Garret K. Woodward

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As of yesterday, Monday, Nov. 28, I’ve run 2,525 days in a row. I hadn’t checked in on “the streak” in a while, but was curious at where it stood after coming across a 2021 article for Outside magazine, titled “The Minds and Habits of Master Streakers.”

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Writers’ Note: Since I started in the position of arts and entertainment editor at The Smoky Mountain News in 2012, I’ve been able to dive deep into the legend and lore of bluegrass sensation Balsam Range.

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In a year that’ll surely end on a bittersweet note, beloved Haywood County bluegrass sensation Balsam Range is not only celebrating 15 years together, the band is also saying goodbye to one of its founding members, mandolinist Darren Nicholson. 

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As the temperatures drop in Western North Carolina, the fun only heats up. The holiday season here is filled with events and activities aimed to celebrate the best way we know how — with friends, family and visitors alike.

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I was about an hour behind schedule leaving my native Plattsburgh, New York, the truck aimed for Waynesville and greater Western North Carolina. Some 1,100 miles in one direction, and yet it was already 1 p.m. on Thursday when I finally embarked from my folks’ farmhouse. 

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At just 31 years old, Sierra Hull is already a legend in the bluegrass world. With her signature songbird vocals and mandolin virtuosity, the performer has also taken home “Mandolin Player of the Year” at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards five times. 

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I had about an hour window of no rain before the remnants of the tropical storm would slowly, but surely, slide into the North Country. The clouds were already darkening above the Adirondack Mountains as the nose of the truck was aimed west, heading out from my parents’ farmhouse on the outskirts of Plattsburgh, New York. 

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In conversation, Fred Chappell is a man of few words and sentiments. Perhaps that’s because he uses all of his vocabulary and emotions to spill across the blank page. 

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It’s a dreary early late fall afternoon here at my folks’ farmhouse, tucked away on a side road, just off Route 22 outside of Plattsburgh, New York. And although the red, orange and yellow leaves on the ground signal November, the odd 70+ degree temperatures say otherwise.

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At the core of all beloved singer-songwriters is this raw honesty and genuine compassion, to conjure the good, bad and ugly of the human condition, all in an effort to put forth solidarity to the listener that, regardless of what happens, tomorrow is another day to get out of bed and push ahead. 

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Slowly opening my eyes in the waning hours of Sunday morning, I could hear the last of the fall foliage tourist traffic zoom by my apartment on nearby Russ Avenue in downtown Waynesville, heading out of town until this time next year.

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Sliding into a chair at a table in Orchard Coffee, in the heart of downtown Waynesville, singer-songwriter Chris Staples lets a slight sigh out into the late night — one of appreciation for the moment that just flew by. 

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Hello from Room 307 at the Hilton Garden Inn amid the coastal community of Monterey, California. It’s 11 a.m. and I have a flight to catch from San Francisco to Atlanta later tonight. But, for now? I figured I’d wander up the along the Pacific Coast Highway, ole Route 1, en route to SFO for that 10:50 p.m. takeoff. 

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Cruising along Soco Road in the heart of Maggie Valley, one immediately notices the bright lights of the sign in front of the Meadowlark Motel. The retro fixture is a beloved sight along the roadside, with the next event happening at the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center, located on the property, proudly displayed on the marquee.

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Editor’s Note: While on assignment for Rolling Stone out in Monterey, California, last weekend, Garret decided to hang out in San Francisco for a couple of days beforehand, just to hit the ground runnin’ and once again feel the vibe of the city he missed. The following is what he felt, and wrote about, in real time.

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Grabbing the last empty picnic table behind Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville one recent afternoon, Frank Bonomo gazed along the nearby Richland Creek, only to shift his attention to the buzz of people, conversation, and live music swirling around the vast patio area.

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Emerging from his merchandise table at The Grey Eagle in Asheville last week, legendary troubadour Ramblin’ Jack Elliott moseyed on over to where I stood in the lobby. With a signature grin rolling across his face, the 91-year-old folk hero extended his hand and said he was looking forward to our interview backstage.

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Since 1987, New Jersey-based Blues Traveler has remained one of the hardest working and most resilient rock acts in the mainstream music scene, something championed by the group’s vast network of diehard fans the world over.

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Room 424. Marriott City Center. Raleigh. Thursday. Awakened by the sounds of a banjo and laughter in the hallway, the room was pitch black from the curtains still shut high above downtown. The clock stated 9:15 a.m. Emerge from one’s slumber, onward into the impending day.

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Pulling up to the Skyline Lodge, a peaceful silence washes over you while emerging from your vehicle. Walking toward the courtyard entryway, laughter and conversation is heard, whether between old friends or strangers who became fast friends. Soon, the smell of culinary delights wafts from the open doorway to the Oak Steakhouse.

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What’s that feeling you get pulling back up in front of your humble abode after weeks away, wandering and pondering?

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Waking up in the hotel room at the Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa, Ontario, last Saturday morning, I rubbed my eyes and stretched out in the king bed. Another solo excursion of irresponsible enlightenment, which has now landed me above the border — in the land of friendly faces, poutine and hockey.

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At age 63, singer-songwriter Marty Stuart is regarded as an American musical institution. With a core tone radiating the sounds of country and bluegrass, Stuart careens across the musical spectrum — onstage and in the studio — making additional stops in the realms of rockabilly, blues, folk, roots and soul.

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Monday afternoon. Plattsburgh, New York. Grabbing a few things for my intended hike up near Tupper Lake, in the depths of the Adirondack Mountains, I walked out the door of my parents’ farmhouse just as my mother asked where I was going.

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Sliding into a booth at The One Stop, a storied basement music venue in the heart of downtown Asheville, lead singer Brett O’Connor readies himself to soon take the cavernous stage, standing before a microphone in front of a sea of anonymous faces — all eager to see just what he and his band, Sneezy, have to offer.

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The alarm on the smart phone shook me out of some foggy, odd dream. Par for the course, in terms of the subconscious realm. Lots on the mind lately, whether near or far from my inner thoughts and emotions. Turn off the alarm and emerge from one’s slumber. 

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What’s that feeling the day before a big trip? More so, a road trip? Where you’re mulling over what to pack and what to not forget to do before you leave town — your friends and all things familiar now in the rearview mirror.

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One of the finer experiences of being a bona fide music freak is to witness and appreciate the growth and development of a particular group. You’re not only seeing new layers added to an ensemble, but also the continued trajectory of their artistic and creative pursuits.

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Before March 2022, 28-year-old Zeb Ross didn’t have a social media presence. No Instagram, TikTok or Twitter. He did have a personal Facebook account for a little while, but got rid of it when he was a teenager because, according to Ross, “there’s good and bad with social media, but it can also be a distraction.”

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Stepping out onto the porch late Sunday morning, the air was cool. The first sign of an impending fall, even though there’s exactly one month left of summer, at least according to the calendar. 

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Sitting on a barstool at The Water’n Hole in Waynesville last Monday afternoon, I took a pull from the cold Budweiser bottle and let out a slight sigh. Stories and tales were being exchanged all along the bar counter about where folks were and what they were doing during “The Great Flood of 2021.” 

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Handing an old red bandana back and forth to wipe away the tears emerging from their eyes, Wendy and Chuck Rector sit in two plastic Adirondack chairs on what was once a pristine property — a dream home of sorts, truth be told.

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A pillar of the Americana, country and bluegrass realms, legendary singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale is one of the few artists who has been able to seamlessly drift between three distinct, sacred genres of music.

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Once the paved road turned to dirt, I noticed a small pull-off to the right. Putting the ole Tacoma in park, I emerged from the vehicle and could hear the sounds of passing cars on the Blue Ridge Parkway just above me and through the nearby tree line on this lazy Monday afternoon. 

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It’s Thursday morning. In just about a half-hour, The Sweet Onion restaurant in downtown Waynesville will open for lunch — another rush of locals and visitors alike soon to walk through the door on Miller Street. 

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Tapping my smart phone, it lights up and indicates that it’s now 2:34 a.m. Saturday. Sitting on my tailgate in the depths of the FloydFest camping woods, I’m sharing the vehicular platform with my new friend, June. It’s dark, with the only light coming from an illuminated dirt road on the other side of the tree line and the red glow at the end of the joint June just sparked up.

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Not far from the intersection of N.C. 107/281, just down Shook Cove Road in the heart of Tuckasegee, a large driveway soon appears to the right. On a recent evening, the massive entry gate is wide open to the public, all in anticipation of the evening’s impending performance.

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Maybe it’s the espresso or maybe it’s the rush of blood to my heart from thinking about the faces and places that have led to this point. This week will mark 10 years since I first stepped foot in Waynesville and decided to call Western North Carolina home. 

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With a hot mid-July sun falling behind the mountains last Thursday evening, rock legend Tommy Stinson strapped on his Gibson acoustic guitar and stood behind a microphone on the side lawn of Yonder Community Market in Franklin. 

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It’s 9:58 a.m. Tuesday. Downtown Waynesville. Back at the office, this week’s newspaper is being edited and proofed before it heads to the printer, onward to newsstands around the region tomorrow morning. 

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It was during the third sip of my fourth beer on Monday evening at The Scotsman in downtown Waynesville when my thoughts started drifting to this essay from The New Yorker I’d read several years ago — one which I often return to, usually when the late summer warmth transitions to the early chill of an impending fall and soon-to-be-here winter. 

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With a quick roll start to crank over the engine of the 1916 Traub motorcycle, Matt Walksler hops off the bike and knocks down the kickstand. The 106-year-old machine rumbles, the smell of oil and gasoline soon permeating the air. He turns to the crowd of a couple dozen folks making a semi-circle around him. 

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For someone who rarely comes down from his mountaintop cabin in the backwoods of Western North Carolina, writer David Joy will put aside his eternal quest for solitude and silence for one thing only — France. 

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Tucked in the corner booth at a dive bar in Maggie Valley on Monday afternoon, I slid across the vinyl seating across from the young couple. They’d already ordered a couple drinks, mozzarella sticks and some fried grouper bites. Some Lynyrd Skynyrd song was blasting from the front bar. 

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While studying English at the University of Mary Washington, Christina Bendo decided to, by chance, take an elective one semester — pottery. 

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Sitting down at the old wooden kitchen table in the kitchen of my parents’ farmhouse in rural Upstate New York, all is quiet save for the sounds of the burping coffee pot on the counter and a few birds in the trees outside the nearby screen door.

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Whizzing around a rink on wheels conjures feelings of nostalgia for many people. This favorite American pastime has been enjoyed since 1902 when the first public skating rink opened its doors in Chicago to a whopping crowd of 7,000 patrons. Even before that, rinks were popular in Europe. 

Amid the evening whirlwind of friendly faces and hearty banter at Boojum Brewing in downtown Waynesville, John Duncan sips a craft ale, pauses momentarily, and ponders just what it means to be a conduit for the sacred traditions of Southern Appalachian music in the 21st Century — it’s preservation and, ultimately, it’s perpetuation.

In an effort to preserve and perpetuate the heritage arts and lore of the Great Smoky Mountains and greater Southern Appalachia, the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center has now come to fruition at the Meadowlark Motel in Maggie Valley. 

Growing up on a family farm just outside of Greensboro, Jean Osborne was surrounded by hundreds of cows and thousands of acres — a place where she roamed freely and in her own time on her horse. 

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