Heady and hard to typify: Asheville clubs & music in the ’90s

Asheville’s a great place to live, unless you suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out). Even if you catch the drum circle, a gallery crawl, three bands and a late-night DJ, your Twitter feed will still be full of reports and photos from the indie-film screening, book launch, poetry reading and symphony concert that you missed.

The musician- and club-per-capital has certainly picked up since the ’90s. A June 1995 issue of Xpress included events at 45 venues (Clubland currently lists 80 in its print directory), with shows by David Wilcox and Leon Russell, and regular performances by Stark Naked & the Car Thieves (we’re not joking). Of those 45 clubs, only a handful remain, including The Grey Eagle (which was located in Black Mountain until it moved to Asheville).

But even if you didn’t live in Asheville two decades ago, you probably recognize the hallowed names of performance art space the green door, dive bar Gatsby’s and listening room Be Here Now. The latter, a 550-capacity venue, hosted weekly sets by local almost-famous roots-rockers The Blue Rags along with nationally known folk heroes like Leo Kottke and Lucinda Williams. Rowdy alt-rockers Fishbone even took the stage before the club shuttered in ’98.

Vincent’s Ear, tucked into a Lexington Avenue courtyard, operated for 11 years. This year marks a decade since the closing of the coffee house and bar, though its legend looms large — it booked such noteworthy acts as Cat Power and White Stripes. Unlike The Ear, The Ebony Grill never garnered its own Wikipedia page, but the low-ceilinged hole-in-the-wall on Eagle Street did boast swoon-worthy soul food (long before 12 Bones drew Air Force One) and world-class jazz sessions.

Really, mentions of each of Asheville’s now-defunct venues turns up not just a fond memory, but a key to the city’s eclectic and vibrant music scene. A few samples: By the mid-’90s, members of Granola Funk Express, aka GFE, were busking on street corners as well as in Beanstreets (now the home of Green Sage). That coffee house’s open mic also served as proving ground for poet Barbie Angell, among others. 31 Patton (now the home of Asheville Music Hall) hosted alt-rockers The Mathmatics, whose front man Milton Carter, along with local musician Rob Best, launched The Decline of Western North Carolina series, Vol. 1-3, on Atone records. That collection alone proves that even if the local music scene wasn’t gaining national attention, there was hardly a dull moment.

Add to the mix the early iterations of the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, a championship poetry slam team and a rich bluegrass and folk tradition boasting artists like Sons of Ralph and David LaMotte, respectively. Plus, there were ongoing series like Shindig on the Green (started in 1967), and the annual injection of festivals such as Bele Chere (1979-2013) and Goombay (since 1982), to round out the heady — if hard to typify — scene.

Alli Marshall first freelanced for Xpress in 2001. She is now its Arts & Entertainment editor.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

5 thoughts on “Heady and hard to typify: Asheville clubs & music in the ’90s

  1. JOHN-C

    I’ll have to disagree… Their were PLENTY of dull moments in the 90′s club/music scene! Pretty slow actually! Sounding a bit too romantic here ;)

    • Alli Marshall

      Well, it would have been a boring story to recount the dull moments. But I’d love to hear your take on the ’90s music scene in Asheville — please feel free to share a memory. Even an unromantic one :-)

  2. JOHN-C

    Perhaps it would make for a better story if told the truth, by showing the contrast of what it WAS like, compared to how it is NOW…

  3. Dan O'Brien

    As one of the former owners of The Grey Eagle, back in the Black Mountain days, I can recall the struggles of bringing quality music to the area with the limited show attendance. It was great to see the owners of the area venues get over the competitive attitudes that use to abound in those days and “rely” on each other’s business to add to their success. The inevitable success of Asheville’s scene stemmed from those “boring” moments! What will we be discussing in 20 years from now?

    PS: Thank you Mtn Ex for being around for so long! And, where is Frank Rabey these days?

    • Jeff Fobes

      Dan: thanks for your reflections on the way it was back then and how things changed–as seen from the trenches.
      Frank Rabey is alive and we’ll (I’m sure he’d disagree with the “well” part). He almost contributed to the articles in this week’s Xpress. Maybe we can roust him out yet.

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