You can find plenty of alt-country around Asheville. You can find some country rock and the occasional mainstream country show at the Civic Center. But good, solid, old-school country in the vein of Patsy Cline? Not so much. That is, unless you've discovered Deep River.
The local band made its Asheville debut in 2007, but its history dates back to 1993 when vocalists Sharon Lewis and Sandy Howard founded the group in Nashville. Recently, they played a special show at Olive or Twist, a perfect venue for dining to music or trying out a country two-step.
It was a special show because it was the last for percussionist Justin Watt (Asheville Jazz Orchestra, Like Mind Trio) who leaves Deep River to pursue jazz music. The show also included singer Joan D'Entremont, an original member and occasional addition. With D'Entremont in the lineup, it was an evening of three-part harmonies — obviously the main attraction in the tight and well-rehearsed group.
Lewis, who also plays bass, is the clear band leader. Her voice is low — notably so — and her singing style is unique and immediately likable. The only drawback was that Lewis’ vocals occasionally got buried in the din of the club (the band was playing rather quietly so as not to overwhelm the dinner crowd). But when Howard and D’Entremont rounded out the vocal range and added texture to the sound, the songs proved to be well arranged.
Early in the evening, the band played "Silver Eagle," a song Lewis and Howard recorded during their Nashville days (they made three records). Straightforward, driving "Eagle" received an award and some radio play. Another original, "River Dark and Deep," took on a thicker groove with emphasis on the back beat.
Most of the set recalled a bygone era of country music, but not just from the 1950s. Selections would have been at home among songs The Flying Burrito Brothers liked to cover. Deep River evoked both the Saturday sparkle of a well-appointed listening room and the lounge of a Tulsa, Okla., Holiday Inn: classy and authentic.
Part of the class comes from Watt and it’s easy to see why he’ll be missed. While not a traditional country drummer, his light touch and jazz flourishes gave the band a clean, modern sound. Steel player Gerry Brown also added tasteful touches and David Tarpley’s lead and rhythm guitar work was refined and effective without stealing the spotlight. In fact, none of the musicians ever sought to outshine the vocalists.
A cover of Patty Lovelace's "Raindrops on Treetops" brought plenty of energy and a chance for D'Entremont and Howard to show off their high notes. Howard also took the lead on a couple of songs, including a honky tonk number with heavy bass and a lot of sass. D'Entremont took the lead on a cover of Martina McBride's "Independence Day," her voice clear and strong (it's a difficult song) over Watts' rock drumming.
A highlight of the evening was the rockabilly-flavored Gillian Welch/David Rawlings song "455 Rocket." Dancers took advantage of the beat, and the band clearly enjoyed playing the song, but it was just once stellar performance in an evening of near-flawless playing.
Deep River performs next at the Sapphire Mountain Brewing Company in Sylva on Saturday, July 30, 6 p.m.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.