Written by Fred Mills | Photos by Anthony Harden
For Bo Trammell, who runs the Hickory Nut Gap Inn in Bat Cave and mounts the most badass parties on the planet, it’s all about community.
“Want to try a muffin?”
It’s early one Friday evening, springtime in Bat Cave, North Carolina. I’m standing near the kitchen of the Hickory Nut Gap Inn, a mountaintop lodge with a colorful history that stretches back more than half a century. Meet Bo Trammell, who has owned the Inn since 1998 and, along with his wife, Courtney Thompson, operates it as a private weekend or week-long getaway for folks both in the know (or otherwise enamored of said history), and perhaps in need of a different kind of experience than what Western North Carolina vacation sites typically offer.
Bo motions at a plate stacked with delicious looking chocolate muffins, and I readily accept his offer. He’s been giving me the nickel tour of the Inn, which features six guestrooms, each named after the locally-sourced wood that lines the walls (hickory, black walnut, knotty pine, maple, red oak, wormy chestnut); a high-ceilinged great room with a huge fireplace; cooking and dining areas; a roomy basement turned into a game room that includes another fireplace, an oversized dart board, pool and Ping-Pong tables, and, no lie, an actual bowling alley; a long, rocking chair-outfitted screen porch extending across the front of the structure; and a second-floor observation deck looking out over a breathtaking panoply of heavily forested ridges. As we continue through the house, across the great room, and upstairs to the deck, Bo resumes a conversation thread he’d begun a little earlier when we toured the grounds, checking out the nearby guest house, the trails leading into the thick woods encircling the summit, and a large camping area clearing in those woods.
“Basically,” says Bo, easing down onto one of the deck chairs, “we try to provide a setting for folks to get away, relax, and feel like they don’t have to worry about the outside world for a few days or a weekend. Courtney and I are here the entire time, her fixing the meals and me making sure everyone’s comfortable, but we’re definitely different from, say, a regular bed and breakfast—this is a private place, and I think of us more as facilitators for my guests and for their privacy.”
“There’s a bit of mythical allure that surrounds the topic: ‘Oh, I’ve heard about that place—you’ve actually been?!?’”
The Secret Handshake
In the short time I’ve been here, it’s become eminently clear that the Hickory Nut Gap Inn is unlike most resorts, bed and breakfasts, or cabin/lodge vacation spots. For starters, a good percentage of those among the steady stream of arrivals appear to have some kith/kin connection; the weekend will, in fact, turn out to be an impromptu engagement party for two of them, and no doubt quite a few of the others will gather again in the near future at a church or chapel. It’s a simpatico demographic as well: Everyone appears to be in their late twenties to early forties, and after depositing their bags or camping gear, they all make beelines to the beer kegs out on a large cement patio next to the downstairs door.
Another thing that sets the gathering apart: Many, if not most, of the folks have been to the Hickory Nut Gap Inn in the past, a fact that I glean from snatches of overheard conversation, such as, “Oh, it looks just the same!” or, “Do you remember last time when we…?” or, “Where’s the Nut Wagon?” (More on that later.) Bo also brings in a select few of his friends when he hosts one of these events. If you get an invitation to the Inn, you are in the circle of trust.
This shared, communal history helps lend a feeling of camaraderie and intimacy, something that Bo himself confirms when he tells me that the Inn’s business is generated by word-of-mouth: “Maybe you were invited by one of your friends who had previously attended a gathering here, and now wanted to put together a gathering themselves. Then the next year you decide you want to do a gathering yourself.
“I can actually draw a line back from everyone here, in some way, to the first couple sets of people I had as guests. I kind of look at it as a tree, with all the branches that come off of it, and then branches off those branches.”
And while he doesn’t state this explicitly, I also get the sense that everyone at a Hickory Nut Gap Inn weekend has been vetted and/or vouched for, however subtly, to ensure a degree of simpatico-ness. If you’re here tonight, it’s most likely because you’ve got a friend who’s also here, has been here before, and who knows you to be the type who plays well with others. There’s not going to be anybody randomly showing up who “just heard there was something going on up there,” in other words. And there’s definitely no chance of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their three kids, visiting Western North Carolina from Ohio and wanting to see what a “quaint” place called Bat Cave might be like, deciding, on the spur of the moment, to turn off Highway 64 into the Inn’s entrance—which is marked by a big wrought iron gate and sign depicting a bat—and make their way up the long, winding dirt driveway to the top of Bo’s mountain.
“How it works is, each time we go, it’s someone’s ‘party.’ That person organizes the date and guest list,” one of the new friends I make tonight explains to me. Meet Anthony from Southern Pines. He’s a veteran of several of Bo’s parties. He and his girlfriend, Dixie, have made the drive up, and, as it turns out, he plans on asking her to marry him this weekend. Apparently a handful of people are in on this secret. I learn later that Courtney had already baked a cake for Anthony and Dixie that reads “Yes!” in icing on the top.
Anthony continues, “Each time we go, the crowd is a little different depending on who got the ball rolling. Also, someone’s good buddy from college or a friend from Asheville might join us. And of course we have grown to love Bo and Courtney’s friends as well, and hope they stop in. This leads to an ongoing cycle of gatherings, where someone who was invited last year has now been back with their own group of friends.
“I’ve met some really great people on the mountain, and when I’m elsewhere, I often run into people who know it as well as I do, wishing there was a secret handshake or some way to tell who has been and who has yet to go. There’s a bit of mythical allure that surrounds the topic: ‘Oh, I’ve heard about that place—you’ve actually been?!?’”
If you take a look at the “Rates” page on the Hickory Nut Gap Inn website (Hickorynutgapinn.com), the lodging information lists weekly rentals, week-end rentals, special occasions, and corporate events—“whole house parties” is prominently mentioned—with a minimum booking price set at $1,000 per night for 10 people. This is indeed what I have wandered into, and… well, “wandered in” would be a journalistically disingenuous term to use. For while I, the writer, am definitely the odd man out, I’m present because Bo is a friend of my boss, Oby Morgan, and Oby no doubt assured Bo that in allowing me to observe—and, let’s face it, participate in—the revelry tonight, I would definitely not (a) embarrass or offend anybody, or (b) give away any state secrets or breach any confidences. Oby also advised me that, based on what he knows about my personality, he was pretty sure I would like Bo, and that Bo and I would get along just fine. (Correct on both counts, Oby.) “Everybody likes Bo,” he added, with a knowing grin.
Muffin On the Mountain
Now, if you are going to facilitate, er, host the kind of badass party I’ve been assured this will be, in order to celebrate properly you need to cover the basics: food, libations, and activities. Check, check, and check. What else? Oh yeah—music. Nobody’s paying $1,000 a night just to sit around and watch Netflix or play Xbox on the flatscreen.
Meet Dangermuffin. The trio of Dan Lotti, Mike Sivilli, and Steven Sandifer has been around since 2007 and hail from the Charleston County area of South Carolina. In 2014, Lotti got married and moved to the North Carolina mountains, so the group, with five albums under its belt thus far, has also become a regional favorite thanks to its keep-WNC-weird-friendly brew of Americana-powered jam, folk, reggae, and groove-rock. Tonight the plan is for them to perform two sets, an acoustic one in the comfy sit-down confines of the great room, and then, later, a full-on electric blowout downstairs in the game room, where, not so coincidentally, there’s plenty of room for dancing. I’ve never seen them live myself, but it’s pretty obvious a lot of the people here at the Inn have. The verdict before the musicians play a note is, I am told, “Get ready for some good stuff.”
In fact, according to Bo, the informal name for the evening is “Muffin On the Mountain,” which, by my way of thinking, has both a cool alliteration and a promising aesthetic. Those chocolate muffins sitting on the kitchen counter weren’t baked by accident, either. It’s worth noting, too, that the bandmembers are themselves veterans of Bo’s parties, something Anthony notes proudly when he tells me that he celebrated his 40th birthday here last year and Dangermuffin provided the soundtrack. “We had such an amazing time, we wanted to do it again,” he says. “They are great guys and musicians who have their own sound, and we are so fortunate to have them with us on the mountain. Dangermuffin has become our group’s favorite band, friends, and theme music.”
Every Picture Tells A Story
As Bo and I sit up on the observation deck, munching on our muffins and gazing off into the distance—we note some ominous looking black clouds on the horizon that appear to be drifting in our direction—I ask him a little about his personal background, about the Inn, and how he came to own it. Bo, 49, is the quintessential laid-back, thoughtful conversationalist, as befits someone who earned a degree in religion at Appalachian State. Possessed of a sly sense of humor, he speaks in a gentle drawl that is simultaneously unthreatening and worldly, even Zen-like. But when talking about the Inn, he can quickly become animated. He’s probably related the story behind the Inn scores of times in the past, but he loves telling it and he knows it’s a good one.
From the brief summary of the Hickory Nut Gap Inn’s history that appears on the website:
“This mountaintop hideaway was built on 5000 acres as a weekend retreat by local Trailways Bus Company founder, Herman Hardison in the 1940s and 1950s. Natural materials such as stone and wood milled from the property were used to build the lodge. Today, there are 75 beautiful, forested acres laced with excellent hiking trails.”
Coincidentally, there is a distant family connection between mine and Herman Hardison’s, a degrees-of-separation factoid that Bo seems to find mildly intriguing. Directing my attention to a distant gorge, he informs me that the Inn is positioned so the view from the front neatly triangulates three mountains, and when the vernal equinox arrives each year, that gorge offers a precise visual frame for the equinox’s morning sunrise. “He had to be a very meticulous man,” says Bo, referring to Hardison.
After Hardison died, one of his daughters took over the lodge as a retreat for her family, but eventually the building and the surrounding land was sold at auction in the late ‘70s. And it’s at that point where the story gets really interesting.
I’d previously noticed the many framed photos lining the walls of the Inn’s main hallway, most of them shots of rock artists in their element during the ‘70s—among them, David Bowie; Lynyrd Skynyrd, pre-plane tragedy; a luxuriously hirsute Peter Frampton; Rod Stewart, in full cross-legged/mic stand-gripping pose; the Sex Pistols, at their final show at Winterland; two photos depicting the Who (young and on the BBC; in full flight, Tommy era); a gentleman named Way Out Willie, who apparently was a Hells Angels majordomo back in the day; and a celebrity power meeting of sorts in which Marlon Brando, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and concert impresario Bill Graham are sharing a private joke.
Appearing in several of the images is an additional, less recognizable, individual. That’s Jack (no last name; just “Jack”), the man who wound up purchasing the Inn. Jack was a West Coast music industry mover and shaker based in the Bay Area, and he had developed an estimable/notorious reputation for throwing big parties for rock bands and other entertainment types that could run on for days. He decided he wanted to establish a reliable space on the opposite side of the country as well — the Inn’s website suggests Jack was looking for “a rehearsal studio and playroom” for Lynyrd Skynyrd, whom he also promoted — and upon learning of the old Hardison property in North Carolina, he realized he’d found his rural Shangri-La: Here was a uniquely-designed structure with plenty of room, and it offered acres of open space and loads of privacy. The deal was done: Jack had his East Coast party house. The year was 1978.
Some of Jack’s parties at the top of the mountain have undoubtedly passed into regional lore among longtime Bat Cave residents. The ‘70s and ‘80s held no shortage of rock ‘n’ roll excess, but of course such tales inevitably get juicier in the re-telling. One persistent, possibly apocryphal, story has a member of the Charlie Daniels Band powering his motorcycle into the lodge and burning rubber on the wooden floor of the hallway. Still, if the Inn’s walls could talk… actually, they do, in a sense, via all those framed photos.
Jack, sadly, would pass away from cancer in 1985. He willed the property to his girlfriend and closest confidante, Bettina Spaulding, who’d originally moved from San Francisco to take up house with him. She was the one who christened the place the Hickory Nut Gap Inn, and she kept the lodge up even after marrying one of Jack’s associates, a Bahamas-based entrepreneur, Captain Easy Batterson, a number of years later.
Meanwhile, Bo, having grown up in the Asheville area, had spent time as a teenager hiking the trails around Chimney Rock and Bat Cave. Along the way he also met Bettina and they became close friends. He helped her out occasionally with odd jobs around the lodge, and even after he went off to college and, later, moved to Raleigh working as Porsche mechanic, he always found time to visit her and pitch in whenever he was in the neighborhood.
After Bettina was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1990s, she determined that her husband wanted to stay in the Bahamas following her death. Noting Bo’s love for the mountains—he’d even expressed interest in one day moving back to the area—she worked out a deal that would allow him to purchase the lodge. Not even 30 years old when Bettina died in 1998, Bo suddenly found himself the owner of a mountaintop slice of paradise. (For a more detailed story on the early history of the Inn, go to Wncmagazine.com/feature/sweet_home_carolina.)
Looking back now, Bo recalls going up to the observation deck shortly after he bought the place to meditate on what might be the most positive thing he could do with his new purchase—and also what negative things he should steer clear of. Ultimately he would own 88 surrounding acres; the rest of the original 5,000 was bought up by timber companies, but Bo was able to negotiate a situation whereby the Nature Conservancy would preserve the mountain that rises in front of the Inn. “That way, my view shed would be protected, and I wouldn’t have to worry about cabins and condos going up over there,” he says, nodding across the way.
Initially the Inn operated as a bed and breakfast—Courtney also became a key element in making it run smoothly (the two eventually got married, in 2002)—but all along, Bo felt it could be put to a more unique purpose, one true to its history. “I wanted to honor Bettina and the training I got from her, from just being her friend. I knew I didn’t want it to just be a bed and breakfast, and I already had a dream to do what I do now. It just took me about two or three years to accomplish that.”
The very definition of intimacy: Musicians seated in a semi-circle, the audience seated around them on chairs and sofas, with a few standing towards the rear or side of the room, swaying back and forth, tapping their feet, and, if there’s room, dancing.
Wish You Were Here
“What do you think so far?”
I’m down in the Inn’s game room now, chatting with Anthony and some of his friends. Bo has just beaten me in a game of Ping-Pong. (For the record: I held my own, although a couple of hours and several strong drinks later, I didn’t fare quite so well when I challenged another person to play.) To the folks in Anthony’s circle, this is more than just a nice mountain getaway destination for them.
“The Inn is the perfect place for us,” says Anthony. “Plenty of space inside. Campsites for those who want that experience. Room for large groups to relax, play, or find a quiet space. We love solitude while being with the people we love to be with. Many bands have played and stayed there. There is a musical history that I believe has its gravity at this point.”
Reflecting on his personal history with the Inn, Anthony adds, “Bat Cave is special to me and Dixie—we always say ‘Bat Cave’ instead of ‘The Inn.’ On our first date I asked her if she would like to come to the mountains with me in a few weeks. We have returned many times with many friends.”
I agree with him—this is a remarkable place. There is a unique vibe in the air this evening, a mixture of “laid-back,” “anticipatory,” and “electric,” with people circulating and conversing and munching and drinking and, yes, availing themselves of the sports diversions. The pool and Ping-Pong tables get their share of use, although it’s the bowling alley lining the far wall of the room that’s clearly the main attraction. Wandering over, I wait my turn to pick up a ball, preemptively announcing to no one in particular that the last time I bowled was about eight years ago at a children’s birthday party “so don’t expect too much from me.” When I learn that there’s a bowling pool going, whereby you put a buck in a jar on the counter for each turn you take, and whoever makes a strike wins the pool, I decide I probably shouldn’t expect to get rich tonight, either. And I don’t.
But seriously—this is one helluva game room. It’s pretty easy to visualize a touring rock band coming off the road for a weekend to kick back, depressurize, and have some of the same kind of fun that it might find itself having in a city after a show, but in this instance amid total privacy, away from the local gawkers, geeks, and hangers-on. Groupies, debauchery, and illegal smiles optional. Even if someone just feels like relaxing, there’s plenty to gaze at, zero in on, or otherwise zone out with, like the fireplace, a toy stuffed bat dangling on a string from the ceiling, a well-stocked bookcase (numerous titles on religion, philosophy, and metaphysics catch my eye), colorful artwork on the walls (included are posters of Hendrix, Willie Nelson, The Who’s Tommy, and a Rastafarian Last Supper), even a hand-carved Cherokee syllabary, which apparently was commissioned by original owner Hardison, presumably to ward off evil spirits for his lodge.
By now my photographer has arrived, and he’s making the rounds, snapping pics of the music memorabilia dotting the walls and taking action shots of the Ping-Pong and pool tables and the bowling lane. Later, he’ll also get plenty of images of Dangermuffin playing and people dancing and twirling with lighted hula hoops, although with the exception of the band members, his plan is to not take close-focus photos of the party attendees, mindful that “discretion” is a keyword in the Inn’s vernacular. As Bo had advised me earlier that afternoon, “Privacy is our specialty here.”
The Dangermuffin guys have also arrived, so a few of us start shoving furniture down to one end of the room to make room for them to set up their gear. Knowing how the presence of a journalist can sometimes be off-putting to musicians when it’s not been previously disclosed, I go over and introduce myself to guitarist Lotti, explaining why the photographer and I are here and assuring him that it’s to write about Bo and his Inn, although I will certainly highlight the band in the article. Quoting from Almost Famous, I add, “I promise to make you look cool.” He gets the joke and laughs.
Soon enough, the dinner announcement is made, and everyone makes their way up to the dining room where Courtney has laid out an elaborate buffet spread suitable for pretty much any appetite or disposition. I select a rip-roaring rock ‘n’ roll meal of hummus, a salad, and fresh fruit. You can sit at a table in the dining room, or settle down in a rocking chair on the front porch, as I do, or even on one of the stuffed sofas and chairs in the great room. Several people have already told me that these meals are as much a key to the Inn’s appeal as the game room. Notes Anthony, “Her fresh, home-cooked meals have never fallen short of amazing. The Sunday morning breakfast as well, when all are starting [to say their] goodbyes is so good—it seems like we all come for that moment, eggs Benedict, with dill hollandaise, and pancakes, with kudzu vine syrup, shared with your best friends.”
Electric (and Acoustic) Church Music
After dinner, it’s time for some… Dangermuffin! The musicians sit down on chairs in front of the fireplace, armed with guitars and upright bass, and ease into an acoustic set that’s simultaneously feel-good and energizing. If you’ve ever attended one of the house concerts that have become staples of traveling singer-songwriters’ tour itineraries, you can picture the scene, which is the very definition of intimacy: Musicians seated in a semi-circle, illuminated by floor and table lamps instead of spotlights, the audience seated around them on chairs and sofas, with a few standing towards the rear or side of the room, swaying back and forth, tapping their feet, and, if there’s room, dancing.
Being this up-close-and-personal with the living-room musical ambiance also breeds immediacy, with the kind of unscripted patter on the part of the musicians (plus give-and-take with the fans) that you wouldn’t necessarily get at a formal venue, no matter how small. Near the end of the set, one of the Dangermuffin guys casually asks, “Any requests?” Someone immediately shoots back, “’Purple Rain’!”—Prince had only just recently died—and before you can say, “have a muffin” the band has launched into the late icon’s signature anthem. I think I hear one of them chuckle at one point and reveal that they’ve never played the tune before. They seem to pick it up pretty quickly, with the entire room helping out and singing the words back at them.
Afterwards, while the band takes a breather and gets refreshments, the crowd gradually begins filtering back downstairs. As expected, those black clouds that Bo and I spotted earlier on the horizon in the afternoon finally moved in and yielded a downpour, so everyone is inside out of necessity. Cue up more pool, Ping-Pong, and bowling. The game room lights are a bit dimmer now, in anticipation of the band’s next set, and someone has brought out the hula hoops outfitted with LEDs that are activated when the hoop is twirled. Those undulating lights, along with some colored mini-spotlights over the Ping-Pong table, add a kind of hippie disco feel to the proceedings. Hold that thought: There’s an actual vintage disco ball suspended from the game room ceiling, spinning off flecks of light.
Just as things are getting semi-hazy, the guys in Dangermuffin converge on their electric instruments and start tuning up. And…. we’re off once more, the entire room slipping into an irresistible rhythmic groove as the band unleashes crowd-pleasers (a number of the tunes, I discern, appear on the most recent Dangermuffin album, 2014’s Songs for the Universe), extended jams and sonic extrapolations, and several well-chosen covers (Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead appear to be favorites of the musicians). Cue up more dancing—solo, with partners, in small groups—electric hula-hooping, and singing along.
Out of the corner of my eye I spot a random motion coming from the side of the room: It’s Bo, emerging from the shadows on a skateboard and weaving in and out of the crowd, moving easily from one end of the room to another, never colliding with anyone or even brushing against them. Something tells me he has practiced this before. A couple of us crack up at the visual incongruity. On the one hand, it just seems slightly absurd; when was the last time you saw someone skateboarding through the audience at a rock concert? I mean, the venue security wouldn’t let someone bring a skateboard inside in the first place. But on the other hand, this is not a venue, it’s a game room, and it’s Bo’s basement to boot, and Bo can do whatever the hell he wants in his own basement. Tonight, it feels just about right.
Below: online only special! Watch a live clip of Dangermuffin in 2012.
Dancing In the Moonlight
My abiding memory of the gathering at the Hickory Nut Gap Inn is of it being not so much a party, but a three-ring circus, where each attendee—the guys in Dangermuffin, the people in Anthony’s circle who’ve traveled to Bat Cave, even the Capital at Play writer and photographer—is part of the performance itself. We’re all in the arena; there are no bleachers. And Bo is our ringmaster, subtly but purposefully directing the activities to ensure that there’s never a dull moment and no one is ever left out.
“Bo,” Anthony tells me, “is a caretaker in so many ways. Only after many visits to his Inn did I realize the hard work as well as the detailed effort he puts into providing us with an unforgettable experience. He is always on the job, always making sure that everyone is having a great time. He stokes firewood, fills ice, dims or raises the lights, sets the mood music, and so much more. [Yet he] still has time to beat everyone at Ping Pong and ride through the party on a skateboard while hula-hooping.
“Bo is literally the life of the party, and he will keep it going as long as you want.”
Remember that reference to the “Nut Wagon” I made near the start of this story? While, due to the weather, I didn’t get to experience it before heading back to my home in Fairview, apparently it was deployed the following evening. The Nut Wagon is another semi-legendary feature of the Inn, and Bo doesn’t roll it out for every gathering. Sometimes, say at 2AM or 3AM, when a faithful few have not yet turned in and still have their mojos working, Bo will fire up his oversized vehicle and transport the remaining revelers around the property slowly (“rarely over four miles per hour”), tracing the couple miles of road that loop around it. The Nut Wagon is lit up like a Christmas tree and outfitted with a dancer’s pole, and its roof is like a mini-deck that people can climb up onto and gaze at the stars and the skyline. Nobody’s in a rush to get anywhere in particular, and Bo points out that, inevitably, everyone is hopelessly lost before the trek is done—except him, of course.
Getting together as a community and partying is when we are able to just take a moment and set aside all those day-to-day rules and just let go. It brings us together.”
“It’s kind of like Narnia,” he says, conspiratorially. “Some things only come out in the early morning hours. The Nut Wagon is kind of a bridge to the Inn, an additional manifestation of what we do here.”
At the Hickory Nut Gap Inn, each event has its own character, depending on who has booked it, what their group of friends is like, and who among Bo’s own circle of emeritus Bat Cavers show up. On certain occasions, like tonight, there’s a theme and live entertainment to go with it. Sometimes, with a nod to the Inn’s storied legacy, the attendees are even the bands themselves, as over the years Bo has played host to a number of musicians looking for their own private getaways—among them, Band of Horses, Bootsy Collins, and Holy Ghost Tent Revival, along with locals such as Jeff Sipes, Dub Cartel, and Now You See Them. Regardless of who’s staying there, though, the idea is to come away from the visit with a new perspective and a positive outlook as it applies to the people with whom you’ve experienced the Inn together.
“I really believe in community,” Bo mused at one point while we talked. “It’s what’s best for humans. Churches create a communal space, of course, but, you know… Getting together as a community and partying is when we are able to just take a moment and set aside all those day-to-day rules and just let go. It brings us together.
“Our primary goal, mine and Courtney’s, is for the people who come here to leave feeling closer to one another than they were before they arrived.”
Fred Mills is the editor of Capital at Play. To the readers, he says: “Find all the song references in this feature as well as the October music issue – such as in titles, subheads, etc. – and email us. Best answer wins a fabulous prize.” (contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org) / The original article is below. Click to open in fullscreen…