“Do yourself a favor,” says semi-retired real estate agent and auctioneer Carl McNeil, climbing out of his van. “Don’t get old.”
Even at 76, though, age doesn’t appear to slow him down too much. McNeil speaks quickly and quietly but with enthusiasm. It’s not always easy to follow his narrative style, which jumps from topic to topic and makes offhand mention of people who aren’t present, but it’s full of stories about his life and especially about his passion, the Little River Bluegrass Barn.
Sometimes referred to colloquially as “Carl’s bluegrass barn,” the building is a relatively new venue for bluegrass, gospel, and old-time music, though to date it hasn’t hosted more than a handful of shows. McNeil says it has held church functions in the past, mostly revivals.
The barn is located on a farm that McNeil owns and that his son uses to raise beef cattle, but the buildings that sit right off of Little River Dam Road have been repurposed: the barn itself houses the entertainment, the old milking shed in front of it houses the restrooms, and other, smaller buildings, though rich with history, are used for now as storage.
He purchased it five years ago and is engaged in an ongoing project to clean it up and get it into shape. “I’ve always liked bluegrass and gospel music, so I decided to go that route,” he says of it.
“When we bought it, it was wood from here back,” says McNeil, gesturing across the poured concrete floor, “and could sleep 100 cows. We had to put in new siding. It’s 60 or 75 years old.”
The barn is divided in two. About a third of it is a room used by bands during breaks in performing, to sit at merchandise tables or just rest. It holds the remains of a covered wagon that McNeil is especially proud of; it was built and used in the late 1940s by an evangelical pastor from West Virginia who set off on a trek, with other wagons containing members of his congregation, to California.
The larger room holds a stage and folding chairs, along with another curiosity in the form of a wooden bank teller’s stand, brought in, says McNeil, from Christiansburg. Signs and stuffed feed bags dangle from the ceilings of both rooms, and knickknacks and musical memorabilia line the walls. One can’t help but think of every chain restaurant that hangs fake antiques all over their dining rooms, but McNeil’s are the real thing. Near the entrance is a table full of iron tools and horseshoes, some of which were created on the farm.
“When we bought it, it was wood from here back,” says McNeil, gesturing across the poured concrete floor, “and could sleep 100 cows. It’s 60 or 75 years old.”
The tale of McNeil’s run-ins with some particular neighbors weaves in and out of the rest of his narrative. He has plenty to say about them, but politely declines to name names.
“One family up there,” he points toward the road, ”was from up north—they’re not there anymore. And every time the bulldozer would come, they’d call the county down here.” Later on, the husband of the family would ask McNeil if he could hunt on the land. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t really mind, but I think me and you and your wife need things under control before I can give anyone permission to hunt.’ And that was the end of that.”
Though he’s lost more money on the barn than he’s made back in shows, he wants everyone to know it’s there. “I want to put on more shows,” he says. “I want to promote bluegrass and gospel music. It’s a gathering place for people who love that. That’s it in a nutshell.
“We’re here to entertain people, but they can’t come if they don’t know about it.”
The Little River Bluegrass Barn has two upcoming shows: Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will play on Saturday April 20 at 6 p.m.; tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door and can be purchased at the Riner Food Center, the Radford Travel Center, Due South BBQ, McNeil Real Estate, The Sportsman, or the Christiansburg Livestock Market (children 12 and under free).
The barn will also have a free gospel show on Saturday May 4, with a potluck picnic at 3 p.m. and singing by the Reggie Saddler Family at 6 p.m.