It's easy to reminisce with starry eyes about the Asheville music scene circa 1994: On one hand, distance and time often make the heart grow fonder. On the other, it really was a special time — an intersection of late '80s hair bands and early '90s folk that allowed for a hybrid of roots and rock; perhaps a genre-fusing harbinger of the wildly eclectic and creative sounds that currently pack out local listening rooms. And damn if there wasn't an immense amount of raw talent.
In the first year of Xpress, music took a front seat. Sure, Clubland was just a three-column calendar (named, shruggingly, "Clubs 'N Such") but the dozen or so downtown Asheville venues were hopping with up-and-coming performers. By contrast, today's Clubland lists more than 30 downtown venues regularly hosting live music.
One of the earliest issues includes a music feature on singer/songwriter Iris Dement and the unfortunately-named column "Ear Wax." Smart Bets (yep, they date back to the mid '90s) suggested performances by bar band The Midnight Aces and local soprano Cricket Greer in a concert sponsored by A Faraway Place, among others.
That issue also included listings for American Gothic (Asheville's "throwback to the future," whatever that means), former Xpress news editor Cecil Bothwell (now running for City Council) playing with his band The Acoustic Dwarfs, and Byron Hedgepeth provided jazz for the dinner crowd at The Latin Quarter (now abandoned on Haywood Street).
Certain names pop up with startling frequency in the early issues: J.P. Delanoye (of R&B outfit Ghost Mountain) and Anne Coombs, singer/songwriters Malcolm Holcombe, Christine Kane, David Wilcox and David LaMotte. Also Prayin' for Rain, The Merle, The Mathmatics, Tripod and The Blue Rags (just three members then). Keith Flynn shows up often, with his band Crystal Zoo or for the Asheville Poetry Review. The Caribbean Cowboys and The Free Flow Band were on the scene (and still are), and the Green Door (then accessed from Carolina Lane; now defunct) saw theater, film, spoken word and poetry slams.
Music may be a constant work in process, but any snapshot moment reveals an insight into Asheville's rich history. We present for you a look back at fifteen of the most active venues from the first few summer 1994 issues of Xpress. Fortunately Publisher Fobes saved 'em all.
Here's a promotion liable to shut a bar down: Drinkin' with Lincoln. In other words, pay a cover ($5), drink penny drafts all night long. Yep, it's been a while since Asheville had a drink special that cheap. At least since the tiny Alternative Pub stood at the corner of Merrimon Avenue and Edgewood Road (located in a smallish strip mall, along with Electrolux vacuum sales and a convenience store), where Atlanta Bread Company is now. So what was the AP like? Its booking agent described it as a "living room club" in a 1994 Xpress. Meaning, it was small. But it brought in acts that were on the circuit at the time: Everyman Jones and the Stick People (described by the same booking agent as an "infant Charlie's on Acid"), the ubiquitous Caribbean Cowboys, Cuttin' Heads.
Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria
People often talk about how Lexington Avenue was a scary street in the mid-90s (junkies, hookers and the like), but Biltmore Avenue wasn't exactly a bustling commercial thoroughfare. The block got a giant boost when young entrepreneurs and beer-lovers Doug Beatty and Jimi Rentz renovated the 8,000-square-foot space that Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria has occupied since. Boasting a monster selection of brews at a time when no one would've dreamed of a Beer City USA title (and boasting for a time Asheville's only microbrew in the basement), Barley's served up some tasty pies and some local tunes. And still does. A 1994 Xpress gives listings including jazz, bluegrass and of course, the ever-about-town J.P. Delanoye. These days, you can still hear Delanoye or jazz, swing, old-time, bluegrass and more while you nosh on some garlic knots.
So 1993 was a roller-coaster year for Asheville's teen hanger-outers and downtown rats. First, Vincent's Ear opened, which was exciting — another place to drink coffee, play chess and loiter besides Malaprop's back porch. But Vincent's then set an 18-and-older policy; sorry, kids. Fortunately, Beanstreets (where Green Sage is now) opened the same year. With a quirky, bright interior, random furniture and excellent caffeinated offerings, Beanstreets set about booking "music that goes with the reading and relaxing that a coffee-house is," said owner Richard Pula in an early Xpress issue. Open mics and singer/songwriters ruled the coffee-house roost. Fortunately, that often meant the very talented Christine Kane. Twelve years after the place opened, it closed abruptly: Nothing but a sheet of notebook paper on the door, "Thank you loyal customers and friends … I will miss the fun and friendship."
Be Here Now
What else can you say? "Be Here Now was awesome," says Travis Barker, who managed the club between 1996 and '98. The listening room, with its all-too-brief tenure, occupies cult-like status among those who were around at the time. It had a relatively small 235-person capacity, a bouncy wood floor and an original owner who consistently brought in a roster of incredible acts.
Favorite shows that Barker remembers are Clarence Gatemouth Brown (the one exception to the club's no-smoking policy), Ben Harper, The Iguanas and Shawn Colvin, who played the small venue at the height of her career. "What [then-owner] Chris Hardwicke was really good at was talking band managers into playing at his place," Barker says. From a ride from the airport and a place to stay to catering, "He knew the ins and outs or what would convince a band to play." But it wasn't just the headliners that made Be Here Now such a hot spot —Barker also names the weekly Irish music and contra dance nights and monthly line-out-the-door Blue Rags shows.
Other notables who played the room: Richie Havens, Patty Larkin, Steve Earle (with Peter Rowan and Norman Blake, no less), Los Lobos, Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson, Pavement and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. An allegedly overbooked Emmylou Harris show and subsequent fire-marshal shutdown of the place eventually led to Hardwicke selling the club, which was run by the new owners for several years. It's now the location of Temptations Martini Bar.
The Bier Garden (46 Haywood St.) opened in May 1994, putting it in the same graduating class as Xpress. Before owner John Bodenhorst commandeered the taproom (known for its extensive beer selection), the same location housed Chickadee's and Rye. "We were the first people on the block to get in on the beer scene," says Bodenhorst, who adds that in the pub's 15 years, "the most fun is watching the beer scene grow in Asheville, and people grasp on to it."
With its oversized windows looking onto Haywood Street, people-watching is a major activity at the Bier Garden. "Fifteen years ago the buildings were only half occupied," reports Bodenhorst, who's seen the block go from quiet to bustling. "Our side of the street seemed to be a little more [conservative] and the other side, with Malaprop's, was a little more alternative."
In its early years the pub hosted an open mike, led by folk-rocker Malcolm Holcombe. "It was his idea and we were his bar," Bodenhorst remembers. About seven years ago, the pub management realized most people were coming in to socialize rather than listen to music, so bands were largely discontinued.
When Tuscany transplant Loredana Hovard opened Club Hairspray (38 N. French Broad Ave.) more than 15 years ago, it immediately attracted attention — both for its gay- and lesbian-friendly atmosphere and its tribute to the John Waters' film Hairspray.
On Aug. 27, 1994, Hairspray shared an anniversary party with its neighbor, Metropolis. At the time, Metropolis was a rave venue and gay bar, but it would also open its doors to Asheville's then-burgeoning underground punk and rock scene. Metropolis closed a few years later and the space has since housed a number of dance halls, most recently Club 828.
The long, long, long-running Gatsby's was a downtown institution. Most of the people surveyed about the place had stories involving copious drinking, raucous rocking and subsequent fighting, some not fit for newsprint (we're saving 'em for the book). Or, as one regular said, "If you remember Gatsby's, you weren't there." In the mid-'90s, a scan of the Xpress club listings shows Gatsby's booking some of Asheville's most popular bands at the time (some currently reuniting): The hard-charging Prayin' for Rain and Crystal Zoo played there often. A former regular recalls longtime local J.P. Delanoye's Tuesday-night acoustic session as a bright spot in a dark, smoky place. Oh yes, and they had foosball.
What co-owner Brian Landrum says about the Grey Eagle now was true of the venue in 1994: "The stage isn't super high and we don't have a crazy light show, those things aren't our focus. It's much more relaxed and casual and about the music."
The Eagle got booted from its original State Street location in 1998 and moved to its current River Arts District spot on Clingman Avenue. Landrum remembers when original owner Tyler Richardson proposed the idea of he and then-Eagle employee Jeff Whitworth taking the place over. "He [Richardson] was standing on the patio smoking and we were just talking about stuff and he asked me real casually, 'Do you want to buy a bar?'"
They did. Killer acts to grace the stage are too many to number, but think R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Leo Kottke, Vic Chestnutt, Richard Buckner, Alejandro Escovedo. Since Landrum and Whitworth took over, they've kept the vision alive but added another dimension to the booking, bringing in stellar folks such as Mark Kozelek, Silver Jews and Band of Horses. It's still one of WNC's most beloved listening rooms.
Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.) is a bit of a testament to the if-you-build-it-they-will-come spirit of Asheville. Opened in '82, the bookstore and cafe was far more than a place to pick up reading material and grab a cup o' joe. The business, originally located a few doors up Haywood Street from its current location, was a hub of the downtown community. The '90s-era iteration of the store, owned by Budapest-by-way-of-New York-transplant Emoke B'Racz, was a floor-to-ceiling twist of bookshelves and writers' materials. Poets, women writers and GLBT-themed works were prominently placed. The cafe, down a narrow flight of stairs (or accessed from the back of what is now Castanea Courtyard) was usually crowded and bustling; the single pay phone used by Asheville's self-employed work force.
Despite limited space, both the bookstore and cafe found room to host an impressive array of authors and musicians. Notable writers who came to the independent shop include local novelist Charles Frazier, Sweet Potato Queen Jill Conner Browne, New Age/self-help author Deepak Chopra and fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, notes events coordinator Alsace Young-Walentine. Musicians like Holly Near and locals stephaniesid and River Guerguerian played in the shop as well. "Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls was here for one of her bands that she has on her label," Young-Walentine recalls. "The Butchies, I think it was."
Jeff Davis, the current proprietor of Scandals (11 Grove St.) — housed within the Grove House complex, which also includes Club Eleven and The Boiler Room — remembers visiting Asheville around 1994 and dropping into Scandals on a Thursday. "Back then, everyone called Thursday night 'Straight Night,'" he recalls. "People still talk about it." Ironically, what strikes Davis about the history of Scandals is that, even though it's nationally known and a prominent go-to on the local gay bar scene, "The original owner started it as a mixed club."
"Scandals is mixed: Gay, lesbian and straight," Davis says. That's one thing that's contributed to the club's three-decade longevity; another is its stunning drag shows. "There's been drag shows for 25 years at least," Davis says. Many of the local drag queens compete on a national level for titles much like crown hopefuls in the Miss USA contests.
Beyond the cabaret legacy, Scandals is also historically significant for its location. The Grove House, built in 1924, once housed the "white" YWCA before it merged with the Black YWCA branch in 1967. Fittingly, for all the aerobic dancing going on there, it used to be the gymnasium.
31 Patton once occupied the space now claimed by Stella Blue and, in 1994, welcomed everyone from '50s-style doo-wop group The Dropouts to "new-age madrigals" The Sonic Boomers with (get this) Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes. There was something else brewing at the downtown club back in '94: country music. "We're the only country music club downtown," then-manager Vic Price told Xpress writer Frank Rabey in Nov. '94. Country and Southern rock house band The Carolina Boogie Band performed Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; Thursdays were also the night for country line dancing.
Later in the decade, 31 Patton also became the home to Asheville's underground scene. While post-punk and country seem like strange bedfellows, the ever-resourceful Milton Carter and Bob Rest finagled a weekly Decline of Western North Carolina showcase, when bands like The Mathmatics played. That fare is more along the lines of what Stella Blue offers.
There was something of a ruckus earlier this year when the Town Pump's longtime owners sold the place. Everyone knew it was up for sale, but nobody knew what new owners Julie Davis, Steve McMahan and Kathleen Ausley might do to the legendary Black Mountain venue and gathering place. Turns out, they knew not to mess with a good thing: They cleaned and spiffed it up, but left its wild wooden interior intact, its memorabilia hanging and its roster of stellar local and regional bands unscathed. Open since 1982, Billy Joe Shaver was a notable coup. Most any show is a memorable one at the Town Pump because of its intimate atmosphere. And the Pump boasts another accomplishment: Being inspirational enough to earn its own song, the "Town Pump Stomp," recorded by the Juggernaut Jug Band from Louisville, Ky.
The very first issue of Xpress says this about the now-defunct, much-beloved Vincent's Ear: "If Vincent's Ear were a piece of art, Jesse Helms would probably try to get its NEA funding cut off … Those with a faint heart and a closed mind will enter at their own risk, but all others should feel welcome in this dimly lit, two-story bastion of eccentrictiy."
The place turned into an underground venue graced by the likes of the White Stripes and Tortoise. "The thing that really kicked it off was Jonathan Richman played at Be Here Now one night, and after the show he came down and hung out," says co-owner Rick Morris. Richman asked Morris if the next time he came to town, he could play at Vincent's. "That just opened the floodgates."
Morris says Vincent's also became a hot spot to play because, "even though people knew they weren't going to get rich playing, they knew everyone there would love them and they would be treated like someone special." And Vincent's became the erstwhile home base for some of Asheville's most innovative bands: Doom Ribbons, Lube Royale, DrugMoney, the Luvsix, Ether Bunnies, The Merle, and many, many more.
Vincenzo's Bistro (10 Market St.) owner Dwight Butner opened the two-level eatery in 1990 with the idea to balance the Northern Italian restaurant (upstairs) with a "trendy piano standards and cigar bar" (downstairs), says current music booker Mark Keller.
"That's a different concept than just going to a nightclub," Keller notes. In 1994, Anne Coombs of Primitive Future was a regular performer. In Xpress' Fall '95 music roundup, reporters Tom Coppola (who now performs regularly at Vincenzo's) and Hortense Brood wrote that pianist Crystal Shelby and bassist Brad Lena were the venue's "exclusive talent for the moment."
In two decades of business, Vincenzo's has seen the rise of such piano players as Ashley Chambliss and Aaron LaFalce — these burgeoning careers were no accident. Butner says his venue has been "almost doctrinaire about giving local musicians a night to promote themselves."