Stepping onto the large porch, dusty memories echo out of the creaking wood of this 108-year-old building. Innumerable rooms and hallways are lit up, with the structure glowing like some lighthouse on the high seas of an ocean, one of mountain ridges that ripple far and wide into the darkness of Southern Appalachia.
“It’s an interesting old building,” Merrily Teasley chuckled. “It has a lot of interesting stories in it.”
Teasley has made it her life’s mission to ensure the survival of the Balsam Mountain Inn. Through all of its ups and downs in recent decades, the longtime owner remains steadfast in her quest to preserve the history and continued legacy of this storied property.
“It just gives me lots of pleasure to see people enjoy the inn and what we’re trying to do here,” Teasley modestly said. “It feels good to make people happy.”
And on a recent Saturday evening, there were a handful of new entries added to the ongoing book of tales at the Balsam Mountain Inn as the most recent installment of their “Songwriters in the Round” series took place.
Modeled after the legendary performances held at The Bluebird Café in Nashville, the series brings together three acclaimed singer-songwriters each month at the inn. The musicians sit in a circle facing each other, plucking away in a “round robin” fashion, sharing their melodies and the stories behind each selection for the dozens upon dozens of curious faces surrounding them.
It’s an intimate setting. The musician is completely vulnerable, where the audience can witness the artist in their element. There are no distractions, just someone with something to say and guitar in hand.
The performers at the recent gathering at the inn were songwriting colleagues Sally Barris, Henry Hipkens and Jim Photoglo. Each are all well known A-list wordsmiths in the Nashville music circles, with many hits garnered between them.
“As far as songwriting is concerned, places like the Balsam Mountain Inn provide a venue for songwriters to be heard outside of Nashville,” Hipkens said. “Such places also provide a way for songwriters to create a real connection with listeners. Most songwriters are not well known and so it’s difficult to attract an audience based on name recognition alone.”
And yet, before even one guitar note is played or lyric sung, the 118 folks in attendance illed the large dining room, ready to indulge in not only music, but also culinary delights. Before each show, the inn cooks up a feast of mammoth proportions. Lining up at the buffet table, attendees pile their plates high with prime rib, chicken and trout offerings, which go hand-in-hand with the decadent desserts endlessly flowing from the nearby kitchen.
“The food complements the performers,” said Head Chef Clifford Reum. “And we want to continue to build the reputation of this place, to have it grow. The more, the merrier. This place is magical, there are really no other words to describe it.”
Head server Walter Davis is zooming around the numerous tables, making sure every single detail is taken care of. It’s a scene that one can’t help but notice is a lost art when it comes to his professionalism in providing you with the finest experience possible.
“I’m old school and was trained as a formal waiter. It’s all about attention to the individual,” he said. “There’s really nothing like the Balsam Mountain Inn on the eastern seaboard. I love to serve and it’s an absolute pleasure to serve these people.”
After the plates are cleared off the tables, and wine glasses refilled, every chair gets turned toward the center of the dining room. The overhead lights are dimmed, with the bulbs above the microphones bright, as if illuminating a bonfire of words and chords we’re all huddling around to keep our hearts and souls warm.
Barris, Hipkens and Photoglo trade off melodies, each as unique in tone and content as the voices and notes radiating from their acoustic guitars. Heads bob and feet tap along to the selections that run the gamut of emotions. Love lost. Love found. Childhood nostalgia. Wonderment of what tomorrow will bring. And though you might get caught in the time warp nature of songs immortal, a couple hours have ticked away on the clock.
The show must come to an end. The guitars packed up. Handshakes and hugs all around between friends, new and old. Joyous faces make plans to attend next month’s showcase — all with a song in their heart and a kick in their step.
Want to go?
The “Songwriters in the Round” showcase is a monthly series at the Balsam Mountain Inn.