Music Video Asheville — a hugely popular celebration that pairs creative ingenuity, artistry and local pride — has a lesser-known but equally important sister event: the Brown Bag Songwriting Competition. Every Monday for 11 weeks, starting Sept. 8, new and seasoned musicians showcase original songs in front of an audience and panel of judges. “It strokes and crushes egos,” says a press release. The finale sees each round’s winner back to compete (possibly in front of a celebrity judge) for prizes and bragging rights.
Now in its eighth year (depending on how you count — there were a couple of hiatuses), Brown Bag launched at the Root Bar. Atlanta transplant Jenny Fares (née Jenny Greer of Jen and the Juice) was looking to re-create a listening-room setting like Eddie’s Attic in her previous hometown. The first season’s winner was Woody Wood, with Will Bradford of SeepeopleS named crowd favorite.
Other winners, over the years, have included Chelsea La Bate of Ten Cent Poetry and Alex Krug, who currently hosts the series. In fact, this year Brown Bag amps up at Asheville Music Hall (moving upstairs from One Stop) with three hosts — Krug, Debrissa McKinney and Eric Janoski — who will share the charge of finding judges for each week’s show. Advanced sign-ups for musicians are encouraged (though a few slots are saved for walk-ins) and, over the course of the evening, 10-12 artists perform for about 10 minutes each. “There are no rules,” Fares says of the audience. “You can listen for originality or listen for something that you like.”
One benefit to signing up in advance means being able to invite potential fans. “You can get all your friends to come out and pick you,” Fares says. So yes, the contest could be weighted. But talent often trumps popularity: “It’s magical. I’ve noticed there is that person who did an amazing job, but they’re not in the final three. Then they get the crowd favorite.”
There are plenty of reasons for the local community to be invested in Brown Bag. “I think there are people who are looking for talent. They want to see what’s new,” says Fares. “Or maybe there are musicians who want to be inspired. And there are a lot of people in this town who just freaking love music.”
And, she adds, “If musicians come out to this, and they do, it helps to build the music scene.” She can point to groups of artists who jelled around seasons of Brown Bag: Brian McGee, Ryan Barrington Cox, Utah Green and Moses Atwood, among others, came together at the Root Bar shows. Amanda Platt of The Honeycutters, The Moon and You and Now You See Them took part in the Mo Daddy’s series. Soul singer Lyric was a favorite at that location; the Mo Daddy’s events were supported by Katherine “KP” Powell, who worked at the venue. When she went on to co-found Asheville Music Hall, it made sense to Brown Bag’s creators to follow her.
“We are moving the event … upstairs at the Asheville Music Hall to offer players a chance to be heard in the most real way possible,” says Powell. “We have seen what has started at the Brown Bag and want to see it grow. It also gives our booking agents a place to send new acts and traveling bands, so we can scope them out.”
While the series culminates with finalists competing for cash and prizes, including studio time at Echo Mountain (a supporter of Brown Bag since its inception), each week comes with its own rewards. Performers contribute $3 apiece to (naturally) a brown paper bag, which is then passed through the audience for tips. “People put a lot of money in there sometimes,” says Fares — La Bate purchased an electric guitar with her winnings. Winners have gone on to play Jack of the Wood, the All Go West Festival and were part of NewSong Presents: LEAF Singer-Songwriter Competition at this year’s festival in Black Mountain.
But the ultimate winners may be the audience, who will get a first listen to Asheville’s newly hatched songs. It’s wide open, genrewise (though full bands are discouraged due to the one-off setup), says Fares. “So come down with your raps and your metal songs and go acoustic for the night.”
WHAT: Brown Bag Songwriting Competition
WHERE: Asheville Music Hall, ashevillmusichall.com
WHEN: Every Monday, Sept. 8-Nov. 17. 7 p.m. sign-up; 7:30-10 p.m. show. Finals showcase on Sunday, Nov. 23, 8 p.m. Free; donations encouraged