Around Town: Local talk focuses on Black Appalachian musical innovators

MELODY MAKERS: Ted Olson and William H. Turner will lead a Zoom talk about Western North Carolina’s rich, but overlooked, African-American musical heritage, on Thursday, Jan. 13, 6-7 p.m. Photos courtesy of the Western North Carolina Historical Association

If you don’t know the names Lesley “Esley” Riddle, Etta Baker and Brownie McGhee, you should. They were all important figures in the history and development of Appalachian music, and they were all Black.

Contrary to the popular perception, Appalachian musical innovators were not limited to the white ancestors of Scots-Irish settlers.

“The truth is that the region’s music has derived from numerous cultures and heritages,” says Trevor Freeman, public programs director for the Western North Carolina Historical Association. “The songs and instrumentation of African Americans were also frequently co-opted or popularized by white performers who found commercial success as recording companies scoured the mountains for old-time music in the early 20th century.”

WNCHA will kick off its 2022 slate of programming with “African American Musical Traditions in WNC,” a Zoom event featuring William H. Turner and Ted Olson on Thursday, Jan. 13, 6-7 p.m.

Turner, the author of The Harlan Renaissance: A Memoir of Black Lives in Appalachian Coal Towns, and Olson, a professor of Appalachian studies and bluegrass at East Tennessee State University, are co-hosts of the podcast “Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music.”

“We will discuss blues, the Black banjo songster tradition, Black gospel in Appalachia, jazz in Appalachia, Black contributions to country, old-time and bluegrass and hip-hop in Appalachia,” says Olson.

In addition to Riddle, Baker and McGhee, the discussion will touch on Western North Carolina natives Nina Simone and Roberta Flack, who became major recording stars, as well as Southern Appalachian born musicians Bill WithersBessie Smith and W.C. Handy.

Tickets for the event are $5 for WNCHA members and $10 for others. For more information or to register, visit

Leave ’em laughing

The Magnetic Theatre will host improv group The Bearded Company for three workshops and two original performances Thursday, Jan. 20-Sunday, Jan. 23.

Founded in Minneapolis in 2006, The Bearded Company has created several sold-out shows, including Swords and Sorcery: The Improvised Campaign, Bearded Manor and Epic Adventures. The group also produces a podcast called “Break the Dice: The Improvised Campaign.”

The Magnetic Theatre is at 375 Depot St. in the River Arts District. For more information or to buy tickets, go to

Helping hands

A Dec. 2 fire caused about $100,000 worth of damage to Sly Grog Lounge, one of Asheville’s top venues for live music. As a result, Sly Grog has had to cancel about 90 concerts, according to media reports.

To help out the venue’s employees, three local bands — Call the Next Witness, John Kirby & the New Seniors and CAM GIRL — have organized a benefit concert at The Grey Eagle on Friday, Jan. 14, at 9 p.m.

“Sly Grog is near and dear to us and many others and is an important part of the Asheville music scene and our town in general,” John Kirby & the New Seniors wrote in a Facebook post. “We’ve played there more than any other place in town. They are good, good folks.”

Owners hope to reopen the Haywood Street venue in about six to eight months.

The Grey Eagle is at 185 Clingman Ave. For more information or to buy tickets ($8), go to

Color me impressed

The Asheville Art Museum will present Stained with Glass: Vitreograph Prints from the Studio of Harvey K. Littleton in The Van Winkle Law Firm Gallery starting Wednesday, Jan. 12, and running through May 23.

In 1974, the late Littleton developed a process for using glass to create prints on paper, resulting in colorful scenes reminiscent of stained glass.

Artists in a variety of mediums — including glass, ceramics and painting — were invited to Littleton’s studio in Spruce Pine to explore the process. The exhibit will present pieces by makers who worked with Littleton, including Dale Chihuly, Cynthia Bringle and Thermon Statom. Works by Littleton himself also will be on display.

Asheville Art Museum, 2 Pack Square, is open Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (9 p.m. on Thursday). For more information, go to

Looks at books

If your New Year’s resolution is to do more reading, consider joining Pack Memorial Library’s Book Club.

The group meets the second Wednesday of each month at 10:30 a.m. in the Lord Auditorium at the library, 67 Haywood St. The Jan. 12 meeting will focus on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Future featured books include Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle.

Newcomers are welcome, but registration is required, and attendance will be limited to the first 10 registrants. Get more information or sign up at


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.