The land in the Charlottesville area is fertile ground for more than a few special individuals. Besides being home to U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe (who are, by the way not included in this list, as we’re trying to keep it to the last hundred years or so), the central Virginia farms and towns in the area helped foster some genuine talent. You’ll definitely recognize some of these names, and some you may not, but each one has touched Cville at some point in their life.
Dave Matthews, Singer-Songwriter, Vineyard Owner
If you’re a music fan, you probably saw this one coming. But we simply had to mention Dave, for a few reasons. Born in South Africa, the two-time Grammy Award-Winning singer/songwriter moved to Charlottesville in 1986 where he soon became part of the local music scene. And it was quite local at that time; since then, Charlottesville has acquired a handful of key venues and regularly attracts nationally-touring acts passing through the east coast. This is in no small part due to Dave, who started the Dave Matthews Band in 1991 with Cville musicians LeRoi Moore, Carter Beauford, and others. Their first show was that year at Trax, a now-defunct music venue downtown. Dave was a Charlottesville fixture during this time, working at the bar Miller’s downtown and collaborating with notable musicians like guitarist Tim Reynolds and trumpeter John D’earth. He and the Dave Matthews Band soon propelled to superstardom, selling millions of records and playing to sold out crowds in arenas. A testament to his love for the area: in 1999, he bought more than ten acres of land in Albemarle County, Blenheim Vineyards. It’s situated within both the Virginia and Monticello viticultural regions, and Dave wanted to preserve a piece of local history. And the wine is good, too.
Charles Wright, Poet, Professor
To be fair, the current United States Poet Laureate was not born or raised in Charlottesville. He was born in Tennessee, educated at Davidson, the University of Iowa, and schools in Rome. But he’s become a fixture, celebrated by English students at the University of Virginia. In between, he’s managed to craft some of the most compelling poems in the contemporary canon, interspersing Southern landscapes with everyday ruminations on the nature of life and God. Before becoming Poet Laureate last year, he had received almost every other conceivable honor, from Pulitzer to National Book Award to the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. To hear him talk about the latest honor displays his humility. To follow in the footsteps of literary giants like Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner (the latter counted among one of Wright’s early influences), he is one of the greatest minds to land in the city of Charlottesville. And unlike Edgar Allen Poe, he stayed here!
From humble beginnings in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Tina Fey has emerged as one of the brightest voices in modern comedy. We don’t want to brag, but we like to think it was her time studying playwriting and acting at the University of Virginia in the early 90s. She didn’t stay and make her home in Charlottesville though…she went on to hone her craft in Chicago’s Second City. While in Chicago, she wrote and submitted several scripts for Saturday Night Live, leading to her career as a writer on the show. She penned several great skits and eventually became the show’s first female head writer in 1999. She started appearing in the show’s Weekend Update alongside co-host Jimmy Fallon and later Amy Poehler; she’s still remembered for her classic impression of Governor Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election. She also wrote the screenplay for Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan. Fey’s magnum opus was arguably starring in and writing the hit NBC show 30 Rock alongside Alec Baldwin, Chris Parnell, Tracy Morgan and several other hilarious individuals. 30 Rock is, in this writer’s opinion one of the best primetime comedy shows in recent history, maybe since Seinfeld. The show’s trademarks, its wit and its caustic, self-aware humor made it a breath of fresh air at the time and have inspired many other shows. In 2013, Tina came back to the Charlottesville area to be the inaugural presidential speaker for the arts. Tina on UVA’s website before the speech: “I am very excited to come back to Charlottesville to participate in the President’s Speaker Series for the Arts in September,” Fey said. “When I left Charlottesville in the early ’90s, there was a large sign on Route 29 that said, ‘The bagels are coming!’ Did that ever happen?” It did, Tina…it did.
One of America’s most celebrated authors, William Faulkner came to Charlottesville in 1957, serving as the Writer-in-Residence for two years and teaching until his death in 1962. It was the end of an illustrious career, one of the greatest in American history. Publishing The Sound and the Fury in 1929, he was writing at the cusp of modernity in English literature; he and his contemporaries were reinventing the form and structure, the shape and scope of the novel. His work played with temporality, using non-linear plotlines and a splintered, stream-of-conscious narrative technique. He grew up in Lafayette, Mississippi and as such, his writing is filled with themes and characters that reflect the Southern United States, including the burden of history stemming from the destructive Civil War. Faulkner is the spokesperson for the Southern Renaissance of literature in the period after the First World War.
Born in Texas, Mary Elizabeth “Sissy” Spacek currently calls Charlottesville home after a rich and illustrious career in film. Her farm in Albemarle County is the perfect place for a star with her type of personality; indeed, she has a significant aversion to the public eye, preferring to hover over the spotlight, leaving the tabloids for more attention-seeking folk. Her early breakout role was that of a telekinetic, often-bullied teenager in Brian DePalma’s Carrie. She is also celebrated for her role as country music legend Loretta Lynn in 1980’s The Coal Miner’s Daughter, which netted her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Legend has it Lynn herself chose Spacek for the role. Little is known about Spacek’s private life, but she must love her farm in Albemarle County…she’s been here since 1982!
We’ve got a soft spot for UVa basketball, especially with the overwhelming success of the men’s team in recent years. But it’s hard to talk about basketball here in Charlottesville without mentioning Ralph Sampson, one of the most dominant and versatile centers in college basketball history. At a towering 7-foot-4 inches, Sampson led the Cavaliers to an NIT title in 1980, a Final Four appearance in 1981, and an Elite Eight appearance in ‘83. He was a phenom, both tall and dominating but also lithe and agile. He was drafted first in the NBA draft of 1983, although the peak of his career came during his days at UVa, where he was College Player of the Year three separate times. And he has a sandwich named for him at Little John’s. Not bad Ralph.