Garret K. Woodward

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Hello from Room 205 of the Dude Rancher Lodge on North 29th Street in the heart of Billings, Montana. It’s 10:29 a.m. Already 82 degrees with a hot sun. Expected to top out ‘round 100 degrees when all is said and done on this Wednesday. 

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Straddling the line between neo-traditional and progressive bluegrass, Liam Purcell & Cane Mill Road are a fiercely ambitious and purposely elusive melodic force to be reckoned with in the live music scene of Western North Carolina and beyond. 

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Hello from 26,982 feet above Southern Appalachia. Somewhere near southeastern Kentucky. En route to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over an hour flight delay leaving the Asheville airport. Ground speed is 539 miles per hour. About 760 miles to our destination. One hour and 41 minutes left before touchdown in the Twin Cities. 

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Hello from atop the roof of my parents’ 1840 brick farmhouse. Some 20 feet up on the back end of the structure. It’s hot as hell walking across the old roof in the midday sunshine and heat of early summer in the Champlain Valley of Upstate New York. 

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It’s not lost on Colin McBeath how unique and cherished the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) is to locals and visitors alike. 

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Nothing says summer more than the Fourth of July with friends and family.

And in Western North Carolina, we celebrate Independence Day with gusto. Between majestic fireworks, sizzling hot dogs and hamburgers, cotton candy, games, live music and craft demonstrations, there’s a little bit of everything for any and all. 

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Hello from the coast of Maine. About an hour northeast up along the shoreline from Portland. The small, quaint community of New Harbor. More specifically, Pemaquid Beach Village.

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In the annals of American rock music, few storied bands have withstood the test of time and endured with such integrity and grit as Drivin N Cryin. Formed in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1985, the group is quickly approaching its 40th anniversary, another milestone along its melodic road of life, legend, lore and legacy — still rockin’, still rollin’. 

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Hello from the Merritt Parkway in south-central Connecticut. It’s bumper-to-bumper traffic and has been since we skirted New York City and headed east. Exit 60 is Hamden, Connecticut, a town that I called home during my years attending Quinnpiac University. 

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It’s a sunny afternoon in downtown Bryson City. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is pulling into town with numerous locals and visitors alike spilling off the train. A stone’s throw from the tracks is Bryson City Brewing, its co-owner Stan Temple gazing happily at the scene unfolding before him. 

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Hello from Room 245 at the Best Western Mountain Lodge in Banner Elk. It’s Sunday morning. Overcast skies and temperatures hovering in the 50s, a far cry from the 75-degrees and sun felt yesterday. 

My girlfriend sleeping soundly next to me. One of my best buddies in the next bed. This trio slowly awakening into the unknown day after a wild-n-out Saturday in the depths of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was asked to stage emcee at Beech Mountain Ski Resort as part of its summer concert series.

This past weekend jam-band stalwarts The String Cheese Incident and Americana icons The Wood Brothers hit the massive stage situated slope-side underneath chair lifts. It always means a lot to me to stand up there in front of thousands of faces and get them all riled up and excited to once again partake in the sacred, ancient ritual that is live music.

Awaken into Sunday morning. Stretch out the limbs and pull back the window curtains. Gaze out upon the somewhat empty hotel parking lot, most of the room renters long gone down that ole road to destinations unknown. Throw on your shoes and head for the breakfast buffet in the Best Western lobby before they shut and lock the dining room doors at 10 a.m.

Some lukewarm scrambled eggs, overcooked sausage, one glass of apple juice and two cups of coffee later, back to the room to pack up and motor to Haywood County via Spruce Pine and Burnsville by U.S. 19E, Interstate 26 East and I-40 West. Gratitude always in tow for a clean bed to sleep in, shower to use, food to eat and a working vehicle to meander around to somewhere, anywhere.

Heading back to Waynesville, my girlfriend was fast asleep in the backseat of the automobile by the time we crossed over the Banner Elk city limits. She and I are coming up on a year-and-a-half together. It’s been quite the wonderful, whirlwind ride, thankfully. I’ve waited a long time for her and we’re making up for lost time with each spur-of-the-moment road trip and dinner date night.

My friend was in the passenger’s seat rehashing old tales of his partying days within the previous chapters of his life in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and in the suburbs just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Tight s-curve roads like wine bottle openers through Avery, Mitchell and Madison counties. Myself happily indulging in the hearty conversation, all while letting the mind drift.

Thoughts of last Friday night, which was the 25th anniversary party of The Smoky Mountain News. And 12 years for myself at the helm of the arts/culture editor position. I’d estimate better than about a hundred or so folks wandered in and out when all was said and done by the end of the evening — the Boojum Brewing kegs finally tapped, the last of the cheese/fruit platter devoured with gusto, the final goodbyes (for now) between old friends and new ones.

As has now become (somewhat) of a tradition during the SMN birthday party, I corralled the rambunctious crowd, “come gather ‘round” as I’ve got a few words and sentiments to share with y’all. All y’all. Hand me the microphone and let the deep sense of gratitude spill out for all to see and hear — in real time and place, with sincerity to you and yours.

Feelings of what it means to be a community newspaper carefully navigating the often-choppy waters of modern day society, of a rapidly changing media landscape in the digital age, of an era of human existence where the lines of truth get blurred and confusing, only leading to more confusion, resentment and anger radiating in seemingly every direction.

As stated many times before, whether in this publication or standing atop a truck tailgate during the anniversary shindig, all of us here at The Smoky Mountain News live and work in your backyard. This is our home, too. And each of us is damn proud to put down genuine roots here. Whether we agree or disagree, respect is the name of the game for every single one of us who digs deep to kick this paper out the door on Tuesday evenings.

It’s a pretty special thing to experience first-hand in life, which is when one simply walks down Main Street in Waynesville and finds themselves in a constant motion of interaction and conversation with familiar and beloved faces. Small business owners. Local officials. Friends made over cold suds at the local watering hole. I’ve always said to new folks to town, “You won’t last long here if you don’t give people the time of day.” 

And I mean that will all of my heart and soul. Giving folks the time of day is quickly becoming a lost art in our world, but not here in Western North Carolina. People still care about others, whether they fall in line with your politics, religion, ideologies or not. Drop everything and help one another. No questions asked. What matters most is a sense of community and I’ll champion that eternally.

Come hell or high water, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more giving, jovial and welcoming group of humans than here in this place, carefully cradled by these mountains and the cosmic magic and grandeur conjured by the rocks, dirt, trees and water of this habitat, by the blood, sweat and tears of those who inhabit it. Handshakes and bear hugs. Apple pies and sweet tea. Old trucks and dirty boots. It’s about leaning in to life as its finest.

For me, personally, this “Damn Yankee” from Upstate New York, this community has embraced me and shown me true friendship and fellowship all through my 12 years wandering and pondering these beautiful mountains of ours. Friendships held tightly that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered had I decided to take another gig somewhere else. It’s fate and passion as to how and why I ended up here. The gratitude remains.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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It was just about 12 years ago when I first rolled into Waynesville. After a solo 18-hour, 1,000-mile trek from my native Upstate New York to Western North Carolina, I found myself sitting in an office chair awaiting an in-person interview with Smoky Mountain News publisher/founder Scott McLeod. 

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Leaning back into his chair, Tommy Stinson tilts his head and gazes towards the sunset falling behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. The legendary rocker just finished a show on the side lawn of Yonder Community Market, located on the outskirts of Franklin. 

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Hello from the writing desk in my humble abode apartment in downtown Waynesville. It’s warm and sunny outside on this Monday afternoon amid Memorial Day Weekend. I’ve just returned from a 2,678-mile out and back trip to the North Country.  

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Barry Bales has 15 Grammy Awards and 23 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) honors, including four IBMA “Bass Player of the Year” trophies. But, today, Bales is trying to get all of his farm chores done before an afternoon rainstorm rolls in. 

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It was nearing midnight when my mother finally beat my father, my girlfriend, Sarah, and I at cards, rummy being the game of choice and of tradition in my parents’ household. Most of the snacks had been consumed and I was halfway through a lukewarm Labatt Blue Light when she placed her last card on the pile to claim victory. 

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Meandering up Fie Top Road in Maggie Valley, just as your vehicle’s engine is pushed to the limit and it seems you may eventually drive off the edge of the earth, you emerge atop a mountain ridge, a large rustic lodge appearing in the distance — the Cataloochee Ranch. 

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Bearing witness to a few fine folks chomping down on handfuls of raw ramps last Sunday afternoon at American Legion Post 47 in Waynesville, it dawned on me that I’ve lost touch with this region. 

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A true mark of an artist is how well they age. 

Not simply by the passing years on the calendar, for that’s a privilege in itself to experience.

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Right now, there are a handful of old cardboard boxes in the back of my girlfriend’s car. Inside the boxes are several dusty photo albums of Sarah’s past.

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At the corner of Depot and Haywood streets in downtown Waynesville sits an old building. Originally a gas station, it was also a longtime mechanic’s shop and later a car wash for a period. But, in recent months, the charming, somewhat dormant 147 Depot St. location has had new life breathed into it.  

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Is there a more exhilarating feeling within your heart than that of preparing for a road trip? I think not. The wandering, pondering rambler inside my soul vibrates wildly thinking about what routes to take, where to stop, who to stop and see and what kind of wondrous happenstance will occur throughout the journey. 

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Within the greater Upstate New York live music scene, there’s a vast landscape of ebbs and flows — peaks and valleys of sonic textures, weaving effortlessly from rock to soul, funk to folk and back again. 

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Last Thursday, it was decided to go bowling. Galaxy Lanes & Games on the outskirts of downtown Sylva, in a somewhat dormant shopping plaza buffering the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway and greater Jackson County.

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Since its opening in October 2020, Citizen Vinyl has become a melodic hub for artists, music lovers and the curious alike. Located in the former Asheville Citizen-Times building on O. Henry Avenue, across from the Grove Arcade in downtown, the property itself has become a beacon of creativity and connectivity. 

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The title of this column is a sentence written in my old road journals. Back on Dec. 26, 2007. I was 22 years old and leaving my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, heading west to start my first reporting gig post-college at the Teton Valley News in Driggs, Idaho. 

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It was about 15 years ago when Will Mallett cruised into Portland, Maine, and ended up crashing on the couch of his brother, Luke, and his roommate, Nick Leen — all in an honest, perhaps curious effort to see what the future held for the 20-something fresh out of college. 

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With a cool breeze rolling through the Old City district of downtown Knoxville last Thursday evening, I clung tighter to my jacket, pulled the brim of my hat lower and meandered across the railroad tracks towards Boyd’s Jig & Reel. 

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Hello from Room 623 at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Owensboro, Kentucky. Just about six and a half hours from my humble abode in Waynesville. Russ Avenue to U.S. 276 to Interstate 40 and backroads through Southern Appalachia to get here. 

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Recently, Kevin Fitzgerald left his Waynesville home and made the long trek up to West Virginia University to watch one of his former athletes, Tuscola High School running standout Eva Rinker, compete at the college level. For Fitzgerald, it was a moment of immense pride to be there and cheer on Rinker. 

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At 76, singer-songwriter/keyboardist Randall Bramblett has been a musical artist most of his life. In recent years, a new outlook on not only what he does for a living, but also what it means to be human amid a life immersed in creativity and connectivity, has emerged. 

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Hello from the Antler Village at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. It’s 11:34 a.m. The wine bar around the corner will open in roughly 16 minutes. I’ve been at this vast property since 8:30 a.m. when I was pulling up to attend the grand opening of the Chihuly art exhibit. 

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For Jerad Davis, it all started with a dry, nagging cough in the summer of 2022. With shortness of breath, low energy, brain fog and night sweats, he initially chalked it up to long COVID. But, upon going to the doctor and through some medical procedures, he was eventually diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

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Hello from Lemon Street in St. Augustine, Florida. Since 2013, my folks, who live in Upstate New York, have been coming down here for the month of March to escape the frozen North Country winters. 

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Celebrating a decade together with a special anniversary gig this week at the Salvage Station in Asheville, Fireside Collective has become a rapidly rising force in the Americana, bluegrass and jam realms in Southern Appalachia and beyond. 

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That quote underneath the title of this column is from the seminal 1958 novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote. It was also the dramatic culmination in the 1961 film of the same name starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. 

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At 46, Scott Low has a lot to be thankful for.

Beyond his enduring career as a beloved singer-songwriter in the mountains of Southern Appalachia, he’s also a husband, father and fly-fishing guide, one who also owns and operates the Hatch Camp & Art Farm in the rural countryside of Clayton, Georgia.

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It’s a lot quieter this week at The Smoky Mountain News. Not just because of the unusually warm weather this past weekend sparking folks to frolic and head for the hills.

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Celebrating a quarter-century this coming summer, the “An Appalachian Evening” live music series at the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center in Robbinsville brings in some of the biggest names in bluegrass, old-time, mountain and Americana music.  

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Hello from Room 211 at the Red Roof Inn just off Interstate 64 in Lexington, Kentucky. Bright, warm rays of sunshine stream into the east-facing window of the $43.95 per night cheap motel room. Crisp morning air rolls across the city and nearby horse country. 

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I’m a minimalist. I don’t want much, nor do I care to ever have much. As long as I’m surrounded by shelves of books and stacks of vinyl records, a comfy recliner and some cold suds in the fridge in my humble abode of a one-bedroom Waynesville apartment (that also has a porch with mountain views, thankfully), I’m good to go.  

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When it comes to bluegrass banjo, you’d be hard-pressed to find as vivacious and voracious a picker-n-grinner than Kyle Tuttle. 

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Saturday. Late morning. The Waynesville apartment was quiet save the occasional motorcycle roaring along nearby Russ Avenue. My girlfriend had already gotten up and was at work by 10 a.m. I slept in a little bit, though my restless soul wouldn’t let the day fade.

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The smart phone dinged incessantly early this morning ‘round 8 a.m. at my small Waynesville apartment. Social media notifications and text messages. Then came the phone calls from my mother and father way up in the North Country. It’s my 39th birthday. 

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On his latest single, “Broke Down Engine,” singer-songwriter Woody Platt teamed up with bluegrass icon Del McCoury.

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The title of this column is the opening line of the song “Fireworks” by The Tragically Hip. A cherished Canadian rock act, the melody itself an ode to the legend and lore that is hockey and coming of age as a kid — a love of hockey transitioning to a love of women. 

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At the core of any great singer-songwriter lies this inherent trait of stage presence, one where an entire room, no matter the size, is pulled in by this lyrical tractor beam — all eyes, emotions and energies aimed in one direction at a single voice. 

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My best girl (aka: my mother Kathy) turns 75 years young today (Jan. 21). Currently, it’s a cold, frigid Sunday here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, same goes for my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York.

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In the vast, rich musical landscape of 1970s/1980s rock-n-roll, few bands sold as many records and played as big of shows as that of Styx — numerous platinum albums and sold out stadium gigs from coast-to-coast. 

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Editor’s Note: Over his tenure here at The Smoky Mountain News, Arts & Entertainment Editor Garret K. Woodward has had the sincere honor and pleasure of interviewing writer Fred Chappell on three separate occasions. Below are some Q&A excerpts from those conversations. Chappell died on Jan. 4 at age 87.

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