At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

Nurturing the ties that bind

I’ve spent most of my career at small newspapers, and one thing I’ve learned is the value of making connections.

I’m not talking connections that bring personal gain, but rather those that bring people together. One of my former publishers used some variation of that word almost every time he talked to reporters and editors responsible for getting out on the street and developing story ideas: “How many people would such and such story connect?” “How can we reach out to that particular community and make some connections?” “We should follow up with that story and connect the dots.”

It’s like taking the six degrees of separation hypothesis and narrowing the gap, make it so people are connected on an even more intimate level. Despite the crimes and misdeeds you’ll read about in these pages, telling those feel-good stories is also a vital part of what the media does.

Finding that commonality is something we should all be trying to do. Lord knows there seems to enough vitriol and petty political posturing driving us apart. 

That’s why I wanted to tell a portion of a story that is ongoing, that of the Art of Music Festival, which wrapped up Saturday night at Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium. It’s a story about good intentions, good people, and good music turning a flicker of an idea into something that is great for this region. 

Last Tuesday night, I was at Frog Level Brewing listening to Balsam Range’s Darren Nicholson play to a packed house. Ran into a half-dozen people I hadn’t seen in a while. On Wednesday I was at Boojum and enjoyed a show by Ol’ Dirty Bathtub and Nicholson with Milan Miller, who is from Haywood but is a successful Nashville songwriter who has penned several of Balsam Range’s songs. Also joining in was the young fiddle sensation Alma Russ, who is from Bryson City 

The crowd was large and diverse, including local arts supporters Stephen and Betsy Wall. Ran into Whittier farmer William Shelton and his son, Will. Shelton is a former Jackson County commissioner who came over to Waynesville because of the music.

Come Thursday, I was at the Folkmoot Center to hear the Songwriters Showcase, a show featuring Balsam Range’s Buddy Melton and Nicholson, along with Miller and Aaron Biblehauser, Mark Bumgarner and John Wiggins. It was a fantastic show as the songwriters traded time at the mic. The place was packed and I could see excitement on Folkmoot Executive Director Angie Schwab’s face. She’s talked for years about the Folkmoot Center becoming a community hub, and this is just what she had in mind. Volunteers — including Folkmoot Board President David Francis — even had to haul in more chairs to accommodate the overflow. 

Three shows in three nights is a lot of music for me, but it didn’t stop there. On Saturday my wife Lori and I were back at Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium to hear the final performance of the 2018 Art of Music Festival, a night that was capped off with Balsam Range on stage with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra. As the night drew to a close I looked around and saw a packed house, most fans staying until the performers took the final bows.

And there was more: workshops on Friday and Saturday at Lake Junaluska, a Thursday show at the Colonial Theater in Canton that included Balsam Range’s Caleb Smith and a Wednesday performance at Elevated Mountain Distillery in Maggie Valley. 

When the Art of Music Festival started two years ago, Balsam Range members and others had a plan. They wanted to showcase this area and in particular Haywood County. They wanted to do it during the early winter when there aren’t many tourists around, when things start to slow down and they could therefore boost the economy. Mission accomplished.

Another part of the vision was to turn it into a week-long celebration, to have shows throughout the county where the guest musicians from out of town would play in venues around Haywood and mix it up with local bands and performers. Again, this year’s festival did just that.

Perhaps the greatest thing about this festival, though, is how it is building community connections and social engagement. Sounds corny, but the reason I was dropping the names of some of the people I ran into last week and of some of those who helped organize the festival is because it’s those people who made the festival a success. People around here wanted it to succeed and wanted to be a part of it. So they showed up, paid their money, and took part.

While in college, my middle child, Hannah, introduced me to the book about the “blue zones,” places where people lived the longest, where centenarians were not so uncommon. I remember reading her college essays on the subject where she delved into the characteristics that people in these diverse places around the world had in common. The one that struck me was social interaction. Old and young continued to interact with each other, each finding real meaning in those relationships and in spending time together.

At each venue I went to last week, I thought about that. Old and young, professional and blue collar, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, musicians and music lovers, people having fun, people connecting, all helping make this festival work. In the interactions with each other, they were strengthening a community, creating something greater than the sum of the parts.

The Art of Music Festival is already a success. I sense it could become something special.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Go to top