Appalachia comes to life, through food and music
Exiting your vehicle at Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley, a cold, late fall wind hits you in the face like a frying pan. Standing atop the 5,000-foot mountain retreat, the vastness and endless beauty of Western North Carolina lies below. Heading towards the main building, you reach for the doorknob and enter eagerly. Soon, your body, mind and soul thaw to the sounds of friends, strangers and old-time string music.
“It’s just a different feeling up here; everybody is excited to be part of this,” said Billie Smith, event planner at Cataloochee. “We really open our arms to local musicians and folks from everywhere to come and join in.”
Celebrating their 75th year of operation on its current location, the ranch was created by “Mr. Tom” and “Miss Judy” Alexander. It has become as much of a beloved piece of Southern Appalachian history as the mountains it resides upon. Besides offering guest lodging and outdoor activities, Cataloochee has become a word-of-mouth destination during the years for the “real deal” when it comes to live old-time string music and gut-busting meals to boot.
“We like to offer people the full experience,” said Mary Coker, general manager and granddaughter of the ranch’s founders.” “People don’t just come for dinner and leave. They sit down and enjoy themselves, and this is our chance to be able to show off the great entertainment and atmosphere we provide for our customers.”
The Coker family has been a strong advocate for bringing quality music in to compliment the irreplaceable culture of their ranch. It’s a history that only seems to get stronger with age. And the evening’s special guest performer is legendary singer/songwriter Peter Rowan.
“Come up and see us, and you’ll see what we’re all about,” she said. “Whether it’s the beauty of the mountains or the beauty of the music, we love to welcome in and show people our home.”
Sit back, relax
But, before any hungry hands can reach for their culinary desires, an informal cocktail hour emerges. Handfuls of curious people, close to 100 total, trickle into the robust structure that was once a sheep barn, each wandering the space and interacting with friends and strangers alike.
Leaning against a nearby timber wall, Jamie Shackelford and her husband, Ruffin, are longtime attendees to the musical dinners, as well as being neighbors “down the hill” to the ranch.
“It’s truly a family atmosphere here. It’s just so nice to eat a meal, listen to some music and hang out, spending time with people from all over. I feel like I’m at home when I’m here,” Jamie said.
Jamie points out how her in-laws have been coming to Cataloochee since the late 1950s.
“There’s a long history here of stories, histories of deep relationships and friendships that last a lifetime,” she said.
“Everything you look at and see around here is history, and it’s a living history with the family that runs it, the music that’s played here,” Ruffin added. “If you want an opportunity for something deeper, richer than something just put on for tourists, then come up here, enjoy the family and what they do — it’s the ‘Real McCoy.’”
And just like the license plates in the parking lot, the folks inside are from states around the South and beyond. Sitting on chairs and couches in front of the grand fireplace is Barbara and Ralph Ross, locals who reside in Jonathan Creek. They tend to find themselves at Cataloochee often, soaking in the Appalachian music and culture.
“This place has that rustic, country feel to it,” Barbara smiled. “You sit by the fireplace and get to know your neighbor, carry on a conversation, and that’s what goes on here.”
The Rosses are headlong into a chat with Ronald and Judy Suberman, who are sitting on the adjacent couch. The couple is visiting from Florida. Though they’ve visited Western North Carolina a handful of times before, this is their first trip to Cataloochee.
“I read about Cataloochee in a book and decided to come up here,” Ronald said. “We were looking for a ranch up in the mountains. The altitude, mountain spaces and wide-open spaces are great. We like exploring Western North Carolina, and this is a good place to start out from.”
While patrons get cozy within the ranch, banjoist William Ritter is strolling the building, playing old-time and bluegrass standards for groups of folks. Ritter is currently pursuing a graduate program in “Appalachian Studies” at Appalachian State University.
“This location fits my music perfectly. It’s pretty relaxed, and you can really interact with audience,” he said. “They’ll ask you questions, and you can talk about the music.”
That intimacy is something Ritter cherishes. Appalachian music began around the fireplaces, front porches and gathering spots of this region, with Cataloochee a prime spot to perpetuate and preserve these beloved traditions.
“This music gives people a sense of place, and there’s a real connection to place in the songs,” he said. “It’s great to be able to play music and tell stories to the audience about their ancestors who performed these songs in this area.”
Gazing around the room, Ritter appreciates the unique nature of Cataloochee and how it just seems to breed a positive, joyous vibration all its own.
“Cataloochee isn’t that far from Asheville, but you’re in a whole other world out here,” he said. “You can really slow down and have some peaceful moments.”
Time to eat
Soon, Smith rings the dinner bell. Between the two dining areas, more than 100 dinner plates are set, all ready to be filled with a homemade buffet of ribs, chicken, vegetables, potatoes and corn pudding. Guests grab their plates and head for the buffet outside. Stream arises from the large portions of food as the crisp air wraps around the hungry line.
Plates overflow as they find their way to the table. For the most part, seating patterns are set at random, based on the size of the dining party and space allotted on a given night. This, in turn, prods strangers to intermingle. One quickly enters into conversation with the person to the left, the right and directly in front. The topics delved into are as varied as the backgrounds of each person present.
“Oh, you’re from Charlotte? My father grew up there,” a voice is overheard.
“So, who do you think will win the SEC football title this year?” another comments.
Someone from Atlanta will pass the salt and pepper to someone from Greenville, while someone from Orlando hands the butter down to someone from Raleigh. Each person from a different starting point in life, all with a common bond that is their memories, new and old, of Cataloochee.
“This was my first time here, and I’m having a great time,” said Waynesville resident Joe Moore. “I’ve met several new people tonight, and I like it here — it’s beautiful.”
The tables are cleared and folded. Chairs are brought into the main dining area for the performance. But, before Rowan can take the stage, Weaverville musician Kevin Scanlon grabs a seat in front of the attentive crowd. He warms them up with a hearty plethora of Appalachian and original string melodies.
“The people who are here, they listen and are highly appreciative to watch us sit down and play,” Scanlon said. “It’s a nice experience for a musician to be able to play a space like that.”
As the audience relaxes into the ambiance, Rowan is waiting in the wings of the building. He puts the finishing touches on his outfit, with a few last second tunings on his guitar. Acclaimed for his work with bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and other musical icons like David Grisman and Vassar Clements, Rowan is a renowned, Grammy award-winning performer. He’s a living, breathing songbook of America, whose wisdom and words as are intoxicating as the performance itself.
“It’s like a revival meeting, old-time square dance and cross-cultural pollination all at the same time here,” he said. “You can take it down to intimacy. Because we’re doing bluegrass, there’s such an energy we’re putting out there — it’s more of a circle.”
Alongside mandolinist Chris Henry and banjoist Keith Little, Rowan welcomes his special guest, Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo. Together, they bridge the sacred, ancient mountain cultures of the Appalachians and Himalayas through chants, kind words and melodic exchanges. It is a scene of song, dance, laughter and harmony, something routinely found in the realms of live performance.
“The roots culture in some parts of the world has been endangered for awhile, and that creates sometimes bunker mentality where no strangers are allowed in,” Rowan said. “But, what we’d like to see as musicians is that the joy of these cultures is spread throughout the earth.”
Standing in the back of room, watching Rowan pluck away, Mary Coker is all smiles. It’s just another magical evening in her home, a place she’s known and been proud of her entire life.
“This is my home; this is where I grew up. My grandparents started this place and have instilled a love of being here in me,” she said.
A frequent visitor to the ranch, Rowan has cultivated a rich, powerful bond with the family at Cataloochee. Being a deeply spiritual person, he looks at his travels to Appalachia as a time to reflect and dig further into his life’s pursuits, which tend to be focused on personal, bountiful interactions amid the soothing power of music.
“You get up here and relax by the fire at night, a big old log fire,” Rowan said. “Then you take out your guitar and just listen to the sounds of the night — that’s where the music comes from.”
Want to know more?
Lead singer of Railroad Earth, Todd Sheaffer will hold an intimate acoustic solo show on Friday, Nov. 22, at Cataloochee Ranch. Tickets are $45 per person, which includes dinner. For more information on live performances, dinners and lodging at the ranch, click on www.cataloocheeranch.com or call 828.926.1401 or 800.868.1401.