Garret K. Woodward

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I was about an hour late.

Rolling up to the Swain County Business Education & Training Center in Bryson City last Saturday morning, I slammed the brakes of the old truck into the parking space, grabbed my box of books and headed for the front entrance.

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Heading up Hemphill Road, just outside of Maggie Valley, the lush fields and bungalow homes of Jonathan Creek fade into the rearview mirror. Pulling up to a large metal gate, it opens slowly and you soon find yourself meandering a dirt road, pushing ever so carefully toward the top of the 5,000-foot ridge.

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Those who forget history, tend to...

Well, you know the rest. Nowadays, it seems each morning we awaken into another national and international crisis. Be afraid of the Russian influence on America. Be afraid of nuclear war. Be afraid of presidential and political scandals. Be afraid of the Middle East and terrorism. Be afraid of racial and social divides. Be afraid of economic depression and lack of employment.

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At the heart of Asheville is a funky soul. And providing the soundtrack to that carefree and self-less attitude of the city and greater Western North Carolina is Empire Strikes Brass.

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When Ed Sutton first came to Cherokee in November to break ground on a new trail system, his directive was clear.

“We told him his marching orders were just make it great. Make it awesome,” said Jeremy Hyatt, natural resources and construction director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

It took over 30 years, but Harold Sims can now show the world.

“It’s been very rewarding,” he said. “I wanted to have a cat shelter, I made that come true. I wanted to have a cat museum, and I made that come true. It’s like the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ — ‘if you build it, they will come.’”

It’s the heartbeat of a town.

Coming into its 37th year, the Smoky Mountain Community Theatre has become a beacon of culture, education and creativity within Bryson City.

In her short tenure, Executive Director Lindsey Solomon has righted the unknown direction of the ship that is the Haywood County Arts Council. But, Solomon — who came into the fold a year and half ago — will be the first to point to the countless volunteers and artisan members who have made the HCAC a viable and valuable entity within the Waynesville and greater Haywood County communities.

Surrounded by piles of debris, old wood and gravel, Joe Rowland sees opportunity. “This is the inevitable next step for us,” he said.

Co-owner of Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City, Rowland wanders around a four-acre lot at the end of Depot Street, less than a block from the flagship brewery. Purchased by Rowland in early 2016, the property consisted of an abandoned warehouse (formerly the RC Cola bottling company) and large open field. Initially, the 11,000-square-foot building was going to be used for Nantahala’s equipment storage, barrel aging program and bottling line.

Stepping out of a large passenger van into the sunshine last Saturday afternoon, a group of around 10 people entered Bhramari Brewing in downtown Asheville. Once seated, an array of craft beer samples were placed in front of the group, with friendly banter swirling around the room while a brewery employee examined and explained each selection. 

Welcome to the Leap Frog Tours.

Turning onto 2nd Street from the hectic U.S. 19/74 highway, you find yourself cruising through downtown Andrews. It’s Saturday afternoon, and for most small towns in America, it is no surprise the center of a community is busy. 

But, for Andrews, this is a sight to behold. For a mountain town that’s been eerily quiet for many years, bordering on abandoned, the downtown is now abuzz with folks strolling the sidewalks, cars parked up and down the street. A sense of “well, hey, check this out” crosses the minds of those who used to only stop in this part of Cherokee County to refuel as a halfway point to their final destinations, which seemingly could be in any direction.

I remembered those places, and those faces.

Scrolling through Facebook — through the “fun in the sun” Fourth of July photos — in my office on Monday morning, I couldn’t help but have this feeling of longing to see and interact with friends and family celebrating the holiday weekend back home in Upstate New York.

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Sitting at a booth in the back of her store on recent morning, Allison Lee remembers the days long ago when her father ran a small-town business.

“My father was an independent store owner, a dime store, then later a hardware store,” she recalled. “I grew up on a Main Street in a small town, and when I was young I worked for my parents. I learned to count back change, ring things up on the old register. And it always meant a lot to my family about who the customers were, and how you serve the community. When he passed away some 17 years ago, some of the first people to land on my mother’s door were longtime customers.”

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It’s the hardest part of this gig.

As a journalist for just about a decade, I’ve been lucky enough to interview and photograph hundreds of folks, from all walks of life, that, perhaps, I may have never had the chance to interact with had I pursued another career path.

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It was weird.

Driving around downtown Canton this past weekend, it was weird to have a hard time finding a parking space. In most Western North Carolina communities during the busy summer tourist season, this is the norm. But, for the blue-collar paper mill town of Canton, finding a parking spot has never been an issue. 

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I look forward to it these days.

Calling my dad at the end of the day. With my parents still living in my native Upstate New York, I find myself dialing the old man almost every night, just to shoot the bull. With our conversations normally hovering around the matters of the day — politically and socially — we then knock it down a notch, talking about sports, family, or simply telling one tall tale after another, usually with some hearty laughter echoing from the other end of the line.

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If you want to understand the history of bluegrass music, you need to look at its entire spectrum — of sound, of intent — as one large tree. With the deep, sturdy roots that are Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and so on, the trunk is the culmination of those roots, with each growing branch another avenue of creative possibility and sonic exploration.

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It took over 30 years, but Harold Sims can now show the world.

“It’s been very rewarding,” he said. “I wanted to have a cat shelter, I made that come true. I wanted to have a cat museum, and I made that come true. It’s like the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ — ‘if you build it, they will come.’”

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I’m exhausted.

I think y’all out there reading this can attest to the pure exhaustion — of body, mind and soul — these last couple of years. If the presidential election wasn’t physically and emotionally draining enough, it feels like every morning I get up, well, it’s another go-round on this rollercoaster of an administration, of a modern world struggling with its identity and priorities.

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To say Doyle Lawson has had a full career would be an understatement.

Nowadays, Lawson is regarded as a pillar of the bluegrass world. But, at 73, he still feels as if he’s just getting started, where a never-ending reservoir of creativity and enthusiasm spills out onto the stage each night.

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Editor’s Note: After heading to his native Upstate New York last week to give the eulogy at his aunt’s funeral, Garret was also asked to marry off his best friend, Andy, this past weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. Andy and Garret crossed paths almost five years ago when both relocated to Waynesville for work at the same time. Being strangers in a new town (Andy moved from Knoxville), with no familiarity nearby, they became fast friends, ultimately best friends. About a year later, Andy met and began dating Ashley, the love of his life. He then relocated to Knoxville, with Garret visiting the couple often. When Andy proposed to Ashley, he decided, being an only child, to ask his father to be his best man. With that, Andy and Ashley then asked Garret to be the officiant, who would bring them together in holy matrimony in front of their closest friends and family members. Below is the speech Garret wrote and gave in front of the congregation before the rings were exchanged ...

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The roaring of the plane engine shook me awake.

Coasting into the skies over Newark, New Jersey, the flight was headed to Knoxville, then it was another hour-and-a-half car ride back to Waynesville. It had been a long week, and an even longer year, as I sipped my screwdriver and got lost in my thoughts.

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The key element of bluegrass music is the “unspoken” — in practice, in performance and in personality. 

Whether you’re 8 years old or 80, the foundation of bluegrass lies in its traditions, where knowledge and technique is passed down through the generations. That transition of wisdom is found while strumming in a field at a festival with strangers, chugging along onstage in the heat of a jam with your friends, or pickin’ and grinnin’ on a back porch with family members.

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It came as a shock that has had a ripple effect within music circles around Western North Carolina and beyond.

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I didn’t know what to say.

Standing in the doorway of the music venue, he said it so casually. 

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It’s brutal honesty.

Within the wide-spectrum of creative mediums, standup comedy may just be the most vulnerable and jarring of the artisan crafts. Standing in front of a roomful of strangers, all staring at you, comedians peel back the layers of who we think they are, who they think they are, and who they actually are — warts and all.

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So, you have the talent, imagination and output of an artist. But, do you also have the drive, business savvy and staying power?

“Tell your story, get involved in your community, and share your passion,” said Brad Dodson.

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It was during the first sip of my second beer when it struck me.

“Let’s go see Dave Davies.”

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It’s as timeless as the soundtrack of our lives, regardless of age.

When you listen to big band music, you either remember where you were when these melodies first hit the airwaves or you remember hearing them as a kid at your grandparents’ house. The sounds of a full orchestra — led by the likes of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman — conjure immediate memories. It’s well-earned emotions of love, heartbreak, happiness and sadness, all wrapped together in the musical notes and songbird vocals of the singular force that is big band.

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It was immediately familiar. 

Stepping into the Canton Middle School last Friday morning, the sights, sounds and smells of the building transported my mind back to when I was 13 years old some two decades ago. There was the sights of teachers and administrators meandering up and down long corridors, sounds of young teenage boys and girls playfully teasing and laughing with each other, smells of an old gymnasium and predictable cafeteria food.

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I had just reached for the eggplant parmesan sandwich when it was asked.

“What do you think about God?”

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It’s about finding your center. 

Though they’re hundreds of miles from the closest ocean, the members of Sylva-based Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) have concocted a formula of reggae soul unique to the mountains of Western North Carolina. It’s more about an uplifting and relaxed state of mind rather than actual sandy toes and salt water. 

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I remembered immediately.

Scrolling through the Facebook stream on Monday afternoon, I came across a post from a dear high school friend who had some sad news to share. A mutual friend of ours, from way back up on the Canadian border, in my native North Country, had suddenly and tragically passed away the night before.

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Stepping out of a large passenger van into the sunshine last Saturday afternoon, a group of around 10 people entered Bhramari Brewing in downtown Asheville. Once seated, an array of craft beer samples were placed in front of the group, with friendly banter swirling around the room while a brewery employee examined and explained each selection. 

Welcome to the Leap Frog Tours.

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Although the official “Grand Opening” is May 20 for Mountain Layers Brewing in Bryson City, the newest brewery in Western North Carolina has already starting pouring pints on Everett Street. 

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It was familiar, yet weird. 

Over the last two weeks I’ve crossed paths twice with my immediate family. Once down in St. Augustine, Florida, for my father’s 75th birthday and this past weekend in Waynesville, as my parents, little sister and niece came to visit me in Western North Carolina.

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When you’re in the presence of Terrence Mann, you find yourself within reach of an energy — a vibe, perhaps — where you know this person standing before you is a creative reservoir of unknown depths. 

A three-time Tony Award nominee (twice for “Best Actor,” once for “Best Featured Actor”), Mann has performed in small playhouses and renowned theatre companies up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with his numerous roles on Broadway bringing him international acclaim. He was Charles in “Pippin,” Javert in “Les Miserables,” Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show,” the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” and Rum Tum Tugger in “Cats,” just to name a handful.

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It’s needed now more than ever before.

The place of the singer-songwriter in a modern world is a tricky spot. With all the bells, whistles and studio tricks at your fingertips, one could surmise that pop and mainstream radio in 2017 sounds more like an Internet dial-up tone in the 1990s instead of actual melodic harmonies.

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You don’t know me.

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself saying that exact statement above to folks I love and care about. One being my sister over the phone back home in the North Country. The other via Skype with a femme fatale currently out of the country, one that has caught my eye over the winter.

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She is still a fox.

Midnight. Last Tuesday morning. Wide-awake and in front of a large HD television at my parent’s Florida rental cottage. I haven’t had cable in several years. But, seeing as everyone was already asleep and March Madness was over for the night, I clicked around the endless channels of nothing.

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By all accounts, the craft beer business continues to boom in Western North Carolina.

And that’s not just in Asheville with its dozens of breweries and brewpubs. Head west on Interstate 40 and merge onto the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway. You’ll soon come across numerous breweries from Canton to Bryson City, Highlands to Murphy, and seemingly everywhere in between.

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He’s the common denominator.

When you look back at the career of iconic bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman, you’re diving deep into the rich and vast history of that “high, lonesome sound.” And yet, the more you wander into that melodic hub of David “Dawg” Grisman, you also find yourself zooming like a rhythmic train across the spectrum of sound, making additional stops at folk, jazz, world fusion, and acoustic music.

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Once they announce your name, you stand up and move towards the bright lights.

Meandering around a sardine can ballroom of tables, chairs and random folks milling about, The Smoky Mountain News made it to the stage at the Sheraton in downtown Raleigh last Thursday evening.

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“You know, history becomes personal,” Reggie Harris said to a silent auditorium last Sunday afternoon. “These are our stories, and our history — black and white — on this long road of broken dreams and possibilities.”

Sitting onstage at the Swain Arts Center in Bryson City, Harris was joined by Scott Ainslie during their “Black and White and Blues” program, which received support from the North Carolina Arts Council.

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It came out of the blue.

Sunday morning. My smart phone dinged next to my bed. I groaned, rolled over and reached for it. One eye open, my blurry vision tried to make out the sender in the message. It was a name I hadn’t spoken to in several years, more than a decade since we’d seen each other in person.

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What would you do?

A pile of drugs. A stack of cash. More money than you’ve ever seen in your life, and more illegal fun and chaos than you ever thought possible. And yet, while standing at this crossroads there’s a dead body on the floor, bullet hole through the head, blood spilling across the floor, ever closer to your shoes, and also your link to the situation.

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I finally had a moment of silence.

After a raucous Saturday night attending the Perpetual Groove show at The Salvage Station in Asheville, I found myself in the living room of my friend’s house in West Asheville. Midnight had come and gone, and there I was, sitting on the couch, wide awake as folks were already asleep atop the air mattress on the floor and in the back bedroom.

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It wasn’t the film that was shocking. It was the mere fact I had previously thought “I was aware,” and yet actually have fallen so short in my pursuits.

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In a bizarre discovery, over 50 intentionally placed spikes have been identified and removed from the popular trail system at Pinnacle Park in Sylva.

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