Over the hills and far away: Balsam Mountain Inn ‘Songwriters in the Round’
Pulling off the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway onto the Cabin Flats Road, within an earshot of Waynesville, a cold wind whipped against the pickup truck, signaling to any and all that winter is far from over here in Western North Carolina.
The quiet road soon turns from pavement to gravel to dirt. And just as quickly the Balsam Mountain Inn appears, looming high above Cabin Flats like a postcard of a forgotten era, perhaps lost in the mailroom of time, a point in history when style and class were synonymous.
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 last Saturday evening (Feb. 13), 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.
“When a songwriter presents their work solely with their voice and instrument, the song comes through,” said singer-songwriter Jim Photoglo. “There’s no arrangement, adornment or hype of any kind to trick the listener into thinking there’s more than there really is. Lyrics, melody, chord changes — that’s all there is, folks.”
As the performers at the recent gathering at the inn, songwriting colleagues Sally Barris and Henry Hipkens joined Photoglo. The trio are all well-known A-list wordsmiths in the Nashville music circles, with many hits garnered between them.
“Jim, Henry and I have all been writing songs behind the scenes for years,” Barris said. “And at the Balsam Mountain Inn, we get the opportunity to share the stories behind the songs and connect with an appreciative and listening audience — that means a lot to us.”
Photoglo has penned numerous songs for the likes of Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, The Everly Brothers and Dusty Springfield, to name a few. He also had a couple No. 1 hits on the Billboard country charts with “Fishin’ In The Dark” (The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and “Hometown Honeymoon” (Alabama). With a long list of hit songs written for Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack, Barris’ melody “Let The Wind Chase You” was recorded by Trisha Yearwood and Keith Urban and received a Grammy nomination in 2009. And Hipkens’ himself has had songs recorded or performed by Ricky Skaggs, Pam Tillis, Tim O’Brien and Claire Lynch.
“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.”
When asked just what makes performances like the ones at the Balsam Mountain Inn so special, Photoglo noted the importance of listening rooms, especially in terms of a singer-songwriter trying to get their message across.
“You’ll hear the writer sing their truth,” he said. “And though it may be a personal statement, when the writer has done their job well, there is a universality, and very often you find they’re singing your truth as well as their own.”
And yet, before even one guitar note is played or lyric sung, the 118 folks in attendance filled 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.
“We see all of these people come in with a smile, grabbing for the food, sitting down and talking to others about each dish, and that puts a smile on my face,” said Head Chef Clifford Reum. “The food complements the performers. 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.”
And as Reum is holding down the fort in the kitchen, 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.”
Sitting down at the head table next to the songwriter’s circle, one is immediately welcomed by faces from near and far.
To the left are David and Carol Harper, a couple from southern Georgia who drove over seven hours to attend their 30th Songwriters in the Round event.
“There’s just nothing like this,” David proudly stated. “This isn’t like in a bar where the singer is the background noise. People come here to listen, to hear the words and the music, the stories and the process behind how the songs came to be.”
“I love the atmosphere,” Carol added. “We’ve just met so many different people, and have made many friends, as it also really has expanded our musical tastes.”
To the right is Sam Morgan from down the road in Waynesville. This is his sixth time at the series, all of which he has come to with his wife.
“I’ve lived all over the world and there really is no place like the Balsam Mountain Inn,” he said. “Come up and see what this place is all about, otherwise you’ll be denying yourself the beauty, history and music here.”
And across the table is another Waynesville couple, Tom Sheppard and his wife. When asked how many times they’ve been to the series, Tom reckoned the number hovers around 20.
“World-class music right here, just outside our small town of Waynesville,” he marveled. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of places anymore that you can see such incredible songwriting talent — it’s an intimate feeling.”
Supervising the large dining area is Betty Jones. With her house next door, the inn is a second home for her. Her late mother worked at the inn from 1962 until her passing in 2010. And throughout a lot of those years, Betty has stood behind the front desk, helping out wherever she could, with her involvement in the music series a main priority.
“When the inn sold in 2004, the folks that bought it didn’t really care about the series. But, I told them if they wanted me to stay and work, then they’d have to keep the series going,” Jones said. “I couldn’t imagine the series not being here. It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like. You really have to see it for yourself.”
Jones noted the series would be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016. It came about when Teasley and longtime friend, the late Paul Craft, an iconic Nashville songwriter, started kicking around the idea of replicating the intimacy of The Bluebird Café at the inn.
“The number one thing about the series is that it’s a way to bring all these great songwriters here for the locals and visitors to see and hear,” Jones said. “They come here and become part of the inn. They love it, and then tell others about it who come and listen.”
Jones also points to Teasley as the catalyst for the inn’s success. When the inn was about to go under years go, Teasley purchased it and brought it back to life. Though she sold it in 2004, Teasley once again found herself at the helm of Balsam Mountain in recent years when it was in dire need of not only ownership, but also leadership.
Wandering the great hallways and large rooms of the inn, one can see for themselves just how important it is a place like Balsam Mountain stills exists for all to stroll and ponder, and not read about in history books about a place that “once was.”
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 foots tap along to the selections that run the gamut of emotions. Love lost. Love found. Childhood nostalgia. Wonderment of what tomorrow will bring. And since it was Valentine’s Day weekend, one noticed how chairs seemed to scoot closer to significant others, with handholding in abundance while those lucky enough to have a date for the evening got cozy in the dark corners of the room.
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.
With another night of memories — seen, felt and heard — the Balsam Mountain Inn winds down for the evening. Many head for their rooms upstairs, while others throw on thick winter coats and head out into the frozen night — all with a song in their heart and a kick in their step.
Want to go?
The inn will also be hosting national finger picking champion Richard Smith at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27. The master guitarist will be joined by his wife, cellist Julie Adams. Tickets are $47 per person, which includes a buffet dinner.