will also converge in Rocky Mount and throughout Southwest Virginia for The Crooked Road’s Mountains of Music Homecoming, June 10 through 18. During the music and cultural festival, events will be held at more than 50 communities along The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail.
In conjunction with this, on Saturday, June 11, Rocky Mount will host Franklin County Court Days, a festival that has been described as a
“re-creation of a time when local citizens traveled to Rocky Mount for the day to conduct business and socialize.”
The inaugural Court Days in 2015 treated approximately 2,500 locals and visitors to arts and crafts, live music, food vendors, quilting and tobacco twisting exhibits, storytelling and others events.
Daytime events are free. In the evening, musical concerts will be held at the Harvester, Bootleggers Cafe and other venues.
“This year’s going to be a little different,” Adam Lynch, marketing director for the Community Partnership for Franklin County, said of Court Days, adding that because Rocky Mount is the “eastern gateway” of The Crooked Road, they’re going to “double up on the music” this year.
If the town’s coffers are any indication, the Harvester, and other businesses that have sprung up in response to it, have provided a significant economic boost to the town of fewer than 5,000 souls.
“It shows in our meals tax,” Hankins said, adding that before the Harvester opened in 2014, the town would only “occasionally see a month where meals taxes exceeded $100,000. There’s only been one month where we didn’t [see that] since the Harvester opened.
“It’s a good indication that lots of people are enjoying our community. … We’re seeing a lot of people who wouldn’t come to Rocky Mount without giving them a reason. We’re trying to build on that success by attracting more hotels and businesses to downtown.”
Bootleggers Cafe opened around the same time as the Harvester. Located in an old Coca-Cola Bottling Company, around the corner from the Harvester, Bootleggers offers a full bar and a menu of what it describes as “Contemporary American Cuisine.”
In addition to its musical heritage, Rocky Mount also embraces the area’s infamous designation of “Moonshine Capital of the World.”
In April of each year, the Franklin County Historical Society sponsors the Moonshine Express, bus tours that celebrate the county’s notorious history. During the vintage bus tours, participants encounter more than 75 people—“from both sides of the law,” as one overview says—telling true stories of Franklin County moonshining.
The 2016 tours were held in April, but tour booklets and scripts are available throughout the year at the Franklin County Historical Society. Also held in April is the Franklin County Moonshine Festival. This year’s festival featured moonshine tastings, live music, a 5K race, a Prohibition-era car show and other events.
Not only can you learn about moonshine in Rocky Mount, those of legal age can drink it. Twin Creeks Distillery, owned by Rocky Mount native Chris Prillaman, recently started distilling legal moonshine. It can be purchased at area ABC stores, Bootleggers Cafe and other locations.
Prillaman grew up in nearby Ferrum, which, according to Twin Creeks sales and marketing director Matt Hartberger, “has a long tradition of moonshining families.”
Hartberger said two of Prillaman’s great-grandfathers were caught up in the “Great Moonshine Conspiracy” trial of 1935. “He’s got roots in it and has been around it and interested in it all his life.”
Future plans for Twin Creeks include buying a building in Rocky Mount to house the distillery, retail store, banquet hall, tasting room and what will be the Moonshine Still Museum. “We’re going to build replicas of stills, from early settlers from Europe all the way up through the 70s and 80s and today,” Hartberger said.
As for the taste of what Twin Creeks has dubbed “Franklin County’s Finest,” Harvester CEO Hankins said, “It’s really outstanding,”
and added, “It’s great to have it made in the ‘Moonshine Capital of the World.’”
Another upcoming event in Rocky Mount is a Confederate re-encampment on June 4 and 5 at the Franklin County History Museum. The 57th Virginia Infantry, Company B, re-enactors group will set up camp on the museum lawn.
While the group’s leader is a descendant of George Pickett, the Confederate general known for his charge at the Battle of Gettysburg,
the re-enactors hail from the New York City area.
“They’ve got these funny accents, but they’re really patriotic,” Linda Stanley, managing director of the Franklin County Historical Society, said good-naturedly, adding that folks can visit the campsite and talk to the men, each of whom represents a particular soldier.
Rocky Mount is also a place for art lovers and shoppers of all kinds.
The Rocky Mount Center for the Arts (RMCA)—also known as “The Grainery,” because of its past life as a storehouse—is home to artist studios, art classes and a gallery where visitors can buy work by local artists.
During the cooler months, there are glass-blowing demonstrations on Saturdays and some Tuesdays and Thursdays. According to glass blower Carolyn Rogers, “large-scale glassblowing” is a “winter thing,” as temperatures from the furnaces, which heat to more than 2,000 degrees, make it too hot to do inside in the summer.
Over the summer, Rogers said she’ll create smaller items, such as beads and small sculptures, and the RMCA will offer bead-making classes. Other art classes, which range from “paint and sip” events to more in-depth, weeks-long courses, are listed on the RMCA’s website.
While in town, visitors also can peruse antiques and collectibles at Old’s Cool Vintage Finds, indulge their sweet tooth at the Kupkakery Bakery and poke around at Angle Hardware Company, which opened in 1887, four years after the town was founded.
“We’re one of those cool, small towns that has a major draw right now with the Harvester,” Hankins, said, adding that visitors can top off a day of shopping and dining by “hearing world-class music in an amazing facility.”
Speaking of world-class music, toward the end of their show, Shovels & Rope said they’d love to play the Harvester again.
Perhaps it was all those times the audience shouted “I love you!”
Or maybe there’s just something about Rocky Mount.
Asked about that, Harvester general manager Gary Jackson said it’s become commonplace for artists to say they’d like to visit Rocky Mount again. “They had a lovely time,” Jackson said of the couple. “They had rooms at the Early Inn, across the street, 10 acres for their dog to run around, a place for their child to crawl around. They had a wonderful time.”
By Suzanne Ramsey