Musical Outpost in the Smoky Mountains


One thing you can count on finding in the mountains of western North Carolina is a large number of Floridians spending time away from home. And so it was for us in late November, 2012, as a planned week of R and R in the mountains north of Asheville, NC approached.

While discussing the upcoming trip with Lakeland resident Barry Friedman, he mentioned a little place called the Zuma Coffee Company in Marshall, NC, only about 30 minutes from where we were staying. “It’s my brother Joel’s place,” Friedman said, “and one thing you can’t miss is the Thursday night Bluegrass Jam.” We made plans to include a Zuma Coffee visit, but had no idea what a special visit it would turn out to be.


Fast forward to Thursday night. It had been a cold week, with early snow flurries and temperatures in the 30s. As we drove into Marshall, it seemed as if the entire town had closed down. Sunset fell early and with the clouds low, everything was dark but for a small beacon of light welcoming us to the center of town.

As we walked through the doors, we realized that we had not arrived early enough. Every table was occupied, but our evening was saved by a couple who invited us to join them. They told us that it was this way every Thursday night, bluegrass music night, a packed house. As we ate and watched, 14-16 musicians entered the café and the show began.

After a great meal and two hours of fantastic music and fun, two things were certain. We wanted to tell the story of Zuma Coffee and its Bluegrass musicians, and it would take another trip to do it. As we left that night, planning for the next trip to Marshall began.


We returned to the coffee shop in April, and the atmosphere was completely different from the previous November. Spring was in the air, the town was filled with people walking along the sidewalks, and the cherry blossom trees were blooming. Marshall seemed like a different town, alive and awake compared to the cold of November.

Marshall is an interesting town, located on the French Broad River northeast of Asheville. It abuts a steep rocky edge of a mountain, and has a railroad track passing through along the river. Those features, along with the pillared courthouse, make Marshall the epitome of a picturesque mountain town.

As we walked down the street, we found out that one thing had not changed. Two hours before the music was to begin, Zuma Coffee was filling with people, staking out their tables in anticipation of the evening’s entertainment. As we entered, we spied the owner, Joel Friedman, standing behind the counter, watching as people ate, visited, and waited for the music to start.

While Friedman is the proprietor of Zuma, its musical soul is Bobby Hicks, a 10-time Grammy Award-winning American Bluegrass fiddler. He learned to play the fiddle before he was 9 years old and in 2004, he celebrated 50 years at the Grand Ole Opry. All of the musicians who come to Zuma come because of Hicks.

One thing about bluegrass night; you never know who you will meet or who will show up to play. Even the local magistrate (Sam Parker) might show up (and did) to join in on a rendition of “Hello Trouble.” There was Roger, who played the fiddle from a song in his head. He is in the process of recording all of the songs he knows. At 400 now, he says he’ll stop at 500. Lorna didn’t bring her hammered dulcimer, but she brought her voice.


We even heard a rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” dedicated to any Hippies in the audience; and to be fair, there probably were one or two there hiding under gray hair. That was followed by a gospel song. Just a typical Bluegrass Jam night at Zuma.

As the evening approached its close, a local, older couple took the floor. We had noticed them from our earlier visit, and asked our tablemates about them. The husband suffers from Alzheimer’s, and each week his wife brings him to Zuma Coffee to enjoy the music. At the end of the evening, they share the last dance. Just another one of the stories you will find if you visit Zuma Coffee in Marshall, NC.

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