Like the stars of High Fidelity, the proprietors of the Asheville-based A-Tone Music — who own more than 8,000 albums between them — map their lives through their music collections and musical memories.
Nancy Alenier dated Stevie Wonder in the late 1960s and befriended rock stars like Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne (with whom she once performed an impromptu duet). Locally, she has booked acts for UNCA, Be Here Now and Bele Chere. Asheville native James Gardner grew up working in local record stores like the Bridge Sound Co. and hosting various college-radio shows. Later, he played in local groups like the Riser Reggae Band, wrote and edited the arts section of Green Line (now Mountain Xpress), and worked as a free-lance music journalist for various publications.
A-Tone Music represents the pair’s public effort to share quality music that may be off the beaten path, but will nonetheless occupy a treasured place in aficionados’ collections. As such, it’s a record company/booking agency/management service mixed into one.
“The whole point is to assist with — to promote — the careers of great musicians,” explains Alenier. “There’s something about sharing that music and turning people on to music that’s just really gratifying and exciting and thrilling to me.”
In the days when vinyl was not a rarefied passion but a way of life, most folks relied on friends with large record collections to provide that experience. “Now, you feel less unique [as a collector] and more of a consumer,” says Gardner, observing: “The scratch of the record has become an aural icon. There was something special about vinyl that the digital era has lost, in some ways, but … has tried to hold onto in other ways.”
And while the frenzied commercialization of even once-peripheral forms of music has made it even harder to ferret-out the really quality artists, that very trend (and the exploding technology that attends it) has enabled A-Tone Music to better promote its own roster.
One case in point is African musician Samba Ngo (say ‘in-GO’), a headliner at this weekend’s LEAF Festival. Gardner first heard Ngo years ago, while working as a free-lance music reviewer. Immediately moved, he encouraged Alenier, then booking acts for Bele Chere, to bring Ngo to Asheville for that year’s show. “It electrified us,” Gardner remembers. “For that little few hours, it made us more alive, it lifted us up. It sounds corny, but a great show can do that.”
In fact, that one show changed all three of their lives.
A-Tone invested in Ngo, helping him record his first demo and issuing his first CD, Metamorphosis, in 1997. When that release managed to reach the ears of the owners of Compass Records, Alenier and Gardner helped Ngo negotiate a deal to re-release the work on that label, in order to gain wider distribution. To further boost Ngo’s circulation, A-Tone then helped get him on a Putamayo compilation and is now in the process of putting him on yet another corporate music mix.
Ngo remembers the day he met Alenier and Gardner: “I told them, ‘I don’t have no one,'” says the musician, who had recently moved to the West Coast from Africa and did not yet have a record, representation — or even a working command of English.
“They said, ‘We’re going to try to help you out, because we like your music.’ That was incredible for me — like a dream.” Ngo has since been featured on CNN’s Worldbeat, has played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and can be heard on radio stations the world over.
Of course, it’s a co-dependent relationship: Because of rising stars like Ngo, A-Tone, which celebrates its seventh anniversary this week, is healthier than ever. But Alenier and Gardner, now situated in a small downtown office (next door to Xpress), speak modestly of their successes, pointing out that even now, they both keep other jobs. Still, their roster is fat with promise: In addition to Ngo, they work with local jazz favorites Triad and the Tyler Ramsey Trio, the eclectic Blue Chip Orchestra from Austria, and D.C.’s Eastern Standard Time. The pair’s own band, the eccentric Jr. James and The Late Guitar, has released an album called Hymns to Her (A-Tone Music, 1999). Another group roosting under their wing, the hugely fun Atlanta-based ska band Mandorico, has received some airplay on MTV.
There are others who do what A-Tone does — but apparently with a lot less zeal. “Rarely, I think, do you find people that put in as much time and as much effort as they do,” Mandorico’s Jesse Lauricella offers loyally, adding, “They wear many hats.” A-Tone Music, she explains, handles all of Mandorico’s publicity, most of its management, maintains its Web site, does some of its booking, and has also become its record label. Other managers and agents have told Mandorico that “If we do ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C,’ we can be pulling in ‘X’ dollars by the end of the quarter and blah, blah, blah.” But with A-Tone, continues Lauricella, “It’s more like, ‘OK, who needs to hear this [music], and who hasn’t heard it, and how are we going to get it out there?’ Those are the [really important] questions that get asked when we have meetings … and that is every reason as to why we decided to work with them.”
According to an A-Tone press release, the company offers everything from guitar amps to breakfast to “pre-stressed” road managers. Good music, the document further instructs, “is the healing of the nation!”
But enough of sweet-tasting sound bites. Illustrating A-Tone’s written commitment to act locally, Gardner (whose alter ego D-Triple-J co-hosts WNCW’s Sunday Dubatomic Particles) relays one of his many anecdotes about the Asheville music scene: “Did you know Jimmy Rodgers lived here in 1927 for about six months?” he enthuses. “He lived in Asheville right before he became famous. We’d like to see that happen again, in some way.”