Pre-millennial Asheville: No renovation required

A&E Editor Melanie McGree started as a freelancer at Xpress in 1997.
A&E Editor Melanie McGree started as a freelancer at Xpress in 1997.

In 1994, the year Mountain Xpress started, I was sharing a $365/month place in Montford with my sister. It was a narrow little flat in a Victorian-era home, its backyard adjacent to the property where Zelda Fitzgerald died in a mental-hospital fire in 1948. The same apartment, no bigger but much refurbished, rents for $950 today.

F. Scott Fitzgerald himself once lived at the Grove Park Inn, from 1935 to ’36 —but in 1994, he didn’t yet have any luxury condos named in his honor. However, there was Gatsby’s (now Scully’s Bar & Grille), one of very few downtown bar/restaurants around at the time. Nineteen-ninety-four was the year Barley’s Taproom and Earth Fare opened. Both of these local institutions blew up into multistate chains.

House parties in 1994 happened in haphazardly occupied riverside warehouses or in lofts down dark alleys. It snowed more, then. “Renovation” was something that happened to ice-broken bridges, and “gentrification” might have been the name of a constellation visible only from Devil’s Courthouse, a cliff in Transylvania County.

I began freelancing for Xpress in early1997. Publisher Jeff Fobes and then-Arts & Entertainment Editor Marsha Barber took a chance on me even though my degree was in creative writing, not journalism. I presented exactly two published clips: a fiction story I’d managed to place in a national teen magazine, and a theremin brochure I’d composed for Robert Moog, put out by a local ad agency. As a portfolio, it was sparse and bizarre: kind of like downtown Asheville itself.

But local music in the mid-’90s was anything but dormant. It was raw and urgent. It was this real thing happening, for its own sake: old-fashioned, uncalculated mayhem. The Blue Rags caused near-hysteria – lines snaking the sidewalk around Be Here Now, fans beginning to dance before they even reached the door. The Merle peeled the paint off the walls at Stella Blue. Luv Six seized heart after heart at Vincent’s Ear. Marsha Barber, Xpress staffer Frank Rabey and devoted freelancers, including Asheville scenester Tom Kerr, committed this vital era to print.

Covering mostly visual art, theater, and national bands passing through town, I became Xpress’ regular arts-and-entertainment reporter and editorial assistant. In those days, the editorial assistant’s job was to decipher galley pages marked up in red pen by then-Senior Editor Peter Gregutt. Peter was a stickler of the old school, and, after a solid nine hours under his scrutiny, the pages would resemble a two-dimensional autopsy. Poring over them late at night, entering the endless changes into a boxy, purring Mac, I shed a few tears, lost a level of eyesight, and suspected I was learning more than any journalism-school grad ever did.

In December 1999, I became Arts & Entertainment Editor, a post I held until July 2007. I led a wonderful, hardworking team that included culture writer and novelist Alli Marshall, Xpress’ current A&E Editor. With graphic designer Travis Medford as part of the 2005 production team, we won an international industry award for our print guide to Bele Chere.

I got to interview the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood back when the band was playing The Basement — the pocket bar below the present-day Thirsty Monk Pub — instead of selling out two-night engagements at the Orange Peel. As the town boomed, so did the opportunities. I talked to Doc Watson and Loretta Lynn, and I can still remember what they said, both on- and off-record. I also phone-interviewed humorist David Sedaris, who afterward sent me a postcard from Germany picturing three giant black mice cavorting around a captive cat.

After 10 years at Xpress, I left to stay home with my infant son and pursue freelance work with local, state, and national lifestyle-media outlets. Then, from 2012 until this summer, I headed up Verve, Asheville’s high-quality magazine for women. I am now the managing editor of two Hendersonville-based lifestyle magazines: Bold Life, an arts-and-culture monthly, and Carolina Home + Garden, a glossy quarterly.

My career has been shaped by the growth of this area, and I’m grateful for how many national top-10 lists WNC makes these days, because I have the chance to cover these coups from the viewpoint of a local. But I’ll always be a little nostalgic for the time when Asheville and surrounds were on the shabbier side of “shabby chic.” As for what used to happen in the upper reaches of the Kress Building before those top floors became prime real estate — I’ll never tell.

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About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

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