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New music center at Graves' Mountain Farm & Lodges ready to develop talents

High school students who want to prepare for college majors, conservatory studies and professional opportunities in music have a new option in the mountains of Madison County.

The first program presented at the new Blue Ridge Center for Music & Creative Arts, which continues Dec. 30 at Graves’ Mountain Farm and Lodges in Syria, is “Bluegrass Master Classes in Excellence.” High school students from Madison County and surrounding counties have a new opportunity to team up with faculty mentors to develop their talents in bluegrass music and learn related disciplines to help them pursue careers in music.

Local audience members can get a glimpse of the program in action when 10 student musicians and their Master Class Faculty mentors perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 30 at Graves’ Mountain Farm & Lodges’ Main Lodge. The concert is free.

Five concurrent workshops are focusing on songwriting and vocals, banjo, mandolin, bass and fiddle. A photography student will get the chance to serve as an apprentice with a professional potographer to document the workshops.

Bluegrass won’t be the only musical genre studied at the new center, which was founded in July. Thirty-eight students will spend a week in June diving into symphonic music, said Eric Starck of Graves’ Mountain Music Festivals.

“We’re focusing on bluegrass music first, and then other genres of music,” Starck said. “We are trying to keep it focused on people in junior high and high school. We give them a lift with master classes and weeklong camps.”

Students will learn the finer points of performance not only to entertain audiences, but to prepare for future educational and professional opportunities. Some students will join the center to prepare for auditions for college scholarships and conservatory admissions, while others will be planning to go directly into musical careers, Starck said.

“We are reaching out to people creating new lives in music,” he said.

The students also will receive training in other music industry disciplines to help prepare them for satisfying and well-rounded careers, including photography, videography, music video production, sound engineering, marketing and management, Starck said.

Mentorship is an important part of the center’s philosophy, and the center’s faculty members bring a wide range of experiences.

Vince May is a founding member of the Roanoke-based band The Guard and is a member of the Rose River Ramblers.

Valerie Smith, who has toured nationally and internationally, has been nominated for Grammy, Dove and International Bluegrass Music Association awards.

Lisa Kay is a vocalist and mandolinist who has more than 25 years of experience performing in bluegrass bands; she also brings a background as a bluegrass radio host.

Doug Marshall is a veteran performer and teacher on guitar, mandolin, bass and banjo.

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Wally Hughes has been playing bluegrass across the U.S. and Canada since 1972.

Joe Zaumer, a banjo and guitar player, has been entertaining bluegrass fans in the Washington, D.C., area since 1973.

“We all need mentors in life,” Starck said. “They’re all people of exceptional skill.”

The Dec. 30 concert is free. Learn more about the center and find applications at

And while you’re looking forward to hearing homegrown bluegrass, don’t forget to mark your calendars for the 2024 Graves’ Mountain Community Heritage Music Festival, which is scheduled for May 30 through June 2, 2024.

Five Virginia headliners are on the schedule, including Lonesome River Band, Junior Sisk and His Great Band, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, Nothin’ Fancy and Madison County’s own Dark Hollow.

Also slated to perform are Some Assembly Required, Rose River Ramblers, The Fly Birds, Cold Harbor Bluegrass, Hammaville, County Seat and Commonwealth Bluegrass. Be sure to bring your bluegrass instruments along, because there will be numerous opportunities to jam with fellow concertgoers and take part in music workshops.

The festival will focus on its Blue Ridge Mountains roots and its strong community of Madison-area musicians. It’s supported by the Graves’ Mountain Charitable Fund, a nonprofit that helps young people learn about farming and mountain heritage.

The festival will include a variety of activities for families and children, including yoga, horseback riding, fly fishing, mountain biking and time with farm animals. Foodies will find plenty of farm-to-table options, plus snacks and the festival’s famous Market Deli & Tackle milkshakes. Head to graves for festival details, tickets and passes.


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