Garret K. Woodward

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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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Within almost two decades together, Greensky Bluegrass has grown from a scrappy string band to one of the premier live stage acts currently touring the country.

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I hadn’t slept that long in years.

After driving up and down the East Coast for the better part of the last two months, from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, I found myself awakened from a deep slumber last Thursday morning — almost 6,000 miles and 15 states total. 

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How could something so beautiful be so ugly?

Standing at the edge of the ocean on the Gulf Coast of Texas, I looked down at my feet being washed over by the relentless waves of crisp waters filled with mystery and wonder. I kicked around pebbles and broken shells, just glancing down at them with such awe, almost a Zen-like state of mind where you simply zone out and immerse yourself in the winds of change, and of self.

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They wanted to shake things up.

In 1971, a young Sam Bush aimed to create a new kind of bluegrass music. The legendary mandolinist was a teenager when he formed New Grass Revival. In the “classic lineup,” the group brought together the likes of Curtis Burch, Courtney Johnson and John Cowan (and later Bela Fleck).

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Sitting in the back of his tour van in a Texas parking lot on a recent cold prairie night, Hayes Carll takes a sip of Jameson from a small plastic cup, leans back into the bench seat and kicks up his boots.

He’ll be the first to tell you the world today is an odd — and sometimes confusing — place, and he’ll also be sure to remind you that the sky ain’t falling. Sure, there’s an increasing divide between who we are and where we’re going as a society. But, real compassion and understanding comes from seeing the other side as a piece of some large pie of humanity, rather than a segment of the population that needs to be alienated, or worse — eliminated.

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Popping the tailgate down in my truck, I jumped up, my eyes gazing straight ahead.

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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.

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I had just enough water left.

Squeezing the last of my water bottle onto my dry toothbrush, I managed to get a halfway decent cleaning session. And there I was, sitting in the passenger’s seat of my old pickup truck, at 9 a.m. this past Monday morning, in the parking lot of a Waffle House in rural Arkansas.

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It was a 1963 station wagon with six musicians and their equipment.

When Tony Butala reminisces about the beginning of The Lettermen, a legendary vocal trio, he remembers crisscrossing America, playing upwards of 200 shows a year in the early 1960s. Starting the ensemble in 1957, Butala created one of the most successful acts of an era where vocal style and intricate songwriting reigned supreme.

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Has it really been that long?

When I looked at the calendar this week, I realized it said 2017, which means I’m entering my fifth year as your features editor for The Smoky Mountain News. Truth-be-told, when I arrived in Western North Carolina in August 2012, I didn’t think I’d be here much longer than a year. Bank some cash, get some articles for my resume, and move on. That was the plan, or at least that’s what I thought the plan was.

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I decided to not wear the hardhat.

Standing underneath the magnificent 215-foot high ancient rock arch at the Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia, I found myself in awe of Mother Nature’s creativity, and also of the history attached to the property.

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They are the bridge.

In the bluegrass world these days, it seems there are two camps of thought and performance — neo-traditional and progressive. On one side, you have the “old school” of Larry Sparks, Doyle Lawson and those who truly adhere to the likes of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. On the other, are those who stretch out a little bit, where the lines between bluegrass, Americana and soul are blurred, acts likes The Steep Canyon Rangers, Greensky Bluegrass and Yonder Mountain String Band.

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It ain’t dead.

Rock-n-roll. In an era when sugar-coated pop stars and polished country acts are atop the charts, one wonders if there is any shred of real rock swagger and attitude anymore. Where is that sound and tone that pushes sonic barriers and actually challenges you to think outside the box with lyrical content that isn’t about riverbanks and moonshine, but rather focuses on the raw elements of the human condition?

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Through the strewn lights I could see the Empire State Building.

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Each year, we here at The Smoky Mountain News showcase our “Spoof Awards.” Sometimes they’re meant in good tongue-and-cheek fun, but mostly they’re special events, people and places that we throw the spotlight onto one more time in reflection as another long and bountiful year comes to a close, a new year ready to begin.

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Home.

For me, it’s Plattsburgh, New York. Just down the road from the Canadian border, in the heart of the North Country on Lake Champlain. It’s been almost five years since I lived there, and several years before that when I initially left the rust belt blue-collar city in pursuit of my journalistic aspirations.

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It’s bittersweet.

“I really would hope that this program would expire,” said Tom Knapko. “But, that hasn’t been the case with increasing need for these baskets.”

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It’s about time.

It’s about time someone kicked us all in the ass when it comes to the power and swagger (and social responsibility) of rock music. It’s been awhile since I came across a melodic entity that truly made me immediately blurt out, “Who in the hell in this? And why am I just hearing about this right now?”

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But, I’m not sad either.

Even with that Charlie Brown quote in the headline to emphasize my thoughts on the impending Christmas, I still find myself somewhere in the neutral zone. Sure, I’m a positive thinking and focus-driven person, but why-oh-why do I find myself more of a loner when the inclusiveness of the holiday season taps my shoulder? 

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A frigid mountain wind howled through Bryson City last Friday evening as a handful of folks hurried into the Smoky Mountain Community Theatre. Finding a seat in the old building, one was immediately greeted by numerous actors in full 1940s attire.

“Welcome to the show,” they smiled.

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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.

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“You don’t know me but I’m your brother/I was raised here in this living hell/You don’t know my kind in your world/Fairly soon the time will tell/You, telling me the things you’re gonna do for me/I ain’t blind and I don’t like what I think I see/Takin’ it to the streets…”

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“I’m glad you’re here right now.”

Standing in line at the Old Europe coffee shop in downtown Asheville, I said that to my old friend, Jerica. It was a rainy Sunday evening and we’d just gotten out of a documentary screening (about Tim Leary and Ram Dass) at the Grail Moviehouse. While I was mulling over the cosmic nature and theme of the film and what our place is in the universe (as per usual), I looked over at Jerica and smiled.

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Dec. 7, 1941. It’s a date that conjures numerous images and thoughts. The USS Arizona engulfed in smoke and flames. Fighter pilots zooming across the sky with the “rising sun” emblazoned on the sides of their aircraft. Machine guns blasting upwards, bombs being dropped down onto unsuspecting soldiers and civilians.


SEE ALSO:
Locals react to Japanese attack
Witness to history
Swain band performs at Pearl Harbor Anniversary

When the Japanese bombed the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor on that dark day, our country not only found itself now pulled into World War II, it also signaled a turning point in our history that still reverberates into today — politically, economically, and socially.

With over 2,400 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor, it was the largest foreign attack on U.S. soil until the World Trade Center in 2001. What Pearl Harbor represents is where the line in the sands of time was drawn. It’s where Appalachian farm boys grabbed their rifles and became national heroes, where housewives grabbed their tool belts and built war machines. It was the unification of a nation that had the weight and fate of the world on its shoulders as the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito salivated at the idea of complete domination and destruction.

My late grandfather was there — front and center — at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Enlisted in the United States Army, Frank Kavanaugh was a 21-year-old from rural Upstate New York, ready to see the world on his own, unbeknownst to the real dangers that lay on the horizon. He rarely spoke of his time at Pearl Harbor, and also of his experience during several key battles in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. But, he did however conduct an interview on Pearl Harbor in 1994 (Google: Home Town Cable Frank Kavanaugh). 

And as the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor rolls around, we celebrate those brave men and woman of “The Greatest Generation,” who answered the call of war in hopes of defeating the Axis powers in an effort to create a better tomorrow in the face of peril and utter doom. 

— By Garret K. Woodward, staff writer

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Turning onto Qualla Road in Waynesville, the meandering route goes from pavement to gravel to dirt within a half-mile. By the time you realize it has been a little while since you’ve seen a mailbox, a small cabin appears in the tree line to the left.

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It’s about staying true to yourself.

When you converse with country/bluegrass legend Marty Stuart, you’re speaking to the source. From being a teenager, touring and performing side-by-side with Lester Flatt in the 1970s, to finding country radio success in the 1980s and 1990s, to his enduring work with Doc Watson and Johnny Cash, Stuart has risen into the upper echelon of Nashville icons.

SEE ALSO: Marty Stuart, Balsam Range at Lake JBalsam Range at Lake J

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The eternal struggle of bluegrass is being able to balance evolution with tradition.

How does one adhere to the pickin’ and grinnin’ ways of the old days, but also be able to stretch the boundaries into new and innovative realms? That dilemma currently lies at the feet on the bluegrass world. And yet, as that question remains, so does the internal drive by all of the genre’s musicians to ensure the preservation and perpetuation of this melodic force at the foundation of this country.

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“Blue-collar heaven.”

When asked just what the Brar Patch is, Trey Smith was quick with that response. Huddled under a flickering light of the tiny bar, Smith gets head nods of agreement from several folks nearby. Standing next to him was Marty Owens.

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It’s a whirlwind.

With his group Tiny Universe, saxophonist Karl Denson seamlessly creates this vortex onstage, a sonic hub where jazz, rock, funk and soul collide, swirling around one another like a street fight with no determined victor. The sights and sounds hit the listener with such force, it will make you rethink just what improvisational music and live performance can be — and ultimately is — at least within the endless curiosity of Denson.

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Our backyard is on fire.

From Knoxville to Asheville, a large cloud of smoke is currently hovering over this corner of Southern Appalachia. In a seemingly “whack-a-mole” scenario, wildfires keep popping up or are combining at an alarming rate. And though officials are saying these blazes will soon be under control, one question lingers — when will they be extinguished?

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