A Musical Mentor
For more than a quarter century, the Farm House Restaurant and Inn in Blowing Rock provided music lovers and food aficionados with an opportunity to enjoy a great dinner, while listening to some of the best singers around.
Shirley “Shirl” Blackwell and her husband, E.J., operated the Farm House, which was owned by E.J.’s mother. E.J. managed the business side of the operation, while Shirl was in charge of the entertainment.
When the Farm House closed its doors in 1997, it was a sad day for the hundreds of singers and performers who had worked there. On Feb. 20, another chapter of Farm House history ended, as Shirl Blackwell died in Florida after a brief illness.
A memorial service for Blackwell was held in Fort Lauderdale on March 10. A celebration of her life will be held in Blowing Rock on June 30.
In the weeks since her death, several members of the Farm House “family” have expressed how much she meant to them, both professionally and personally.
“I was at the Farm House from 1979 to 1983 or so,” said Becky Reis, now a music teacher at Blowing Rock School. “Then I went back later as an adult. I was a singing waitress with a soprano voice. I remember singing songs from ‘The Music Man’ and ‘Showboat,’ as well as some Patsy Cline songs.”
According to Reis and others, Blackwell selected the choral music, while the singers picked out their own solo numbers.
“Of course, our solos had to be approved by Shirl,” Reis said.
Amy Marie Young is another Farm House alumna who has continued to make music a central part of her life. In addition to her other musical ventures, she organizes the Monday Night Music Series that presents free live concerts at the gazebo at Broyhill Lake in Blowing Rock during the summer months.
“I was a performer at the Farm House in 1997, the last year it was open,” Young said. “I’ve been able to keep up with Farm House people through the Monday Night Music Series, where we’ve had a number of them perform.
“Shirl and I were pretty close friends, and I definitely consider her a mentor. She gave us a lot of freedom to explore the music — a lot of creative freedom and opportunity. We would put on parlor shows after dinner where we would sing solos and group numbers.
“As musical director, Shirl gave us a lot of good direction. The situation was very unique to the Farm House.”
Young said it was her experiences at the Farm House that got her interested in producing her own family-oriented variety show with an emphasis on timeless music.
“I can’t wait to get started with this year’s Monday Night Music Series,” she said.
Hal Cline not only performed at the Farm House from 1975 to 1980, but stayed in close contact with the Blackwells throughout the years.
“We had people at the Farm House who later went on to Broadway, soap operas and other roles on television,” Cline said. “Jan Herndon performed at the Farm House, and then in 1975 she moved to New York and landed the lead in ‘A Chorus Line.’ Matthew Ashford moved on to soap opera fame. Another performer has been a professional opera singer in Germany for more than 20 years.”
According to Cline, the building that housed Farm House was formerly the site of a business called The Skyland Inn.
“E.J. Blackwell married Shirl after they met at Stetson College, where she was a music major,” Cline said. “He broke off an engagement he had with another girl to be with Shirl.”
According to Cline, E.J.’s mother decided to sell the property against the wishes of E.J. and Shirl.
“A man from Lenoir offered her a price that was significantly less than the market value,” Cline said. “As soon as they bought it, they had it burned down.”
Cline stated that before the building was sold, an auction was held on the property. He ended up with the establishment’s Victorian hat stand, the one that customers would stuff with cash — tips for the Farm House performers.
“During my time at the Farm House, we had two piano players who rotated: Eddie Haas and Tom Dettbarn,” Reis said. “Our Farm House group from the ’80s has had one reunion, and we plan to have another one this summer. The ’70s group has a reunion every year.”
It is not only the former singing waiters and waitresses who have fond memories of Shirl Blackwell and the Farm House. Many former customers can remember good times at the restaurant.
“I don’t know anyone who enjoyed the Farm House any more than my mother and father, Page and Katherine Graham,” former regular Emily Graham Grogan said. “I grew up in Blowing Rock in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, eating there with my parents and their friends. I have many fond memories. One of the best summers for music was the year of the five Johns: Big John, Little John, John the Most, John the Host and John the Ghost. I was so sad to see it go.”
Added former customer Lonnie Webster, “This was such a unique magical place. My best story was one night an elderly couple was sitting next to the window as the sun was setting. A young waitress brought out a cake filled with candles, placing it on the small table in front of the lady and began to sing ‘You Light Up My Life.’
“As the waitress sang, tears rolled down the old man’s face. The tears were lit by the candlelight and the golden sky outside, making the tear drops glow with bright golden color as they moved down the man’s face. Not a person in the Farm House dining room had a dry eye at that moment.”
Since the closing of the Farm House Restaurant in 1997, the Blackwells and former singers have held a number of reunion events. This year’s reunion in Blowing Rock will coincide with the celebration of Shirl Blackwell’s life on June 30.
“I think Shirley will most be remembered for her dedication to young singers and performers and their music,” Reis said. “She was a wonderful person with a great sense of humor.”