A hidden bluegrass gem in the Blue Ridge

Perhaps the only thing better than enjoying live bluegrass by some of your favorite artists, is witnessing those artists perform in an intimate, magical setting with near perfect acoustics. This past weekend brought those elements together in a truly special venue, the Balsam Mountain Inn, of Balsam, North Carolina.

Built in 1908, the 50 room Inn sits at 3,500 feet on a hillside surrounded by the Plott Balsam and Richland Balsam mountain ranges. Long hidden from the bustle of everyday life and virtually abandoned to the ravages of time in the late 80’s, the once grand hotel was discovered by Merrily Teasley, who happened upon it while hiking. Boarded up and in disrepair, she said it was “love at first sight”. It wasn’t long before she acquired the property and set about the arduous task of returning it to it’s original grandeur.

No stranger to bluegrass herself, Teasley had befriended renowned singer/songwriter Paul Craft. And it’s her love for art and tradition that has given countless traveling musicians an opportunity to perform and share their music in a uniquely American venue. Even when live music isn’t being performed, the building itself seems to be singing its own song, with the subtle hum of antique cast iron radiators, creaking floors and squeaking doors.

Little has changed in the 108 years since it opened, including the Grand Dining Room. And that’s where this evening’s performance by three of bluegrass’s most respected writers and performers took place.

Tom Jutz, Irene Kelley, and Milan Miller perform at The Balsam Mountain Inn (3/25/17) - photo by Terry Herd

Irene Kelley, Thomm Jutz and hometown native Milan Miller performed in the round to an audience of appreciative fans, some who traveled from as far as Germany. Collectively, the three have dominated the Bluegrass Today Airplay charts over the past year, sharing in the top 3 most played songs of 2016 – a trifecta unparalleled in bluegrass songwriting.

As they took turns sharing hit after hit, one audience member may have summed it up best when he said enthusiastically “I love that song”! A phrase that would be repeated numerous times throughout the evening.

Surrounded from floor to ceiling by ancient hardwoods harvested from cathedral forests over a century ago, and aged like a fine vintage instrument, the room exhibits a sound all it’s own, giving back every note in rich, beautiful, warm detail. In a word, perfect. So good that Kelley at one point said it sounded like “being inside a guitar”. If Lloyd Loar would have dedicated his career to building listening rooms instead of mandolins, this would have been one of them.

Bluegrass music may have found the perfect venue for small intimate gatherings, or more accurately, it may have found them. I’m only sad it took me this long to find it myself.

If you missed last Saturday’s performance, don’t despair. Live music is a regular occurrence at the Balsam Mountain Inn – at least for now. In her mid-70’s, Teasley has decided to retire and recently put the Inn up for sale. Let’s hope whoever acquires it, continues her long tradition of hospitality, great food, preservation of tradition and of course, music.

You can find more information about the Balsam Mountain Inn online.