Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Old Smoky Distillery & Dollywood - A Taste of East Tennessee

Gatlinburg Nestled in the Mountains

Tennessee is a long, narrow state stretching from Memphis, famed for jazz and barbecue,  on the mighty Mississippi,through state capital Nashville, home to the commercial country music industry and the Grand Old Opry, to the Knoxville area in the East with the majestic Smoky Mountain National Park along its eastern border, and the three tourist meccas of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg lying just west in their shadow. The 440 miles of its length encompasses lots of history, including huge pieces of the core of American music. 

Mitzi Soward, Irene, and Joe Soward

On Tuesday night, our friends Joe and Mitzi Soward, owners of Dumplin Valley Farm RV Park and Promoters of the wonderful Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival, joined us for supper at the delightful  Pottery House Old Mill  in Pigeon Forge, through the edges of the Great Smoky National Park, where only five months ago a huge fire raged killing at least fourteen people, and down in the thriving tourist destination of Gatlinburg, to visit the Old Smoky Distillery.

The Fire Reached the Edges of Gatlinburg

The picture above, taken from an outlook on the edge of the Park, shows how close the fire actually got to Gatlinburg. Lives and houses were lost, but the forest has a way of recovering and soon, only remnants will be seen. Just now, there's the smell of burned wood hovering over the area. 

Darrell Webb Band at the Old Smoky Distillery

The Old Smoky Distillery is well named. The open air courtyard, where there is live music all day from noon until 10:00 PM, features a distillery for corn whisky on the left side of this picture, an open-air courtyard, where people gather to listen to live, free music, and a sales area to the left of this picture where quart jars of legal (taxed) corn liquor line the walls, and, for a small charge, tourists line up to sample the wares. These days, corn is no longer the raw, harsh stuff of the chase through the mountains with the "revenoors" hard on the bootleggers, heels. Rather it's refined, sweetened, comes in multiple flavors, and the signature beverage of the Appalachian chain, along with sweet tea. If you know the right people, you might even find a quart circulating at some of the jams at local bluegrass festivals. 

The Darrell Webb Band

Darrell Webb established himself, while still a teenager, as one of the hot, young, traditional bluegrass pickers and singers who enliven the bluegrass world. Darrell's high lonesome tenor voice and virtuoso mandolin play quickly placed him high in the ranks of sought after side men. He played with a number of bands (J.D. Crowe, Lonesome River Band, Marty Raybon) before a several year stint with Rhonda Vincent & the Rage. He finally established his own band, which, over the past five years or so, has gone through a number of changes of both personnel and sound, with guitarist Jarod Hensley being the only constant. 

Darrell Webb

Darrell's present five piece band represents the coming together of musical ideas and approaches that Darrell has been flirting with and developing through the years. A hard driving band capable of great subtlety, its repertoire ranges from classic early bluegrass with the emphasis on Ralph Stanley, to plaintive mountain/coal mining songs reflecting Darrell's mountain heritage, through rock and blues inflected show stoppers such as his version of the Robert Johnson/Eric Clapton piece, Crossroads, performed here at the Sertoma Bluegrass Festival. 

The current band brings together fine musicians sharing a strong sense of Darrell's musical vision and his leadership. Jarod Hensley, his long time guitar player is fast and polished. Banjo player Collins Miller contributes the characteristic banjo rhythms and style of bluegrass along with contributing a somewhat quirky mountain humor. Carl White, a seasoned trouper and animated performer, makes the bass guitar speak a number of languages and often fills in as band emcee. Carl's wife Rachel Maye, absent for family commitments the night we were at Old Smoky, contributes a smoking hot fiddle with more than a touch of fine jazz improvisation built in.

Jarod Hensley

Carl White

Collins Miller

The audience at Old Smoky Distillery seems to be a combination of hard core bluegrass fans stopping in to watch a band for free, tourists, perhaps getting their first taste of this stimulating and exciting music, and drop-inners coming for the moonshine and stopping to listen. This evening they heard a first-rate bluegrass band.

On the Street

There's more than one distillery

The Smoky Mountain String Band & Dollywood

Jerry Butler has been a friend of ours almost since the time we became interested in bluegrass music. His history goes back to the days he played with a young band called The Knoxville Newgrass Boys, during the late seventies. He played at the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair and even at the White House. He was a featured performer with the nationally touring Knoxville band Pine Mountain Railroad, and helped bring new life to Lorraine Jordan & Carolina during the early years of this century. He toured with his own band, Jerry Butler & the Blue Jay's. Always, he has contributed a distinctive, clear, and mellow voice capable of ranging through a variety of moods and subject matter. Recently, he has been featured in The Smoky Mountain String Band, one of the featured bands in the Dollywood performance venues.

The Parking Lot Shuttle

Our always useful GPS quickly and easily helped us navigate to Dollywood, located on the eastern side of Pigeon Forge, past the impressive Dollywood's DreamMore Resort, and through what seemed like miles of almost empty parking lots. The Park itself had opened for the season only a couple of weeks earlier, and the we were early for the soon to come vast summer crowds. We easily navigated the ticket booth....

The Ticket Booth

...and stepped onto the Main Street of another era created to reconstruct the imagined world of hillbilly life enriched by rides, shops, eateries, and, what we had come for, performance venues. We quickly discovered that we had almost certainly aged out of the pleasures of the multi-purpose amusement park that now promises a thrilling, and tiring day for, as the circus ringmaster used to say, "children of all ages." I think we may have graduated to museums. The world depicted, never, of course, existed, but it is clean and well-shaded, offering a variety of opportunities from thrilling rides to quiet places to sit and listen to music.

The Main Street at the Entrance

We walked over to the Back Porch Theater, where The Smoky Mountain String Band performed four half-hour sets during the day. On other days, the band performs in other locations around the grounds. The theater, seating about 500 people is surrounded by small shops and a couple of places to stop to eat, either a snack or a full meal. Here's a map of the grounds:

Click to Go to the Interactive Map

Every place you see the musical  note on the map is a venue where some kind of musical experience reflecting the interests of visitors and the regional culture of Appalachia is represented in an elementary, though informative fashion reflecting the tastes the designers of the park and the spiritual, as well as actual, mother of this theme park, singer/songwriter and entrepreneur: Dolly Parton.

Smoky Mountain String Band

The Smoky Mountain String Band is a very good bluegrass band. It's personnel are all experienced players who have played with some of the best. It presents a half hour of pretty traditional bluegrass music representing what a person who might attend a concert or festival with something that would never be out of place in either setting. At the same time, it doesn't challenge the audience with controversial or unusual music or subject matter. There's no pushing for innovation here, just good, solid bluegrass music. All four pickers in the group represent the qualities expected from their instruments in fully professional and satisfying ways. And in this setting, that's what's called for. The audience came to enjoy a bluegrass show as part of the whole Dollywood experience without devoting a whole day to the music, always knowing that there was more to do than could be accomplished in a single day.  In other words, they delivered what was expected with skill, providing tuneful fun for their audience.

Jerry Butler

Ashley Bradley

Ashley has played with a variety of bands and served in a range of roles during her thirteen years at Dollywood. She has a warm, well-modulated, and pleasing voice, which blends with other members of the band nearly perfectly. She'd be a strong addition to any bluegrass or country band.

Roger Helton

We've enjoyed Roger as a featured performer with other bands, so we knew what to expect here. He's equally adept on the banjo, Dobro, and guitar, playing a variety of kinds of music adapted to the setting and the song. He's always a pleasure to see and hear.

Kerry Kooch

Kerry Kooch has toured nationally with several major country and bluegrass bands as well as currently with the Jerry Butler Band. He's lively and pleasant, as well as pushing the band with his driving bass beat.

Bands like The Smoky Mountain String Band always raise a question in my mind about bluegrass bands specifically, and, more broadly, about musicians and bands. How many fine musicians and highly entertaining bands are there that we never, ever hear of? As we've traveled the bluegrass trail for what's now exceeded fifteen years, we hear the same litany almost everywhere. "You should hear the _______________ Bluegrass Band! They're as good as any band on tour." Usually, the statement isn't completely true, for there's no substitute for the daily grind of touring and the practice it provides. But just often enough, we encounter really good local bluegrass bands, which would do just fine on tour. Many musicians we've met have spent their time on the road before opting for a more reliable life, a steady job, and the home fires. They've had the road experience and decided to stay closer to home. An outstanding example which comes quickly to mind, is the Grass Cats, a North Carolina Band which seldom strays from home, but whose recording career and media support suggest a possible much wider audience. There are lots more, too!

As we moseyed  towards the gate, tired and increasingly aware that we are getting a little old, we strolled past some of the other attractions of the park.

A Southern Belle Makes a Little Girl Happy

Smoky Mountain River Rampage

The Lightning Rod

Jukebox Junction

Towards the Exit

The Dollywood Express

As we ambled out of Dollywood, we appreciated the day's small crowd, the friendly, helpful employees, and the clean environment. We boarded the shuttle, not crowded yet, as we were leaving early, and returned to our truck satisfied we had seen what we wanted to see. 

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