Spruce Pine Festival: A Hidden Gem in the North Carolina Mountains

Spruce Pine Barbecue Championship and Bluegrass FestivalNestled on a hillside in historic downtown Spruce Pine, N.C., my companion and I enjoyed some of the best bluegrass music, food and small town atmosphere I’ve encountered.

Now in its fourth year, the Spruce Pine Barbecue Championship and Bluegrass Festival held July 17–18 featured perennial favorites Blue Highway and the Lonesome River Band atop a solid lineup of up-and-coming bands such as Unspoken Tradition, Nu Blu and the Snyder Family Band. An impressive array of local bands and traditional dance troupes filled out the event.

Highlights included mandolin player and tenor vocalist Jesse Smathers who joined the Lonesome River Band in June and sounded like he’d been playing with the band’s veterans for years. Smathers blended perfectly on harmonies and took the lead on multiple occasions, both on mandolin and vocals.

Nineteen-year-old Zeb Snyder captivated the crowd with guitar picking that would rival legends. Together with 16-year-old Samantha Snyder on fiddle and vocals and a recent deal with Mountain Home Music, the Snyder Family Band promises to be a force in bluegrass for years to come.

My discovery of the Spruce Pine festival started on a cold evening last winter as I looked at the lineups and ticket prices for this year’s music festivals. I settled on three favorites (Shakori Hills, Merlefest and Floydfest) within a two and a half hour drive of my home in the North Carolina Piedmont.

But before the dogwoods bloomed, time and budget pressures forced a cut to my festival list—and then another. I was having a bad case of the summer doldrums when a friend asked what I thought of the Spruce Pine festival. I’d never heard of it. The ticket price—$16 for two days and 10 bands—was a gift. And I wondered whether there was a catch. But there was none.

Lonesome River Band at the 2015 Spruce Pine Barbecue Championship and Bluegrass Festival - photo by Matthew LamoreauxWe parked for free across the river from the festival and enjoyed a five-minute walk over a pedestrian bridge that provided a picturesque view of the North Toe River. A free shuttle was also available.

We brought our own chairs and had no trouble finding a place to set up reasonably close to the stage. Although coolers weren’t allowed, the beer garden offered domestic drafts for $4 and craft beers for $5. There were also three bars in the immediate downtown area. Between shows we perused exhibits by local craftsmen and shops in the downtown area.

We had the choice of a half dozen food vendors featuring barbecue, sandwiches and state-fair favorites such as deep-fried Oreos and funnel cakes. Attendees were also invited to buy tickets to sample and vote on the barbecue competition. For those dedicated to a more wholesome diet, the Knife & Fork Restaurant a block away from the main stage offered locally-sourced cuisine.

Providing a break from the sweltering July heat of the North Carolina Piedmont, daytime temperatures peaked in the low 80s, dropping into the upper 60s at night.

Spruce Pine is known for gem mining and a few rumbling trainloads of ore briefly interrupted the music. Although some might find the noise unpleasant, we thought the trains added to the ambiance.

For $18 per night we pitched our tent beside a rushing mountain stream at Living Waters Campground, about a 20-minute drive from the festival.

Spruce Pine is approximately an hour’s drive northeast of Asheville, two hours northwest of Charlotte and two and a half hours west of Greensboro. Next year’s festival will be held July 15-16, 2016. Lineup and ticket information are expected to be available by October at: www.sprucepinebbqbluegrass.org.

The town also hosts the N.C. Mineral and Gem Festival July 30 – Aug. 2, 2015 and the Fire on the Mountain Blacksmithing Festival each April.