Listening to Snake Oil Medicine Show now, about 19 years into the band’s career, it seems inevitable that the group would have landed in Asheville.
Founded when the once-married Caroline Pond (fiddle) and George Pond (guitar) joined George’s brother, Andy Pond (banjo) in Boone where he was enrolled at Appalachian State University, Snake Oil coined the term "slam grass" for its colorful and kinetic update on old time string music, soon inflecting it with deep pockets of jam-inspired groove, shades of rockabilly smoothness, and — most famously — comfortable reggae rhythms.
It’s an intersection of world music and traditional Southern sound, a carefree romp through styles that have long had a home in Asheville. Thirteen years into its stint in town, it’s hard to imagine a better representation of the city’s sonic hallmarks.
“It was the perfect thing for us to do, to move to North Carolina, to be in the roots of Appalachian music and learn from old time music and bluegrass music,” Caroline says. “We just kept playing music and kept getting more popular. People kept coming to our shows. I really wasn’t even planning it. It just made sense to continue with this path, and we did. The experiences that we’ve had, going to Jamaica and getting to learn reggae music — incorporating bluegrass with reggae is such an amazing sound and has been really good for us. It just seems like North Carolina, Boone and Asheville, was a perfect place for us to experiment with our sound, to mix those different genres.”
Indeed, the often six-piece Snake Oil has become something of a local institution, frequenting most every music festival and venue that these mountains can offer, establishing a home base as any band could hope for. But stasis doesn’t suit the restless and creative. This proves true for Caroline, who will leave Asheville on June 1 to tour across the country for a few months before she settles in Hawaii in August. The change, she says, is a necessary shake up.
“I feel change is good,” she explains. “I’m going to miss Asheville to the core center of my heart, but I just feel like there’s so much to do in the world, and there’s so much to learn. I really just want to branch out. I’ve been kind of feeling a little bit stagnant here. I’ve been doing the same things for a while. I’m just ready to switch it up for a little bit and switch gears and continue to write music and to meet new musicians and to work on my solo career but to also play with other people and learn from them and to kind of start another band project.”
Caroline has pursued solo ventures for years — playing shows and conducting yoga workshops, lending her tenacious fiddle to the old time expert Tater Diggers. For her, the upcoming move is a bid to expand that range of experience. To meet up with friends across the country, crash couches and share songs and stories.
To connect with traditional Polynesian players in Hawaii — she’s ace on ukulele — and to immerse herself in the music there. But as with her personal pursuits here, she doesn’t want this to be a break with Snake Oil. She wants to play some shows with the band during the couple of years she plans to spend in Hawaii. For her, Snake Oil is like family. Reunions are a must.
“I feel like I’m still a huge part of Snake Oil Medicine Show, and I always will be a part of Snake Oil Medicine Show,” Caroline says. “Me going out into the world and doing solo stuff, I’m kind of keeping that dream alive, and I’m still spreading that word: ‘Hey, I’m the fiddle chick from Snake Oil Medicine Show.’ A lot of people have heard of us, and I’m just keeping that alive and bring that back to my family.”
Snake Oil is working to complete its first album since 2009’s BluegrassTafari, a task the band hopes to complete before Caroline heads west. Her time with the group hasn’t been without hardships — her divorce from George after more than a decade of marriage, her brother’s untimely death in 2005 — but Snake Oil endures.
“Everybody changes so much,” she says. “You’re not the same person that you were 10 years ago. We’ve gone through family tragedies as a band. We’ve just seen it all. But we’ve picked up the pieces, and we got back together again. Everybody heals, and we play music again.”
French Broad River Festival
Langhorne Slim & The Law, Sol Driven Train, Yarn, Col. Bruce Hampton & the Realms of Ventilation, Jeff Sipe Group, Marley Carroll, Snake Oil Medicine Show, The Mosier Brothers, The Reckoning, Hank West and the SMokin’ Hots, Kovacs and the Polar Bear, Brushfire Stankgrass, The Hermit Kings and more
Friday, May 3 through Sunday, May 5
Hot Springs Campground and Spa