Asheville is a town of steel-drum jam jazz, dirty-tonk and “Appalachian chamber music.” (Try searching those ones on iTunes.) In fact, Asheville has embraced its eclecticism to the point of eschewing anything smacking of Top 40.
A brief history: This is arguably the home of old-time, hence the motherland of bluegrass and country. Singer/songwriter folk gripped the region in the ‘80s and ‘90s—featuring the likes of David LaMotte, David Wilcox and Christine Kane—as did the rock of Crystal Zoo and Praying for Rain. The new millennium saw a definitive embrace of world music in the capable hands of Toubab Krewe and The Afromotive. And the almost-famous dot the timeline, too—think The Blue Rags and DrugMoney.
So, should the recent flood of indie rock—the sort of bands that would look right on the pages of Spin and sound right on the soundtrack of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (which, by the way, contains a track from local-by-association Band of Horses)—into local venues come as a surprise? Not exactly.
Jack Groetsch, who, with wife Lesley, opened The Orange Peel in 2002, suggests that the 942-capacity club has contributed to Asheville’s changing music scene. “The more bigger bands play here, the more Asheville is on the map and other bands know there is a market. They’re not just going to Chapel Hill,” he says. Groetsch drew on connections from his years in New Orleans (where he owned The Howlin’ Wolf music venue) to bring bands like Sonic Youth to The Orange Peel. These days, though Groetsch is no long at the helm, The Orange Peel is drawing indie rock and pop notables such as Amos Lee, Blitzen Trapper, Josh Ritter, Imogen Heap and Rilo Kiley.
The reincarnation of The Orange Peel (formerly a popular R&B and soul club during the 1970s) helped boost the number of name-droppable acts making their way in Asheville, but the city’s indie-rock savvy dates well before 2002.
Pop-culture-relevant indie bands such as Cat Power and Of Montreal were coming through town long before The Orange Peel blossomed. Even the Avett Brothers, when they were a punk band called Nemo, played Vincent’s Ear.
Ironically, for all Vincent’s Ear’s star-pegging prowess, many current local indie rock acts never played the since-closed coffee shop-cum-listening room. Stephaniesid, fronted by Stephanie Morgan (organizer of the PopAsheville music festival) never did.
“There are more indie-rock bands in town now, but there’s not a good mid-sized venue for them,” Morgan says. “If you build it, they will come, right?” Annual January festival POPAsheville addresses that problem by booking about three dozen acts (the majority from Asheville) into three venues: The Grey Eagle, The Rocket Club and Stella Blue.
Morgan also insists, “[Asheville] will always have a strong roots scene. That keeps us connected to our history.” The singer/songwriter—whose songs have appeared on CD samplers by the likes of Jane and Paste magazines—says, “From my vantage point, I don’t feel like [Asheville] is moving away from roots music. If we’re a flower, we have a strong root and always will. But now there are other parts to that plant.”
Groetsch agrees that roots music informs indie. “Take Kellin Watson,” he says. “I’d call her indie, but she’s related to Doc Watson. Woody Wood of Hollywood Red—his new album is more of a rock thing with a modern slant, yet his dad is a three-time banjo competition winner who played with Bill Monroe.”
John Atwater, owner of Mo Daddy’s, also draws on a the connection between roots (blues, in his case) and more modern sounds when booking shows. Though there’s been buzz of late about Mo Daddy’s booking more indie bands, for Atwater, it’s a matter of economics. “I wanted old-school blues, but most of [those artists] are dead,” he explains. “We have more blues lined up for the new year, like Cedric Burnside. So, the blues is alive and kicking, but comes at a price. And I don’t want to charge more than about $5 for cover, especially with the economy.”
Atwater references a handful of indie acts booked by local music scout Heidi Walker as “very successful” but quickly names local Americana artist Pierce Edens and blues performer Mac Arnold as his biggest draws.
But there’s more to indie music than the bottom line, says New French Bar booking agent (and Body of John the Baptist musician) Jamie Hepler. “For people to play at our place, anything’s cool as long as it doesn’t kill a room,” he says.
Hepler hires 15 to 20 acts a month, all from bands that contact him looking for a gig. One of his best-attended shows was the much-lauded Summerbirds in the Cellar, but even as Hepler brings nationally touring acts into the New French Bar, he’s also matching them with local bands that draw crowds through name recognition.
What does Hepler include on his wish list? More experimental music. “There’s a dearth,” he says, “of people who want to do more than just regurgitate.” If indie is Asheville’s new roots music, then experimental may well be the next indie rock.