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The music seems to come from a far-off place. Guitar licks and vocal harmonies drift up from the little gazebo down on Mayview Lake in Broyhill Park. Baskets of ferns

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The music seems to come from a far-off place. Guitar licks and vocal harmonies drift up from the little gazebo down on Mayview Lake in Broyhill Park. Baskets of ferns

Blowing Rock’s Monday Melodies

Concert-goers gather at Broyhill Park in Blowing Rock

The music seems to come from a far-off place. Guitar licks and vocal harmonies drift up from the little gazebo down on Mayview Lake in Broyhill Park. Baskets of ferns hang from the gazebo’s eaves. A string of white lights glows under the pavilion. It’s as close as a town can get to a welcoming back porch.

On Monday nights in July, folks come for the unexpected mix of music: One week, jazz standards, the next, Americana or Broadway show tunes. Awash in the dusky evening light, people stretch out on blankets or sit in camping chairs, ready for whatever the evening brings.

Those good vibes are not by chance. The free Monday Night Concert Series is the direct descendant of one of the town’s most storied and beloved landmarks, The Farm House Inn and Restaurant. The grand, wooden, turn-of-the-century inn — now long gone — once welcomed people up the mountain from far and wide. It was known for its stunning location on a cliff just outside of town and for its excellent food, but mostly for its singing waitstaff.

Every summer from 1954 until 1997, college students, most of them music majors, came from all over the country to wait tables and perform musical numbers at The Farm House. They sang tableside and in the parlor, everything from Broadway show tunes to country hits to operatic solos. Customers came to celebrate anniversaries, 16th birthdays, marriage proposals. It wasn’t uncommon to spot a politician or a visiting dignitary, even a beauty queen.

• • •

The Farm House didn’t start as a singing restaurant. Elsie and EJ Blackwell — “Mama and Daddy B” — were restaurant people, not musicians. They operated The Pioneer House in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which was their winter home. Every summer, they packed up and moved to Blowing Rock, where they owned and operated the seasonal Farm House Inn and Restaurant.

It was their college-age son, EJ Jr., who came up with the idea to audition singers as waitstaff during the summer of 1954. The first singing waitress hired was a young woman named Shirley Lowe — a gifted music major with a mellifluous voice. She enchanted diners with current songs and Broadway hits, like South Pacific’s “(I’m in Love With) A Wonderful Guy,” which especially thrilled diners because it was true. Shirl and EJ fell in love and got married. Shirl took over as music director and quickly established The Farm House as an incubator of talent.

The waitstaff at The Farm House; the exterior of The Farm House Inn and Restaurant

By the 1960s, The Farm House was attracting dozens of talented college-age performers who were eager to spend their summers singing and dancing — and waiting tables. Photography courtesy of Amy Escalante

Loving, motivated, and driven, Shirl didn’t just offer summer jobs to students; she invested in them and inspired them. People came back every summer hoping for a job. When they grew up, their kids auditioned. Many still stay in touch. Among the glittering Farm House alumni are Emmy Award-nominated actress Sharon Lawrence, famed Broadway music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell, and Grammy Award-winning baritone Lucas Meachem ­— all native Tar Heels.

Shirl only offered 30 coveted waitstaff positions each summer. The job included waitstaff training, plus room and board: guys upstairs on the third floor in the inn, girls in a house just down the driveway. People expected to work hard. Rehearsals ran several hours a day, often squeezed in between shifts. Some also sang with Shirl on Sunday mornings at Blowing Rock Methodist Church, where she was choir director.

“If you worked for her, she considered you family,” recalls Amy Young Escalante, an Appalachian State music major whom Shirl hired in the summer of 1997. “The Blackwells really were wonderful people. And very devoted to The Farm House. Nobody got a day off from Memorial Day to Labor Day.”

• • •

On a busy summer night, The Farm House might serve more than 500 people. By 5 p.m., cars were already snaking up the steep driveway, passengers rolling down their windows to catch the first songs of the night, hoping not to miss the sunset. Reservations weren’t taken. Customers expected to wait, sometimes hours. But that, too, was part of the Farm House experience. Parents waited on the terrace or admired the antiques; children explored the gift shop, where Miss Pat sold needlepoint and pocket-size portraits of the singing waitstaff.

When it was finally time for diners to be seated, they entered a room filled with candlelit tables, red-checkered tablecloths, and linen napkins. Open sash windows welcomed the breeze and ensured that every diner had a front-row seat to a view of some of North Carolina’s proudest landmarks: Grandfather, Hawksbill, and Table Rock mountains.

The servers at The Farm House Inn and Restaurant in 1997.

In 1997, Amy Young Escalante (front row, second from left) — then a music major at Appalachian State — spent the summer as a singing server at The Farm House Inn and Restaurant. Photography courtesy of Amy Escalante

Amy Escalante

Amy Escalante photograph by Tommy White

After dinner — rainbow trout, ham with fruit sauce, prime rib — guests were invited over to the parlor, the heart of the singing restaurant. Waitstaff took turns hosting the ongoing parlor shows, which meant running to the dining room and snagging servers to come perform solos in their aprons, order pads sticking out of their pockets, before hurrying back to their tables.

“We got to pick the music we wanted to sing in the parlor,” Escalante recalls. Songs like Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” were customer favorites during her summer.

Once an hour, the whole team performed as a group. After each performance, they held out hats, which spilled over with tips.

• • •

As special as the Farm House was, it couldn’t survive the passage of time. The restaurant closed in 1997. Efforts to reopen or rebuild failed. But the magic of The Farm House was never just about the building or the view — as spectacular as they were. It was the people and the music.

In the summer of 2000, Shirl Blackwell, along with Amy Escalante and other alumni, brought the feeling of the Farm House parlor to the Broyhill Park gazebo. They called the event “Farm House Live!” Grainy footage of that first evening shows Escalante and the others singing a variety of songs, just like they had in the parlor. Shirl thanked everyone for coming.

“The building is gone, but the spirit of The Farm House will never die.”

“The building is gone,” she told the crowd. “The music lives in our memories and in our ears, but the spirit of The Farm House will never die.”

Shirl and EJ Blackwell are gone now, too, but the music continues. The Monday Night Concert Series, as it’s now called, will celebrate its 24th season this summer. Farm House alumni like Escalante still occasionally perform, their voices a fond refrain of the once-magnificent Farm House Inn and Restaurant.

Monday Night Concert Series at Broyhill Park
173 Lakeside Drive
Blowing Rock, NC 28605
(828) 295-5222

This story was published on Jun 24, 2024

Robyn Yiğit Smith

Robyn Yiğit Smith has worked internationally as a journalist, writer, and documentary film producer. She lives in Chapel Hill with her two sons.