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The Joy of Jammin’: Smoky Mountain Folk Festival celebrates 35 years of music and dance at Lake Junaluska

By Michael Beadle

What keeps people coming back year after year to the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival at Lake Junaluska each Labor Day weekend?

Maybe it’s the award-winning performers such as Marc Pruett, David Holt and Sheila Kay Adams. Maybe it’s the wholesome sounds of family string bands. Maybe it’s the chance to see Southern Appalachian clogging teams at their best.

Or maybe it’s the free watermelon and the opportunity to watch musicians meet and jam together among the lakeside tents.

Whatever the case may be, the festival has earned its reputation as a place where generations come to pass along their love for traditional Southern Appalachian stories, songs and dances.

“I think it truly has become one of the most authentic, established and prestigious folk festivals of this region,” said Joe Sam Queen, the festival’s director. “We have been genuinely blessed with talent. This is a performer’s festival. They put it on. It is a celebration of their heritage.”

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For two nights — Friday, Sept. 1, and Saturday, Sept. 2 — more than 200 performers will share their talents in the 2,000-seat Stuart Auditorium on the grounds of Lake Junaluska. Each night features open tent shows on the lawn starting at 5 p.m. with main stage performances beginning at 6:30 p.m. The entertainment, which runs until about 11 p.m., includes fiddlers, banjo players, string bands, ballad singers, guitar and mandolin players, dulcimer players, cloggers, bagpipers, storytellers and much more. Many of the original performers still come back decades later as the next generation carries along those time-honored tunes.

“David Holt started with us as just a college boy eagerly searching for his musical roots,” Queen explained. “Now he’s widely recognized as one of the best, and he still performs at the festival. There are many other examples of other critically acclaimed musicians such as five-time Grammy nominee John McCutcheon and recording artist Audrey Wiggins who honed their craft with us.”

Among this year’s talented acts will be fiddler Buddy Melton, who plays with Whitewater Bluegrass Co. Melton, who has attended the festival for a dozen years or more, sees the festival as a kind of reunion for many musicians. A lot of times, it’s a chance to see rare performances by talented musicians that don’t necessarily get out and tour that much, Melton said.

As the house band for this year’s festival, Whitewater Bluegrass Co. will provide the music you’ll hear when you see clogging teams performing on stage at Stuart Auditorium. Melton is also looking forward to playing with the members of his former band mates in Rock Springs Reunion and with traditional clawhammer banjo player Tracy Best.

Be sure to catch Melton’s distinctive tenor vocals and sweet fiddling with Whitewater Bluegrass Co., which has become one of the most sought-after bluegrass bands at festivals around the region.

“This area is so rich in music,” said Melton, who has played with such talents as flatpicking guitarist Tony Rice, banjo Grammy winner Marc Pruett, and upright bassist Adam Surrett.

But does it get difficult trying to rehearse a song with someone after you haven’t played with him all year?

Not really, Melton said.

“Music is such a universal language,” he said, explaining how, this summer at the Folkmoot international dance and music festival, fiddlers from Canada, Scotland and western North Carolina got together to share tunes they all knew. In fact, Whitewater Bluegrass performed at this year’s closing ceremony for Folkmoot at Stuart Auditorium.

This year’s Smoky Mountain Folk Festival line-up also includes the Rough Creek Cloggers, the UNC-Asheville Smooth Dancers, Phil and Gay Johnson, Montreat Pipes and Drums, Flora MacDonald Gammon, Betty Smith, the Cockman Family, Anne and Rob Lough, the Trantham Family, The NickPickers, the Stoney Creek Cloggers, Southern Appalachian Cloggers, Flave Hart and Mack Snodderly, and dozens more.

Smoky Mountain Folk Festival tickets are $10 at the door and $7.50 in advance and can be purchased at the Haywood County Arts Council office at 86 North Main Street in Waynesville or at the Administration Building at Lake Junaluska. For more information, call the arts council at 828.452,0593 or go to the Web site

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