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History comes to life through food, music and camaraderie

tg cataloocheeStanding atop the 5,000-foot Cataloochee Ranch mountain retreat in Maggie Valley, the vastness and endless beauty of Western North Carolina stretches out before your eyes. Heading towards the main building, you reach for the doorknob and enter eagerly. Soon, your body, mind and soul are soaked by 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 its 80th 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 year-round, Cataloochee has become a word-of-mouth destination 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 “Mr. Tom” and “Miss Judy.” “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.”

Coker thinks quality music is a great compliment the irreplaceable culture of the ranch. It’s a history that only seems to get stronger with age. One recent special guest performer was legendary singer/songwriter Peter Rowan.

Handfuls of curious people, hovering around 100 in attendance, trickled into the robust structure, once a sheep barn, each wandering the space and interacting with friends and strangers alike. And just like the license plates in the parking lot, the folks inside are from states around the South and beyond. 

Soon, Smith rings the dinner bell. Plates are filled with a homemade buffet of ribs, chicken, vegetables, potatoes and corn pudding. Guests grab their dishes and head for the buffet outside. Stream arises from the large portions of food as a 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.

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.

The tables are cleared and folded. Innumerable chairs are brought into the main dining area for the performance. 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 on America and beyond, 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.”

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 soul and life 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.”



Come on up

As Cataloochee Ranch celebrates its 80th season, there will be music most weekends along with the ranch’s famous meals. For a music schedule and more information, visit

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