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Beer, Bluegrass, and Bloodshed: The Best of Arts & Entertainment 2015

art frWith each impending New Year, we tend to take a look back and reflect on just what made the last 365 days unique to the folks of Western North Carolina. Just when you think you couldn’t top the past and its special moments, another year of unknown beauty and milestones is revealed.

And for 2015, it was another banner year in the world of arts and entertainment. From brewery expansions to national music awards, and everything in between, we all once again either witnessed or participated in the glorious essence of Southern Appalachia — a region as magical and mesmerizing as the people who inhabit it.

Cheers to 2015. Onward and upward in 2016.

Raymond Fairchild gets inducted into Bluegrass Hall of Fame

Tucked away in the Maggie Valley Opry House for the better part of the last 30 years, Fairchild, at 76, has been performing and touring since he was a teenager. Once crowned “The Fastest Banjo Player in the World,” he has played from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo and everywhere in between, selling millions of records and captivating audiences every night of the week. If there was a stage to play, he would unbuckle his case, pull out his banjo and stun whoever was in earshot. 

And when Fairchild was chosen this year to be inducted into Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Bean Blossom, Indiana on Sept. 26, a renewed sense of interest also emerged. Some folks thought he was long dead. Some figured he was unable to play anymore. But, nobody questioned his place in the Hall of Fame or whether he was deserving of the honor. 

“Well, I think it’s great because all of them are masters. It does mean something to be in there — it’s an honor,” Fairchild said about being inducted. “I’m 76 years old, and been at it and in the music industry for 62 years. I’m glad I made it, you know? I’ve traveled thousands upon thousands upon thousands of miles, and I’m still here.”

 

Mountain Faith breaks into the mainstream

Sylva-based Mountain Faith, the family bluegrass band featuring Summer McMahan (lead singer/fiddle), her father Sam (bassist), brother Brayden (banjoist), and close friends Luke Dotson (guitar) and Cory Piatt (mandolin), took the stage this year to perform on the NBC hit show “America’s Got Talent” at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. 

In its 15 years together, the Jackson County group has crisscrossed the greater Southeast and beyond, taking the stage several nights a week — every week — all in an effort to make their dream of becoming a sustainable, viable touring act a reality. And now with four appearances on AGT (before being eliminated in the semifinals earlier this month), the group is taking its exposure to countless viewers and perpetuating it into a lifelong career. Recently, the also got their first number one hit song on the bluegrass charts, with Summer receiving the International Bluegrass Music Association “Momentum Award – Vocalist.”

“We play bluegrass because we love it so much. We fell in love with it 15 years ago, and to think that we put bluegrass in 13 million households with AGT is so incredible,” Summer said. “We’ve had so much positive feedback from all of this. All these people who perhaps didn’t like bluegrass before are now coming up to us and saying how much they love it because of the show. It’s just an honor for us because we love playing this music.”

 

Boojum Brewing signs distribution deal

Within the first year of operation, the Waynesville brewery has quickly established itself as one of the “must try” craft beer destinations in Western North Carolina. 

Amid a highly competitive industry — locally, regionally and nationally — where your reputation resides in every beverage poured, Boojum has risen to the upper echelon of flavor, style and selection. Between its off-site brewery and downtown taproom, the business is a social and economic beacon within the community. 

Teaming up with Budweiser of Asheville (an independent, family-owned company that sells Anheuser-Busch products, and is not owned by them), Boojum will now be sold around 12 Western North Carolina counties, as well as in Ingles grocery stores. The distribution deal came about with Boojum’s brewery expansion. 

Concocting hop-heavy brews and delicious seasonals, Boojum will increase its numbers from 800 barrels this year to a projected 2,500 or more for 2016. The brewery currently runs on a 15-barrel system (465 gallons per batch), with five 15-barrel fermenters and two 30-barrel fermenters. They also have three bright tanks and recently purchased six bourbon barrels for aging certain styles. 

“One thing this past year has taught us is that if you want to start a craft brewery and feel ownership for it, you have to be willing and able to pretty much do anything that is needed,” said Boojum co-owner Kelsie Baker. “With the people here in Western North Carolina and in the craft beer industry, it’s an amazing feeling to have all these people supporting you and being excited about what you’re doing.”

 

Balsam Range wins big (again) in Raleigh

As the reigning “Entertainer of the Year,” Balsam Range watched The Earls of Leicester pick up the honor this year at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards in Raleigh in October. 

The Haywood County quintet did, however, defend its title of “Vocal Group of the Year” and once again brought home “Song of the Year” for “Moon Over Memphis.” The band also was decorated by Gov. Pat McCrory with “The Order of the Long Leaf Pine,” the highest civilian honor in the state for a proven record of service in North Carolina.

“I’ve only ever seen one ‘Order of the Long Leaf Pine’ award in my life,” bassist Tim Surrett said. “So, Sen. Jim Davis goes up there and lists off who else has received it. He says Billy Graham, Andy Griffith, Michael Jordan, and after that I didn’t hear anything else. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? It was incredible.”

And though his group returned to Haywood County triumphant, it was Surrett himself who seemingly had the best week in Raleigh. Alongside his awards with Balsam Range, the musician also won “Bass Player of the Year” and was selected to be the incoming chairman of the IBMA Board of Directors — as much an honor as a responsibility to not only preserve bluegrass music, but also perpetuate it into the next generation of pickers and listeners.

 

Canton revamps Labor Day celebration

Coming into its 109th year, the Canton Labor Day Festival was held Sept. 5-7 at Sorrells Street Park in downtown Canton. Known as the “Oldest Labor Day festival in the South,” the event, which got a long-awaiting reboot, hosted 20 bands over the course of three days, all free and open to the public. And with the theme, “A celebration of all things made in Western North Carolina,” the festival brought the essence of Canton and greater Haywood County into the regional spotlight. 

Though the annual festival has always maintained a steady level of appreciation and support, it was the Canton town board, local organizations and members of the community this past year who felt the event was ready for some new blood. It was time to expand it from the Canton Rec Park and bring some events back to its origins in downtown — a decision meant to spur connectivity within the community, and at the same time showcase the ultimate trajectory of Canton. Add that to new economic and residential initiatives and you have yourself a community vision aiming at a renewed sense of pride and purpose.

“As an administrator who is tasked with resolving the revitalization puzzle that has stumped Canton for over a decade, this festival means shedding new light on the value of our economy,” said Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss. “This festival means having a chance to enlighten visitors to the value and cultural richness of Canton. At its core, this community is fiercely proud of its history and loyal to the people and institutions that paved the way before them. We also have a welcoming spirit — not just to other people, but also to new ideas. This year’s festival is a case-in-point.”

 

Nantahala Brewing celebrates five years 

On May 15, Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City hosted its “5th Anniversary Party,” an event that signifies more than just hundreds of passing days on the calendar. Rather, it is a testament to a brewery and brand that is the epitome of the small town — the last, wild outpost to the Great Smokies — that it represents. It’s more than simply making craft beer, it’s about taking pride in your product, your community and your never-ending quest to achieve your dreams, come hell or high water. 

In its first year of operation, Nantahala Brewing had an output of 400 barrels. In 2015, the end-of-year barrel numbers are expected to fall somewhere around 4,000 to 5,000, with projections doubling that for 2016. These days, they brew on a 10-barrel system with two 30-barrel (and four 10-barrel) fermenters. 

Nantahala also signed with regional distributor Budweiser of Asheville, a deal that will put the Bryson City craft beer in restaurants, pubs and on store shelves in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Polk, Madison and Transylvania counties. The extensive distribution network was originally created by Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), with Budweiser of Asheville an independent entity these days, one that teams up with breweries around Western North Carolina to promote local products. Nantahala Brewing will still personally distribute its craft beer around Jackson, Swain and Macon counties.

“We’ve worked really hard. We held steady for awhile and grew incrementally,” co-owner/brewer Joe Rowland said. “We saved our money and pushed ahead, putting ourselves in a position to where we are now, where we could execute getting from one small point to a bigger one correctly.”

 

David Joy releases debut novel to success

At 31, Sylva writer David Joy’s life was surely never the same following the release of his highly acclaimed debut novel Where All Light Tends to Go this past spring. 

Set in the backwoods and small communities of Jackson County, the Southern Appalachian crime noir mixes the two most toxic substances known to humanity — love and drugs. 

Hailing from the same rich literary vein of acclaimed Western North Carolina author Ron Rash, Joy seamlessly combines the small town character development of William Faulkner and seedy societal underbelly lore of Cormac McCarthy (where bad situations tend to rapidly turn into worst-case scenarios). 

It is a style of writing that has held steady throughout the history of literature, throughout the sacred storytelling of Southern Appalachia, and now has its next torchbearer in an evolving craft that spills out of Joy’s fingertips with a reckless abandon.

“I think success or failure all boils down to who is willing to do the work. If you’re willing to put in the hours and keep your head down and recognize that you’re probably going to work for a decade before you have anything that holds weight, if you’re willing to burn a thousand pages because you recognize that it’s not worth a damn, then I think you can have it,” Joy said. “I sacrificed a lot of things to get where I am, and I think that’s what it boils down to is what you’re willing to sacrifice. I’m not very talented, but I’m stubborn as hell and will toe the line with the best of them. There are a lot of people who are a whole lot more talented than I’ll ever be, but I’ve just never been scared of work.”

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