Abby Bryant & The Echoes, Brett Naucke and Sally Anne Morgan release new albums

PROGRESSIVES: Clockwise from left, local artists Abby Bryant, Brett Naucke (center) and Sally Anne Morgan make exciting leaps forward with their latest albums. Photo of Bryant by Bruce McCamish; photo of Naucke by Michael Vallera; photo of Morgan by Katrina Ohstrom

First off, the Asheville-based band formerly known as Downtown Abby & The Echoes is in no way a reference to the popular PBS series “Downton Abbey.” Singer-songwriter Abby Bryant adopted what she calls that “fun, kitschy, silly bar-band name” when she and guitarist Bailey Faulkner were first playing watering holes in Boone and Charlotte as their college days at Appalachian State University came to an end. But that didn’t stop folks from assuming that the group was somehow related to the show.

“It did get really annoying for us,” Bryant says with a laugh. “There was some confusion. We had people come out to bars in the beginning and be like, ‘Oh, I thought we were going to hear some British music.’”

As the band grew its fan base, relocated to Asheville and released a handful of well-received singles, it gradually became clear that the moniker had served its purpose. That sentiment crystalized for Bryant once the songs for (what would become) Abby Bryant & The Echoes’ debut LP, Not Your Little Girl, started taking shape.

“It was time for something new and mature, and for us to have a real career name,” Bryant says. “I liked the idea of using my own name and being me, because ‘Downtown Abby’ was more of a funny, character-type persona. Now that the band is called by my name, I’m able to approach people more personally and directly.”

Drawing sonic inspiration from one of her musical heroes, Susan Tedeschi, Bryant more than establishes her identity with Not Your Little Girl and imbues the 13 engaging originals with her own style of bluesy, Southern rock. Helping see her vision through were a few heavy hitters, including Brevard-based drummer (and former Tedeschi bandmate), Jeff Sipe.

“Jeff brought new life to our songs and gave us some really important advice,” Bryant says. “Being the nice, humble, amazing guy that he is, he’s pretty accessible in this town, which amazes me. If you have a project you’re passionate about, it’s possible to get in touch with him and say, ‘Hey, would you come out and work on this with me?’ And oftentimes, he’s willing and available — and that’s such a treasure in our town.”

In addition to Sipe, the band looped in remote collaborations from John Ginty (Robert Randolph & The Family Band; The Allman Betts Band) on Hammond organ and keys, and the New Orleans brass group, The Naughty Horns, to more fully realize the big, full-band sound Bryant had in mind.

Abby Bryant & The Echoes, which also includes Anthony Dorion on bass, celebrated Not Your Little Girl with a hometown album release show at Asheville Music Hall on Oct. 23. The performance marked the first time the group played live with a three-piece horn section, a fact that seems like a good omen for new and exciting opportunities ahead.

Inspired reflections

For nearly 16 years, electronic musician and composer Brett Naucke was happy to return home to Chicago after being out on the road. Then, in November 2019, Asheville-based electronic instrument creator Make Noise — where several of Naucke’s former Windy City friends worked — invited him to town for a show to celebrate the release of his EP Electronic Hypnosis Program, which the company put out through its in-house record label.

“I ended up staying and just had my few friends take me around. We went on a couple of mountain drives, got some drinks, saw a couple of shows,” Naucke remembers. “And I was like, ‘You can walk around here?’ I think I imagined Asheville to be a very, very different place than it was, for whatever reason.”

Enamored with Western North Carolina and increasingly disillusioned with Chicago as the initial months of lockdown set in, Naucke soon received an opportunity to call Asheville home when his wife, Natasha Hernandez Naucke (who uses they/them pronouns), saw that Make Noise was hiring for a position that aligned with their music industry accountant experience. They were hired, and, in August, the Nauckes were unpacking boxes in West Asheville.

“It’s been kind of weird leaving a place that was very much my home, but it’s definitely for the better,” Brett says.

Prior to moving, he and longtime Chicago-based collaborators Natalie Chami and Whitney Johnson completed Mirror Ensemble, an instrumental album inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s visually rich 1975 film, Mirror. The semiautobiographical movie stuck with Naucke from a single mesmerizing viewing in his youth, particularly a scene in which a barn burns down despite heavy rain falling. Upon revisiting it a few years ago, it felt as if he was seeing it for the first time.

Chami (voice/synthesizer/organ/piano) and Johnson (viola/violin/organ) were likewise stirred by the imagery and excited to expand the tracks that Naucke sent them with their own ideas. The buy-in came as a relief to Naucke, who’d never been more nervous to share his work with others.

“If I showed them this piece and then show them what I based it on, are they going to be like, ‘What are you talking about?’” he remembers thinking. “But they weren’t like that at all. They were just like, ‘Awesome. I totally see what you mean. We’re excited to work on that.’”

While playing the Mirror Ensemble pieces live is especially tricky with Chami now residing in Washington, D.C., the bond Naucke created with her and Johnson is so strong that he says it’s currently difficult to think about being a solo performer. However, he notes that the normalizing of remote collaboration during the pandemic makes their future as a trio far more realistic, and he looks forward to strengthening those bonds while also making more connections within Asheville’s music community.

Free your mind

On Sally Anne Morgan’s latest album, Cups, the Alexander-based multi-instrumentalist picks up where her 2020 album, Thread, ended. Though the earlier work featured a majority of arranged and composed songs, the collection’s final two tracks embraced more improvised instrumentals, which inspired Cups.

“I like being able to tap into my deep intuition and not worry about lyrics or chord changes and just flow,” Morgan says. “At its best, it’s a kind of meditative, spiritual practice that’s hard to explain in words. If I can let go of expectations, even to some degree of awareness of what I’m doing, I feel like I can channel something deeper — something from the depths of my subconscious that’s possibly connected to the greater universal collective subconscious.”

That more intuitive approach defines Cups across its eight instrumental tracks. Though Morgan notes she’s long loved a free-flowing approach to making music, she didn’t have strong ambitions to make an album in this style until she became interested in home recording. Over the course of a couple years of what she calls “very casually and experimentally approaching this,” she realized she’d made enough recordings that had a cohesive feel and could work together as an album.

The resulting intermingling of fiddle, guitar, banjo, dulcimer, glockenspiel, handbells, xylophone and other instruments occasionally resembles meditation music or something played at a sound bath session. While Morgan says she didn’t intentionally set out to make music for those purposes, she’s fond of a lot of New Age music and was “in a kind of meditative state” while making the bulk of Cups.

“I love the sense of optimism and relaxation, the reaching for some airy spiritual vibration without being connected to religion,” she says. “I like a lot of religious worship music, too, but not aligning with any religious tradition. That said, I don’t think I intentionally wanted the music to sound like anything in particular — it was more about the process, of being as free and open as possible while making it.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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