Garret K. Woodward

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Give or take, it’s about 1,010 miles from Waynesville, North Carolina (my current home) to Plattsburgh, New York (my hometown). I know this fact seeing as about twice a year I roar up and down the interstates of the Eastern Seaboard either heading home for the holidays or back to Southern Appalachia for work. 

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Standing in a two-bay garage in downtown Sylva last Friday afternoon, Victoria Shufelt was putting the final touches on a pop-up art gallery event.

“For such a small town, I’ve always been blown away by the amount of creative folks here,” Shufelt said. “And this space is a totally blank canvas to come together and create in Sylva.”

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As the decade comes to a close, I sip this cup o’joe in a quiet coffee shop in a small town in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I think of December 2009 and how incredibly different life was. 

At 24 years old, the economy had tanked a year earlier. Living back in my native Upstate New York (in my parent’s farmhouse), I had left the west in 2008 following my first journalism gig at a tiny paper in Eastern Idaho. 

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Last Saturday evening at Orchard Coffee in Waynesville, two nationally acclaimed singer-songwriters stepped in front of microphones and projected their captivating voices and lyrical aptitude to a silent, spellbound audience.  

“I like having that personal connection in a place like this — there’s such a feeling in here,” said Israel Nebeker. “I was rehearing for the show tonight in my hotel room earlier, and I was thinking back on some these songs I wrote, and those coffee shops I played when I was starting out — it’s really a full circle thing.”

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It was about halfway into the quirky tune “My Sweet One” when the memories started to flood my field of vision. There I was this past Sunday, surrounded by a sea of over 13,000 people, while our band Phish performed onstage in Charleston, South Carolina. 

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Amid the plethora of talented bluegrass, Americana and string acts in Western North Carolina, the idea of a rock trio is more so a rarity than something one might come across in regional musical circles.

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My eyelids fluttered open and it took me a couple moments to realize that I was in my apartment and it was Thanksgiving morning. After a wild, raucous Thanksgiving Eve bouncing through the fine establishments of downtown Waynesville, it was time to dust myself off and be ready for the impending dinner.

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With the recent “10-year challenge” on Facebook — where folks compare photos of themselves from 2009, as a way to celebrate the end of this decade next month — I was curious and tracked down what I was up way back when.

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In just seven years together, the members of Sister Sadie have risen into the upper echelon of the modern bluegrass scene. 

From a Grammy nomination for “Best Bluegrass Album” (for “Sister Sadie II”) to a handful of appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, 2019 was a milestone year for the group. This past September, the band received the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award for “Vocal Group of the Year” — the first all-female act in the history of the IBMAs to do so. 

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Tucked in the depths of Wall Street in Waynesville, the Green Orchid Soap Co. is meant to be found by chance or happenstance — this cozy spot just off Main Street, right down a side alley away from the bustle of downtown.

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When I was a kid, my parents would talk to anybody. Literally anybody. Though my little sister was somewhat embarrassed by it, I was completely fascinated. 

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With over 2,000 folks piling into the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in downtown Asheville for Incubus on Thursday evening, those in attendance walked away from the gathering with way more than simply “hearing the hits.”

Celebrating the 20th anniversary release of the California rock act’s breakthrough album, “Make Yourself,” the performance unfolded with a retrospective film being projected on the large backdrop behind the drum kit, the entire audience on its feet cheering along.

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With over 2,000 folks piling into the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in downtown Asheville for Incubus on Thursday evening, those in attendance walked away from the gathering with way more than simply “hearing the hits.”

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When I lace up my running shoes lately, I’ve found that I usually need to add a windbreaker on top of my normal running attire. It’s that time of year again, my favorite spot on the calendar. The air is colder, the leaves have fallen, and yet the sun’s rays still warm the face — that calm before the storm of holidays and family obligations. 

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Longtime guitarist for legendary rock act Widespread Panic, Jimmy Herring’s sole focus as a musician is — and has always been — about creating an inclusive melodic platform with his electric six-string, by which he and other musicians onstage can stand atop and swirl around each other with ease. 

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It was right around 3 p.m. when I knew I had to escape.

Sitting in the Panacea Coffeehouse in the Frog Level District of Waynesville on Monday afternoon, I had finished my writing for the day. I had concluded all my emails, correspondences and text messages, too. I just wanted to get away, even if but for a moment, from my damn smart phone and laptop in an era of Wi-Fi and unlimited data plans. 

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Cutting through the onslaught of monotonous bar bands and diluted midnight hour showcases like a buzz saw gone haywire, The Hooten Hallers remain one of the most mesmerizing, innovative and raucous acts on the national scene these days.

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In my 12 years as a professional journalist, I’ve seen and heard the good, the bad, and the ugly of what it means to find balance and strength in this industry that is newspapers, magazines and media in our country and around our world.

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First and foremost, Raymond Fairchild was one of the finest banjo players who ever walked the face of the earth. He had a storied reputation for incredibly strong and powerful pickin’ on the five-string instrument — a sentiment also said about his moonshine from behind closed doors. 

Last Sunday afternoon, Fairchild passed away unexpectedly at the age of 80. Though his music and influence will live on for generations, the bluegrass industry and Western North Carolina have lost a true original, one of the last of his kind in rural Southern Appalachia. 

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Raymond Fairchild — a bluegrass legend in Western North Carolina — passed away unexpectedly Sunday afternoon at the age of 80, but his music and influence will live on for generations.

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For a moment, I had thought I’d gone crazy.

Standing in the laundromat just a block away from my apartment in Waynesville, I stared at Dryer #4 with a puzzled look on my face. It was 1:45 p.m. on an otherwise normal Tuesday. I walked up to Dryer #4 and put my hand on the door. It was still warm. It had happened: someone stole my laundry. 

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My 2019 festival season is over as of this past Sunday night at the “Blue Ridge Jam” at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain. With my first festival of the year in late March, I’ve attended and/or covered 24 music festivals in the last 29 weeks. Crazy, eh?

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In the matter of a song, Charlie Parr can make you laugh and cry, all while finding simple meanings and understandings about the human condition.

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Just before he entered the main auditorium of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh this past Thursday evening, Darren Nicholson stood back for a moment as he watched the entire bluegrass industry mingle before his eyes.

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The crisp air now wafts into the open windows of my quiet apartment in downtown Waynesville. The ushering in of fall. Another summer has come and gone in the blink of an eye. 

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At 23, guitarist Marcus King has quickly transitioned from a prodigy into a bonafide legend on the electric six-string. 

Crisscrossing the globe since he was a teenager emerging from Greenville, South Carolina, King and his band have risen to the upper echelon of rock-n-roll and soul music, a modern-day realm inhabited by the likes of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and JJ Grey & Mofro. 

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This past weekend at Kickin’ It On The Creek marked my 20th music festival in the last 27 weeks.

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For the better part of the last three decades, G. Love (aka: Garrett Dutton) and his band Special Sauce have been crisscrossing America with its signature blend of hip-hop, blues and jazz.

Coming up through the 1980s hip-hop scene in Philadelphia, G. Love soon found himself a young street busker in Boston, eventually taking his intricate rapping skills, old-time harmonica and folk guitar stylings into the studio for the group’s groundbreaking 1994 self-titled debut album. 

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I’ve been feeling some overwhelming gratitude this week during the premiere and continued rollout of Ken Burns’ 16.5-hour PBS documentary series “Country Music.”

I sat there in utter awe during the first episode on Sunday evening, something I’ve always felt watching Burns’ films since I was a kid. My entire existence is wrapped around his influence on me as a writer, journalist, storyteller, history freak, and as a human being trying to make connections with others. 

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Clocking in at over 16 hours, the new Ken Burns documentary “Country Music” is an extremely detailed and intricate look at the genre through the lens of our nation and the wide variety of its citizens that inhabit it.

The film lays down the foundation and continual evolution of country music. It’s a portal and rabbit hole into this never-ending melodic history and its artists, a true sense of discovery of self — of time and place — through songs about heartache and redemption.

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Last Sunday morning, at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Route 27 in Wiscasset, Maine, I decided to turn right instead of going straight. 

Instead of the usual drive down U.S. 1 to Interstate 95 and back into civilization, along the highways that lead me to my native North Country of Upstate New York, I chose Route 27 and pushed north into the desolate backwoods of Maine. I had a lot on my mind and preferred the scenic path. No need to rush back to my parents’ house. 

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It’s a serendipitous sort of happenstance when you stumble across the White Moon coffee shop. Tucked in the depths of Mill Street in downtown Sylva, the cozy establishment is meant to be a refuge from whatever may be distracting you from hearing the most important voice in your life — your own.

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Pulling off Interstate 87 onto Route 9, the fading sun lowered itself behind the cornfields and open meadows of the Champlain Valley. It has been a while since I’d found myself crossing into the village limits of Rouses Point, New York, a place where I spent the first 18 years of my life.

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Atop a hill on the western edge of downtown Waynesville, just past the invisible line where the delicious smell of down home food stops wafting from nearby Bogart’s Restaurant & Tavern, sits a picturesque century-old home. 

With a fresh cup of coffee in hand one recent sunny morning, Joe Sam Queen sat in a rocking chair on the side patio of his serene abode and reminisced about the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival. 

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The 50th annual Smoky Mountain Folk Festival will be held on Aug. 30-31 at the Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center. Both nights will include a rich variety of the region’s finest fiddlers, banjo players, string bands, ballad singers, buck dancers and square dance teams as well as the marvelous sounds of dulcimer, harmonica, Jew’s harp, bagpipes, spoons, saws, and folk ensembles.

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Heartbroken and stunned. That’s about all I can say or feel at this moment with the tragic passing of singer-songwriter and guitarist Neal Casal. 

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It’s one of the most recognizable voices in all of American music.

When Richard Sterban famously coined the “oom-pa-pa-oom-pa-pa-mow-mow” bass solo during The Oak Ridge Boy’s crossover 1981 smash hit “Elvira,” he not only forever solidified his tone in the halls of country music, he also became a lifelong pop culture icon in the process. 

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It was 50 years ago this past weekend that Max Yasgur, a 49-year-old conservative Upstate New York farmer, stood onstage at Woodstock in front of 400,000 youthful faces of the counterculture and simply proclaimed, “You’ve proven to the world that a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music …”

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Now syndicated on PBS stations from coast to coast, “David Holt’s State of Music” has become a beacon of traditional music and worldwide exposure for countless local, regional and national acts hailing from Western North Carolina and Southern Appalachia.

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It’s around midnight, early Tuesday morning. Just sitting here, thinking. Finally getting around to drinking a cold beer on a recliner in an apartment that I’ve barely called home this spring and summer. 

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In bluegrass, there are pioneers and there are pillars — Becky Buller is both.

A beloved singer/fiddler, the Minnesota native left the Midwest as a teenager for Southern Appalachia, all in search of that “high, lonesome sound.” And in her lifelong quest to immerse herself in bluegrass music, Buller has become a legend in her own right.

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Please allow me to reintroduce myself.

I started this column back around Memorial Day of 2013. So, by the calendar on the wall, that more than six years of a weekly page to talk about whatever it is rolling through my mind at a particular moment — love, politics, sports, music, policy, slice of life musings, etc. 

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The purpose of a writer is to take observations on life and distill those sights and sounds into words and sentiments reflecting the way the wind is blowing at a particular juncture in time. 

It’s also a purpose as to show the reader just how common and repetitive the themes of human nature are throughout the centuries and millennia. For we as a species tend to not stray far from our usual thoughts and actions: love and hate, fear and compassion, war and peace. 

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Persistence and gratitude. Those are two key words and concepts in life, personally and professionally. But, for this specific post, I’m referring to the professional aspect of the words. 

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Huddled around a table at the White Moon Coffee Shop on Mill Street in downtown Sylva one recent rainy afternoon, Kendall Waldrop, Georganna Seamon and Don Panicko discuss the group’s latest endeavor — the Sylva Art + Design Committee.

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Though the roads were slick from heavy rainstorms on Tuesday morning, I momentarily couldn’t figure out why my truck was pushing back against my gas pedal on the short drive from my apartment to The Smoky Mountain News office in downtown Waynesville. 

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Lately, or more so in recent years, I find the only way I can drown out the constant barrage of noise and division in our country is when I put on my headphones, throw on some music, and let my fingertips flutter away on the laptop keyboard.

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At 72 years old, singer-songwriter Jim Avett is a modern-day Renaissance man. Avett is a beloved Appalachian folk musician. Up at the crack of dawn farmer. Served in the Navy during Vietnam. A social worker for a period. And a welder for almost four decades. He’s traveled across the country and around the world, and never once losing that childlike wonder that resides at the crossroads of curiosity, discovery and adventure. 

In its 36th year of cultural exchange through song and dance, Folkmoot remains a moving target, one that constantly evolves in its programming, but never once forgetting its core values.

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Bordering the bustling Patton Avenue in downtown Asheville, you wouldn’t know where Echo Mountain Recording is unless you were told. 

An old church turned into a state-of-the-art production studio, the property is purposely minimal, this sort of physical doorway into a melodic universe of potential and possibility. 

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