In the lore of unlikely band formation stories, the members of Tellico might have the most Asheville story there is. It goes back a decade, when singer/songwriters Anya Hinkle and Stig Stiglets had recently moved to town from Virginia and Mississippi, respectively. They wound up at the same open jam – and each left with the other’s instrument.
“We met because I stole her guitar,” Stiglets says now with a laugh. “Or she stole mine, it’s not clear. But we mistakenly went home with each other’s guitar after a jam, and we had to get together and exchange guitars. That’s when we met, shook hands, said hi and started writing together. Next thing we knew, we were in a band.”
Bands seem to come together with ease in Asheville. And as is the case most years, the greater Asheville vicinity will be well-represented when the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass starts up in Raleigh this week.
On Tuesday night, the “Bluegrass Ramble” of nightclub shows begins. Three of the program’s North Carolina acts are from Asheville – Tellico, Zoe & Cloyd and Town Mountain – and a fourth, Carolina Blue, hails from nearby Pisgah Forest.
When the IBMA Awards are handed out Thursday, Haywood County’s Balsam Range will be up for three of them (alongside Town Mountain, nominated for emerging artist of the year). Mountain Home Music, a bluegrass label based in the South Asheville hamlet of Arden, distributes Balsam Range and other IBMA-nominated acts including Flatt Lonesome, Boxcars and Lonesome River Band
Come the weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass, local heroes the Steep Canyon Rangers will be on the Red Hat Amphitheater main stage. And longtime Asheville fixture David Holt will be playing the street festival with his understudy, Josh Goforth.
“It’s funny to me how the scene kind of moves around the country,” says John Lawless, editor of Virginia-based Bluegrass Today. “When I was a kid, everything happened in D.C. and Northern Virginia. Then it got closer to where I am now, Roanoke, between here and Bristol. Then Nashville. And now it seems to be Asheville. It’s a cool place with gorgeous scenery, an easy place to live with a good restaurant, craft beer and preservationist scene.”
What’s not to like?
‘From all over’
Asheville’s reputation as a music center goes back the better part of a century, to the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, founded in 1928 by “Minstrel of the Appalachians” Bascom Lamar Lunsford. It’s still the longest-running folk festival in the country.
In the 88 years since, Asheville has evolved into the Southeast’s equivalent to Boulder, Colo., another scenic and medium-sized hippie outpost attractive to young people seeking musical connections.
What got me about Asheville originally is how many people my age were into the music. Young pickers with jams always going on, a lot of house parties. Even just playing on the street. That’s how it works here.
Mandolinist Phil Barker, a native of South Carolina
Young people moving to town with a banjo on their knee isn’t a recent development. Holt, a four-time Grammy Winner and host of the public-television show “David Holt’s State of Music,” moved to Asheville from California in 1973 as an eager 26-year-old in search of the old-timers he’d heard on records.
“There was a strong traditional community here in the ’60s, a lot of mentors – older guys and gals who would encourage young people,” Holt says. “The old-time people were interwoven with the bluegrass people in creating this primordial musical soup that continues to this day. People still come from all over.”
Nowadays, however, most people who move to Asheville aren’t looking for mentors so much as peers. That’s what drew three of the four members from Town Mountain.
“What got me about Asheville originally is how many people my age were into the music,” says mandolinist Phil Barker, a native of South Carolina. “Young pickers with jams always going on, a lot of house parties. Even just playing on the street. That’s how it works here. Everybody’s good friends with everybody else and is in bands with everybody else. We all dig what’s going on.”
Playing for free
Most music communities are incestuous, and Asheville’s scene is no exception. Jed Willis, who plays mandolin in Tellico, used to play in an early version of Town Mountain. Willis was replaced in Town Mountain by Barker, who also co-writes songs with Steep Canyon Rangers bassist Charles Humphrey.
Humphrey’s side group, Songs from the Road Band (who are on the Wide Open Bluegrass StreetFest schedule) has included half the bluegrass players in town over the years. And another Rangers member, guitarist Woody Platt, produced the first album by another of this year’s Ramble bands, Carolina Blue.
But the downside of so many musicians playing so much music, much of it for free, is that Asheville is not the easiest place to make a living as a musician.
“There’s so much free music over here, outdoor series and breweries and pubs and jam sessions, even on the street,” says Tellico’s Hinkle. “That makes it a great place to meet other musicians and play with a lot of fantastic people, but it’s tough for musicians and venue owners to put on a show.”
A handful of Asheville-area bands have risen to the level of having nationwide followings. Chief among them are Steep Canyon Rangers and Balsam Range.
Even so, a handful of Asheville-area bands have risen to the level of having nationwide followings. Chief among them are Steep Canyon Rangers, who have a Grammy Award and multiple albums and tours with Steve Martin; and Balsam Range, whose many IBMA Awards include 2014’s entertainer of the year.
“The Steeps and Balsam Range is kind of a new phenomenon,” says Mickey Gamble, founder/owner of Crossroads Music. “These are homegrown bands who are nationally successful, which didn’t used to happen. Town Mountain might be next, they’re getting there. But I don’t know how many more are likely to come out of here in the future, because Asheville still doesn’t have much music-industry infrastructure. There’s this thing where everybody’s in two or three different bands, they’re all friends and they look at the industry and say, ‘We don’t need all that.’ They’re probably right. But they do need some of it.”
Until then, the bands of Asheville will keep on working, wherever that happens to take them.
“You have to hit the road to pay the bills,” Holt says. “That’s why I only play in Asheville three or four times a year. More than that and people think they can see you anytime. ...But the benefits outweigh the negatives. It’s better to have a lot of musicians and a very active scene. Someday, somebody will bust out of here and make people recognize an Asheville flavor, a combination of traditional and modern influences.”
IBMA’s World of Bluegrass commences Tuesday at various venues around downtown Raleigh. Nightly Bluegrass Ramble concerts happen through Thursday. Wide Open Bluegrass main stage shows are Friday and Saturday nights at Red Hat Amphitheater. The free Wide Open Bluegrass Streetfest is Friday and Saturday in downtown Raleigh. See nando.com/bluegrass and ibma.org/world-of-bluegrass for details.