People ask me how the Asheville of the ’90s compares to Asheville now. The easiest way for me to explain it is to tell them that back then, if you were semi-employed, maybe a student or part-time bartender, you lived in a big Victorian house in Montford. Those who were unemployed or in a punk band that had no gigs or income stream whatsoever would reside in downtown lofts.
Meanwhile, if you lived in West Asheville, your friends would rarely come to visit because it was much too far to drive. And the community there was generally very conservative. So having a home in West Asheville was a socially isolating experience.
There were multistory buildings downtown for sale for $150,000, but very few people were interested in buying them. The Grove Arcade was a bricked-up federal office building and you could rent a room on Biltmore Avenue, in the same block as Tressa’s and Ananda Hair Salon, for about $100 a week.
Back then, Tyler Ramsey, of Band of Horses, was either busking for change on the sidewalk or playing for free at a little pasta joint (Basta!) on College Street downtown. As a freelance writer for Mountain Xpress, I went to hear music at Be Here Now and, on one occasion, wound up standing around in the back chatting with Jewel (Kilcher) who was clutching a guitar and eating a slice of pizza. She had opened for some mediocre act. Six months later, I heard she had won a Grammy and was on the cover of Vogue Magazine. Around 2000, the White Stripes played a show at Vincent’s Ear, which was pretty much a hole-in-the-wall dive on Lexington Avenue. About a year later, the White Stripes were arguably the most popular new group in America. Perri Crutcher, the fanciest floral designer in WNC, whose designs were in all the best homes in Biltmore Forest, was working out of an alley until he could afford to rent a shop and move indoors.
I ran into Viggo Mortensen while waiting to use the bathroom at Tressa’s during an open-mic night. I had no idea who he was. But I was pretty sure he was that Hollywood actor, Owen Wilson. He was a nervous wreck, practicing to read a poem. His hands were shaking from stage fright. Then he got up and read it, and it was the worst performance of the whole night. He sat down and Steve Buscemi got up and sang Roger Miller’s circa 1960s hit song “King of the Road.” Buscemi killed it, brought down the house, getting a roaring ovation. But none of this was considered extraordinary; it was just the way we all expected Asheville to be in those days.
I have supported myself as a writer for about 15 years now, but I don’t think that would have ever been possible were it not for Mountain Xpress. I have never encountered a more generous and inclusive publication. The editors gave me my first paid assignment and basically taught me how to write. They would never reject anything I submitted, but would just quietly fix, polish and publish it. Then I would compare my version to the one in print, and that’s how I figured out how to write like a professional.
On more than one occasion, I saw a freelancer file his story on a big yellow legal pad filled with page after page of almost illegible chicken scratch. My editor patiently transcribed the words, reworked them, published them and then paid the writer. What publication does that? But Mountain Xpress valued the ideas and the stories, and that guy had fantastic stories to tell. Xpress gave everyone a chance and that, to me, was a rare gift that really helped to build, define and celebrate the Asheville community.
But it is an exaggeration to call what I was back then a “freelance writer.” I wasn’t a writer; I was just one more fellow with a desire to be a writer. Mountain Xpress editors gave me the opportunity. They made me a writer long before I was qualified to be one. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Tom Kerr is the author of The Underground Asheville Guidebook.