Garret K. Woodward

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Following the passing of her husband last year, after a lengthy illness, Betsey Sloan was looking for an outlet, something in her community that would nurture her creative and spiritual soul. 

“So, I decided to get into my car, come here, get out, and say, ‘Hi, can I join?’” Sloan smiled. “And I’ve made such great friends here. The people here are wonderful, always helping me out and encouraging me in whatever it is I want to pursue.”

If change is the only constant in life, then Sanctum Sully is the epitome of change. 

Celebrating a decade together this summer, the Asheville-based band has always been hard to pindown in description, and in stage presence. Initially a rag-tag bluegrass and Appalachian music act, they’ve shed as many layers of their sound as they’ve conjured. The group has meandered along like a river through a deep holler, heading in whatever direction feels most comfortable and exciting at that moment in time. 

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Hello, from the “Mile High City.”

Sitting here in Denver, onward back to Asheville tomorrow morning. This summer has been quite the physical and emotional odyssey. The fog in my heart and soul is slowly lifting, disappearing into the cosmos. I went north in July and out west in August to find myself once again. 

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In the digital age that is the 21st century, and in many aspects of this modern era, the culture and history of Western North Carolina and greater Southern Appalachia is disappearing. 

Whether it be an old-timer passing down their wisdom or listening to a well-aged recording of someone long gone from this earth, or vast shelves of often forgotten books gathering dust at your local library or historical society, how one tracks down the essence of who came before us, and who will surely come after, resides in the annals of storytelling. 

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Every-so-often, I’d look around the crowd and wonder if I’d have known any of these folks, perhaps called them dear friends, if I had stayed all those years ago.

Standing in the middle of Teton Village, in the shadow of the Grand Teton Mountains, just outside Jackson, Wyoming, this past Sunday, I immersed myself in the raucous sounds of rock act Futurebirds. I thought of who I was and what I wanted out of life when I was 23 years old and living in this part of the country. 

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Legendary troubadour Jim Lauderdale is a longtime pillar of the fiercely independent singer-songwriter scene in Nashville. He’s always gone his own way, this melodic water witch, seamlessly following the ebb and flow of energy and inspiration, knowing exactly when and where to strike the ground in search of untapped creative waters. 

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Back to square one.

Dammit. You’d think that after existing on this earth for 33 years, and being a legal adult for the last 15, that I’d get this relationship and/or love thing correct, eh? Somewhere on I-40 West right now is my now ex-girlfriend, bolting across the Mississippi River toward the next, new chapter of her life in New Mexico. 

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Well, 15 years ago this past weekend, I spontaneously bolted from Upstate New York straight to northern Maine to attend Phish’s “IT Festival.” 

A lifelong fan of the beloved jam-rock act, who was raised in the Champlain Valley of New York and Vermont (home base of the band), it was my first time seeing them in all their melodic glory. I was 18 years old that summer of 2003. Just graduated high school, spending the summer working front desk and maintenance at my aunt and uncle’s motel in downtown Lake Placid, New York. 

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Following the announcement of its upcoming Sylva outpost, aimed at a fall opening, Bryson City-based Nantahala Brewing will launch an Asheville location by the end of this month. 

Located at 747 Haywood Road in West Asheville, the two-story outpost was formerly The Anchor Bar (and Buffalo Nickel before that). It will feature a downstairs restaurant that will offer a farm-to-table “cosmopolitan country” style menu. The upstairs taproom will also be poised to become a music venue, primarily focusing on bluegrass and Americana acts. On opening day, there will be 20 Nantahala brews on tap. 

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If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t even notice him.

Sitting by himself at the counter of the Innovation Station in Dillsboro one recent sunny afternoon, David Joy sips on a heady craft brew, the blonde ale to be specific (his favorite). The sparkling new second location for Innovation Brewing (based out of nearby Sylva), Joy is fiercely loyal to the indepently-owned/operated company, a loyalty akin to the hardscrabble characters of his wildy fascinating and acclaimed novels.

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If there was a single voice of reason amid the bombardment of deafening noise in the digital age — of mass media, of used car salesman politicians, of everyday informed/misinformed folks rambling on (and on) — David Cross might be that single voice.

Whether through his iconic stand-up routines, his groundbreaking sketch comedy series “Mr. Show” or his immortal role as Tobias Funke in the sitcom “Arrested Development,” Cross is a bonafide comedy legend. For him, it isn’t about taking cheap shots or reaching for the low-hanging fruit of material. Cross comes from a more cerebral approach, an analytical mind that knows no bounds, and uses his intelligence to reach the masses with his wit and wisdom through the wide-open channels of entertainment. 

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Bolting up Interstate 95, just outside of Portland, Maine, this past Monday, I finally could smell that smell that conjures innumerable cherished memories, genuine emotions and deep thoughts in my mind — the ocean. 

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They just don’t make’em like they used to.

That adage is the pure, honest truth when applied to the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. In a staggering career of massive mainstream success that only lasted five years (1968-1972), the rock juggernaut produced endless pop culture radio staples aimed squarely at doing two specific things — making you get up and dance, all while opening your eyes and ears to social progress and injustice in our world.

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And there I was, at a dive bar in the 800-person high desert town of Victor, Idaho, with the backdrop of the Grand Teton mountain range, playing horseshoes and sipping on a lukewarm can of Rainier beer. It was the early summer 2008. My friend, Billie, was watching a few of us play, when she asked me what I had planned now that the weather had gotten warmer.

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High atop a mountain overlooking Haywood County, Annie Haslam Colquitt sits across a dining room table at The Swag. A rainstorm has just swept through, with a cold breeze floating through the open front door. She gazes around, her eyes slowly drifting out the windows onto the deep woods of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bordering the property. 

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Emerging from the Appalachian Trail on the North Carolina/ Tennessee state line this past Sunday afternoon, a hot southern sun hung high, beads of sweat rolling down my face. I turned around and saluted the dirt path I just had finished running. 

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In an era when rock-n-roll has seemingly taken a backseat to hip-hop and electronic acts — on the radio and on the charts — it’s refreshing to come across such a finely-tuned entity like The Orange Constant.

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I still don’t really know what day it is.

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At 63, Ricky Skaggs has spent just about 58 of those years completely enamored and immersed in that singular “high, lonesome sound” at the heart of bluegrass music. 

Given a mandolin at the age of 5, a year later he was onstage playing alongside Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” only to find himself at age 7 on a nationally televised variety show plucking with the likes of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. As a teenager, he opened for, and eventually was invited to join Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, following that up a few years later with stints in The Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe’s The New South. 

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It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now. When news broke last week of the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, that thought now shifted from the back of my mind to the forefront of my thoughts — could it happen to us?

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As the music capital of the world, the bright lights of Nashville have always been a tough place to make it as a band, let alone as a songwriter. But, that mere fact is why so many talented acts from seemingly every corner of the globe descend upon the bustling Tennessee metropolis — simply, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. 

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“If you see all the people playing corn hole in the driveway you’re at the right place,” the familiar voice said over the phone last Saturday evening. 

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In 2013, Western Carolina University cut the ribbon on 7-mile trail system zig-zagging an otherwise unbuildable piece of university property. 

Over the five years since, the trails have become an indispensible resource for mountain bikers — as well as trail runners and hikers — in the Cullowhee area, and last fall a trio of WCU employees set out to back up those observations with hard numbers. 

With the traffic and noise of a busy Main Street in downtown Waynesville zooming by outside her window, Jo Ridge Kelley creates works of tranquility and natural wonders inside her cozy studio. 

“I love being able to pull from myself,” she said. “I’m a very soulful person, and painting is a way to work with my feelings — to be living in the moment.”

Ten years into his tenure with Balsam Range, Tim Surrett can only shake his head.

“The most amazing factor is that somebody hasn’t gotten killed in 10 years,” he chuckled. “It’s amazing because every band in the world is one bad weekend from nonexistence. We’ve been through a lot, ups and downs, frustrations and traveling distances, and it’s still relevant after 10 years. I don’t know how long that will last, but it’s cool to me that it’s still top-shelf relevant.”

You’ve probably driven by the Red Barn Greenhouse & Garden Center on Dellwood Road between Maggie Valley and Waynesville. But, have you ever stopped in?

Tucked between rows of beautiful flowers on one end and the Mountain Museum filled with Appalachian artifacts on the other are several shelves of corn shuck dolls. The intricate doll designs and scenes they’re set in come straight out of the creative mind and nimble fingers of Karen Collis, a highly-sought after artist in this centuries-old craft medium.

The proud communities that make up Western North Carolina were once mountain towns that played host to several successful blue-collar industries. These companies found a crucial, much-needed balance alongside the serene beauty and endless natural resources of our forests, rivers and wildlife.

With sunshine spilling into the taproom of Currahee Brewing Company in Franklin one recent afternoon, brewmaster Taylor Yates is all smiles. A hearty beverage raised high, the sun’s rays are a cherry on top of the news currently floating around the facility.

Though the culinary and agricultural history of Southern Appalachia is as vast and robust as the tall and rigorous mountains that make up this region, the intense worldwide focus and adoration for the ingredients, recipes and folks who stir it all together is more of a 21st century phenomenon. 

Over the last few years, guitarist Trey Hensley and dobroist Rob Ickes have crisscrossed the country with their unique brand of bluegrass, where the lines tend to blur slightly into the realms of Americana and classic country music. 

Fifteen-time “Dobro Player of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), Ickes was a founding member of Blue Highway, a pillar of the the genre over the last quarter-century. And with Hensley, you have someone who performed on the Grand Ole Opry alongside Marty Stuart and Earl Scruggs at the age of 11, only to release his debut album and also find himself pickin’-n-grinnin’ with the late Johnny & June Carter Cash just a year later. 

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I, like many of you reading this, was initially shocked and saddened to hear the news of the recent passing of world-renowned chef, bestselling author and beloved pop culture personality Anthony Bourdain.

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When you find yourself in conversation with JJ Grey, you walk away from the interaction with a kick in your step. This isn’t someone who is blowing smoke. Rather, the beloved singer (of JJ Grey & Mofro) casts a real, honest sense of truth about our world. For someone who grew up in the rough-n-tumble backwoods and urban areas of North Florida, Grey doesn’t carry himself with the darkness and self-doubt one might think he’d feed into.

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Hopping out of my truck, the intense sunshine and humidity of rural central Tennessee in early June slapped me right in the face. It was last Wednesday, and there I was, pushing my way through numerous gates and security guards, hundreds of volunteers and tens of thousands of concertgoers, all part of this past weekend’s installment of Bonnaroo — a music and arts festival as iconic as it is chaotic.

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There’s a reason Shovels & Rope has evolved into one of the “must see” live acts in the music scene over the last decade. Sure, the Charleston, South Carolina, band is comprised of two incredibly talented songwriters and performers (Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent). And yes, the energy they radiate onstage is insanely contagious to anyone within earshot. 

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When you dig into the music of The Jon Stickley Trio, you find yourself meandering farther down the rabbit hole, with seemingly no end in sight. It’s a whirlwind of tone, bolting across the musical spectrum in a never-ending game of melodic duck-duck-goose.

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I was thrown into the deep end.

When I was 20 years old, I became a substitute teacher. I was still in college, but I was also looking to make some extra money when I was home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the subsequent spring and summer breaks. The pay was OK, but the schedule was very flexible. The administrator would call me up the night before and ask if I was free to take over whatever was in need of adult supervision: social studies, science, physical education, English, etc. 

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Hot off the heels of winning the Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Album” this past winter, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage stand atop the genre as a marquee act, one whose determination is deeply rooted in keeping the traditions of the “high, lonesome sound” alive and flourishing. 

At the center of this whirlwind of string instruments is Vincent, an eight-time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) “Female Vocalist of the Year.” The singer/mandolinist remains a vital, vibrant bridge between the originators and pioneers of the music created by Bill Monroe and where we stand today in the modern era — a crossroads of the neo-traditional and progressive bluegrass camps, come hell or high water. 

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It’s the only way to eat breakfast.

Two eggs, two slices of toast (cut into four triangular pieces), a side of meat, a side of hashbrowns or homefries, a cup of coffee and the day’s newspaper alongside. It is, quite literally, the American Dream in a meal.

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When two-thirds of your full name encompasses two-thirds of arguably America’s greatest songwriters, it’s pretty apparent you’ll follow suit — in life, and in art. 

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Right around the point of the song “Beginnings” when Chicago singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm belted out the lyrics, “Time passes much too quickly/When we're together laughing/I wish I could sing it to you,” I could see and feel the goosebumps rising on my arms. 

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It’s one thing to play bluegrass, mountain and old-time music. It’s another thing to dig deep into the rich, intricate heritage and history behind the sounds of Southern Appalachia — tones that have echoed from these high peaks since pioneers and settlers first arrived here centuries ago.

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Standing in the midst of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one can’t help but feel refreshed, a return to the core of your inner being amid the cosmos. And that sentiment is something felt in any of the innumerable national parks dotting our nation.

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You’ve probably driven by the Red Barn Greenhouse & Garden Center on Dellwood Road between Maggie Valley and Waynesville a thousand times. But, have you ever stopped in? 

Tucked between rows of beautiful flowers on one end and the Mountain Museum filled with Appalachian artifacts on the other are several shelves of corn shuck dolls. The intricate doll designs and scenes they’re set in come straight out of the creative mind and nimble fingers of Karen Collis, a highly-sought after artist in this centuries-old craft medium. 

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It seems like a race against time.

As a longtime arts and entertainment editor, I find myself in the backwoods and along the backroads of Western North Carolina, always in search of a story. Sometimes the subjects are folks I come across over a cold beer at a local watering hole. Sometimes they’re a random name and address with a short description of what they do sent to me via physical or electronic mail. On many occasions, I’ll be simply driving and something or someone catches my eye in the distance. 

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The charm and allure of bluegrass music resides in its seamless ability to have one foot in the sacred, traditional “high, lonesome sound” and the other in whatever progressive endeavors its musicians find themselves in — by chance or on purpose.

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Standing atop an Outer Banks fishing trawler, I gazed across the high desert of northwestern Nevada.

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The proud communities that make up Western North Carolina were once mountain towns that played host to several successful blue-collar industries. We’re talking about logging, furniture, paper products, auto parts, beverages, textiles, and so on. The country needed things, and needed them fast, and folks here made those products with their bare hands.

These companies found a crucial, much-needed balance alongside the serene beauty and endless natural resources of our forests, rivers and wildlife.

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Hopping up on my truck tailgate one recent afternoon, fiddler/singer Jeremy Garrett gazed around the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in the rural countryside of Live Oak, Florida. His band — The Infamous Stringdusters — was headlining the Suwannee Spring Reunion that weekend, another feather in the cap of a celebrated acoustic act who this past January was awarded a Grammy Award for “Best Bluegrass Album.” 

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A slight breeze awoke me from my slumber this past Saturday morning. Swaying in the hammock, I looked upward while the first sunshine of the day sprinkled through the branches all tangled high above. 

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