Nothing But Sky: A Music City Postcard From Asheville’s Modern Mountain Sound
The Asheville, NC-born novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again that, “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.” You could try that literally in this liberal and spiritual city of 90,000 and nobody would likely bat an eye. But listening for something timeless and true? That’s pretty much the mainstream in Asheville. It’s a musical Mecca, 2,100 feet above sea level amid ancient mountains. It has become a magnet for talent across many genres, and in the past 20 years it’s spawned numerous breakout artists, storied performance venues and a basic music business infrastructure. The String visits Asheville for Episode 121, and here are some notes about the people and places featured in the hour.
Anderson brought background in public radio in Oregon and California to WNCW almost 20 years ago. He’s the music director and morning weekday host, and he has a bird’s eye view from his eclectic, 30-year-old Spindale, NC radio station, whose call letters stand for “Western North Carolina Window.” No touring around the Asheville region is complete without WNCW on your radio, with its survey of local bands from bluegrass to jazz-jam to indie folk and AAA rock.
“The mountain music tradition has fed a lot of what makes Asheville’s music scene grow. “It’s a great foundation and hopefully it’ll always be there. The bluegrass and old-time genres are always going to be a part of WNCW.”
Platt moved to Asheville in 2007 from New York State for training in building acoustic guitars, and she wound up building a career as a critically acclaimed songwriter. What began as a duo on the then-small open mic circuit has grown into a run of albums on the area’s Organic Music label. The most recent, Live At The Grey Eagle, captures their cool, calm honky tonk and exceptional songs in one of Asheville’s most venerable venues.
“I love the Grey Eagle because to me it feels like a big old dance hall, the plywood floor and the low ceiling. The way it’s laid out for me it’s the perfect marriage of a good sounding venue and a very down-home grungy dive bar feel. One of the reasons I chose it (for the live album) was we did our second CD release there for When Bitter Met Sweet in 2012. It was on my bucket list to headline the Grey Eagle. That was the first time, and it sold out. It was so exciting, so it’s been a formative venue for me.”
In an audacious investment in a city and in music generally, Californian Steve Wilmans built a magnificent recording studio into a 1926 church in the heart of Asheville. Since opening in 2006, the space has hosted hundreds of sessions by the likes of Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Dierks Bentley, The Avett Brothers, Mandolin Orange and other stars of roots country and indie-rock. I spoke with studio manager Jessica Tomasin, who’s also founded a festival and a scene-development non-profit called Asheville Music Professionals. That, along with various charitable and social initiatives, has made Echo Mountain the hub of the region’s music infrastructure.
“I think people in Asheville are looking for something that’s a little more meaningful in terms of ways to connect. Yes, people want to be entertained, but people love the opportunity to learn and share stories and come together for a good cause. When somebody needs to be lifted up, Asheville’s a really good community to step in and help other people.”
Down the road in Arden, NC, in an unassuming office complex, is Western North Carolina’s most complete and prolific music company. First it was a recording studio, then a gospel bluegrass label and publisher. Eventually it branched into secular music with the bluegrass label Mountain Home (with stars like Balsam Range and Chris Jones) and later the Americana label Organic Records (home to the Honeycutters). Ty Gilpin is both an executive and an artist on the label. He’s senior director of marketing for Crossroads, A&R agent for the labels and the mandolinist in Mountain Home band Unspoken Tradition.
“I’ve been playing in regional bands in Asheville since the early 90s and I’ve seen a lot of changes...There were about three or four places you could play live music in town and now there are dozens and dozens. I still think where Asheville needs to go is to have more real, authentic music business infrastructure.”
Geer grew up in Asheville, moved to the West Coast and came home in recent years. He’s a songwriter and guitarist who leans toward the insurgent edge of country and roots music, having served as a sideman for the Handsome Family and Freakwater. His music, under the name Drunken Prayer, spikes a Townes Van Zandt songwriting sensibility with shots of rock and roll. So he sees the city’s scene as both an insider and outsider.
“You can tell Asheville wants to be recognized as a hot spot, and it should be, not just because it’s cool to be from here, but there are people with a lot of heart and a lot of brains doing interesting stuff. It’s just so diverse that it’s hard to say it’s any one thing. There’s a lot of roots, but there’s a lot of really weird stuff going on too that’s a lot of fun.”
Siskind is a native of Winston Salem, NC, but the state’s mountains to the west were always a draw for recreation. Then, after many years in Nashville earning a national reputation as a sublime songwriter and artist, and after starting a family, she moved to the town of Brevard. About 25 miles south of Asheville, it’s a hub of outdoors culture, craft beer and music. Siskind has had songs recorded by Alison Krauss, Wynona and the cast of the TV series Nashville, and she’s collaborated closely with Bon Iver, Bonnie Raitt and Paul Brady. And now, settled in and raising two kids, she’s about release her most ambitious album yet. Modern Appalachia, recorded at Echo Mountain with top regional side musicians, is a lush set of prayers and ruminations on the state of her birth and the state of a heart in motion.
“Asheville and this area is Modern Appalachia. There is an old-time culture and people who are doing traditional music and getting together and playing. And there’s some Celtic. But when I think about Asheville’s music scene, it is modern mountain music.”
For seven years, Woodward has had a wide-ranging eye and ear on the Western North Carolina music scene as entertainment editor of the Smoky Mountain News out of Waynesville, NC. More recently he became a contributing writer to Rolling Stone. He’s a knowledgeable enthusiast, and an outsider turned insider, who proclaims that if you handicap for size of the market, Western NC is “the finest music scene in the United States.” He emphasizes the welcoming, mutually-supporting ethos of the music community as well.
“It’s very wide ranging, the scope of the genres. Obviously, this a hotbed for traditional, old-time mountain music and Americana. But it also has a really thick thread or rock and roll, jazz, funk, soul. Any night of the week, you’ll find an array of types of music. It’s not surprising at all finding your new favorite local band just walking around the corner to the local brewery.”