If the rosy glow of youth were not so evident in my face, this commentary might have been about the “olden days,” when music exploded in the parks and pubs of San Francisco. Or Seattle. Or Austin. Fortunately, the musical revolution is here and now, in Asheville. Welcome to the 21st century! We are having a great time and making a bit of musical history of our own. Hallelujah — and welcome home. It’s time to play and have fun.
Our local sound can be found in clubs like the Grey Eagle, Jack of the Wood and The Basement; or at Stella Blue — where friendly owner/barkeeps Peggie and Joe serve up great drinks, accompanied by a fine atmosphere.
As for our local bards … well, these talented folks may be working a day job — but they’re also composing an anthem for a generation. And after the clubs close, the beat goes on — indoors, jamming at one another’s places, for instance. Playin’ on! Havin’ fun! Doin’ it right.
But, sadly, it’s all too rare that our vibrant celebration of life can spontaneously burst out in, say, a public park — because that would place one in violation of the law. No kidding. We have laws here to deal with musical miscreants. The police here are intolerant of joyful chords and melody. They will: (a) Run you off; (b) Run you in; or (c) Issue you what this writer calls a “civic-revenue enhancement” (i.e., a ticket — similar to the ones you see them distributing with such wild abandon to deviant parkers).
Remember those golden days of yesteryear, when you could count on the cops, of all people, to run a nonprofit outfit?
One local musician, who made me swear never to reveal his name, sees it this way: “They say you can buy a ‘permit’ to play [on] downtown [streets], but … you’re really paying to license them to interrupt your work and demand to see that ‘permit’ over and over and over, without ceasing. The end result is the same — the rookies get their childish yuks and the people lose their freedom to enjoy untaxed music, unharassed. A ‘permit’ is the same as a fine. They just make you pay in advance for your ‘violation.’ The hassle is about the same. Orwellian, eh?”
In case you haven’t noticed, a fence was recently constructed around Pack Square. I was told by City Planner Mike Matteson and by Mark Combs of Public Works that it will come down in May. But remember, folks, you read it here first: I say the powers that be won’t touch that fence, simply to thwart the people from peaceably assembling. Heaven forbid that a Thomas Paine — let alone a Jerry Garcia — should originate right here in our exalted town square! But why are we, the people of Asheville, standing for this censure, this censorship, and what this writer has personally heard a spokesman for the local Police Department describe (at a public meeting) as “selective enforcement”?
It’s sickening that law enforcement and art should collide in our community! This is not New York City. This is Asheville, N.C. Where are our manners? Our seemliness? Our genteel, Southern neighborliness? It is our tradition to edify one another in these rugged old Smoky Mountains; not to be suppressive, but to behave as is proper amongst neighbors and countrymen. Strumming, fiddling, pluckin’, pickin’ and throbbin’ are as much a part of our Appalachian heritage as is our down-home friendliness.
But all that is so much water under the bridge. Forget the “sour grapes”: Have fun anyway. The fact remains that we are, fortuitously, smack in the midst of the finest collection of wit and talent I have seen in a decade. (OK — admit it — I’ve been around for quite a few decades). Here, now, for your edifyin’ and enjoyin’, are a few quotes from the folks who keep the spirit alive.
Doctor Young, keyboard master extraordinaire, has a conniption prescription. He says, “Do it, right?” This man is as fine a lyricist as I have known in a generation. He plays with hot jazz outfit Scrappy Hamilton, and one of his compositions pronounces: “Life is not a competition. Let’s redefine our cosmic vision. Put an end to this pollution; start a culture revolution … “
Beloveds, I am down with that!
If not us — who? If not here and now — when? And where? Listen to the music! Dance! Have fun! Here, and now. That’s what the “musick of the spheres,” the 21st century Asheville vibe, is all about. It’s folk music, rock music; it’s the finest traditional Smoky Mountain bluegrass music around. And still innovative, still new. (Some of it is what this writer has come to think of as “swing-rock.”)
Our sound can be the tympanic backbeat of throbbing tribal drums. At other times, it’s the profundity of great lyrics so sweetly sung that you may think you’ve always known this music, these arts. There are buskers and puppeteers here, for cryin’ out loud! The sounds of our music interconnect with other art media, creating something altogether, well, interwoven. This is harmony — and the people dance and sway away.
Then there’s Gavra. She has a powerful stage presence, and when she performs solo, it will haunt you. She credits The Unholy Trio, the band she sometimes performs with, for her success when she switches from solo to ensemble mode as Gavra Lynn. These versatile folks regularly appear in Asheville. Next time they play, go see ‘em! You’ll be glad you did.
The cool mix of Asheville’s music and arts scene would not be the sublime matrix it is were it not for its tremendous feminine input. The cover art for Valorie’s CD Analog (the original painting hangs at The Basement) is by Katie Crawford. Katie, together with the clever hands and range of voices of Sara Legatski, also helps provide the life behind the very fine puppet theater we enjoy here. Meanwhile, the ecstatic whirlwind of creativity better known as Susie Mosher is a catalyst for every kind of spiritually harmonious — as well as ear- and eye-pleasing — art that this writer is privileged to know. Susie says: “It’s lonely out in space. That’s a pretty common problem. I just love it when space fills up with beautiful things.” The sage says: “I ought say nothing; for has not all been said before? Hmmm?” Melanie might say: “Eschew excess; but be inclusive, concisely! Why must you ramble on so?”
Now, let’s hear from Valorie … please. Valorie sings, “Fifty million highways and secondary roads, wrapped like cement vines around the globe,” as if she had trod every wearying mile.
Still, my sources dub Valorie more a rocker than a folkie. Who knows? If my sources were less representative of what I delicately refer to as the questionable variety, they probably wouldn’t tell me anything, anyway. Odd, the lot of ‘em! That’s why they — we — are, here and now, steeping ourselves in this latter-day cultural high ground, Asheville. These ol’ Smokies are as fine a range of mountains, peopled with as fine a folk, as are to be found these days. Because we are questionable does not mean our place, our time, is not valid. It is — and anybody that says different is wrong. I said wrong. It’s worth noting that an attitude of tolerance and respect is one way we can honor our old ways — and thus it is that a curmudgeon as ornery as yours truly can call Asheville home.
Yet, as was well put by bassist John Brinker of The Asteroids, “I like our regional sound, but I’m wary of marketing it.”
We are Small Town, America — the very best of it. And we must not give ourselves away to the extent that we are unable to keep our hearts, our spirits, happy here. Exploitive commercialism does rear its head, though, and the hucksters, the promoters, may not be far behind. Thus far, however, they are outside the tribal circle. We prosper right well, here in our hazy valleys and seemingly boundless expanses of tree-covered slopes. There is yet a bit of clean air and water for us, and for those who come after us, if we steward them well. The scavengers could always get sick of waiting for the occasional road kill, however. By nature, they are cowards, swooping in only once in a while — but let us not forget to keep our butts covered.
In closing, a cautionary tale: I’ve heard a rumor that an area in northern Buncombe County is crawling with — I kid you not — coyotes! One such beast, it is my sad duty to report, recently ate “Sweety,” the late cat. Poor Sweety — a single, forlorn patch of fur is his owner’s only memento. If Sweety had been more careful, she might have yet been with us. I don’t need to read the oracular entrails of a coyote to find a better metaphor than that to illustrate that it’s great to be sweet, but it’s dim — real dim — to be unwary.
Rod Personette is a 46-year-old music enthusiast who’s currently at large in Asheville.