Next we were movin’ on

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.

Duking it out for Asheville audiences: Indie pop diva and stephaniesid frontwoman Stephanie Morgan and alt-country roots-rocker Brian McGee of Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed, shown here at Asheville’s most recent venue, Mo Daddy’s—which features both indie and roots music. Photo by Jonathan Welch.

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.

Indie before indie was cool

by Alli Marshall and Steve Shanafelt

Asheville’s under-the-radar coups, musically-speaking, make up an impressive roster. Vincent’s Era alums include:
• The White Stripes
• Neil Halstead
• Le Tigre
• Bardo Pond
• Cat Power
• Of Montreal
• American Analog Set
• Royal Trux
• The Butchies
• The Black Lips
• Har Mar Superstar

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.”

Indie on the rise

Asheville trivia: The White Stripes played Vincent’s Ear the same night the Flaming Lips played the Asheville Music Zone. Those venues are gone, but up-and-coming indie bands are still making the Asheville rounds. Photo by Autumn De Wilde.

Upcoming shows to mark:
• Feb. 14: Lambchop with Hope and Anchor at the Grey Eagle
• Feb. 20: The Broomstars at the Rocket Club
• Feb. 21: The Mumbles at BoBo Gallery
• Feb. 22: Arms and Sleepers at the New French Bar
• March 5: Blitzen Trapper at the Orange Peel
• March 15: Arizona at the Rocket Club
• March 18: The Mountain Goats with John Vanderslice at the Grey Eagle

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.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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13 thoughts on “Next we were movin’ on

  1. Hmmm. No mention of The Grey Eagle, which is where most of the indie bands are playing right now. Much of the roots bands too.

  2. Rebecca Sulock

    Hey Orbit,

    That’s certainly true. The Grey Eagle has hosted a who’s-who of both upcoming indie bands and terrific roots bands.

    In this case, the story began as a look at a couple of newer venues and what they were doing. We meant to have a fun, quick look at the two scenes moving forward. We certainly could’ve (and should’ve) talked about the Grey Eagle (Fleet Foxes! Of Montreal!).

    Stella Blue, also, has hosted some stellar up-and-coming indie bands, such as Smog and Neko Case. We coulda talked about that venue as well. In both cases, the buck stops with me.

    Ultimately it’s always a balancing act; how to give attention within the space we have to the so many bands/venues/genres that are doing some amazing things. Our navigation of that tightrope varies.

  3. lance

    Bill Callahan hasn’t used that moniker in, like, 6 months. Smog is soooo 20th century

  4. old skool

    There was music before the Orange Peel, Like Be Here Now, Gatsbys, Vincents Ear and the Alternative Pub and of course 45 Cherry. These are the ORIGINAL SUPPORTERS or reel indie/roots music. The Orange Peel, certainly in the beginning, was a chop shop run by outsiders from NEW ORLEANS and booking agents from KNOXVILLE (AC). hardly folks with their ears to what is happening here

  5. How about Archers of Loaf? They were hella Asheville and twice as indy as they were Asheville. I definitely saw them play at 31 patton.

    No reason to hate on the Orange Peel though.

  6. Piffy!

    “Groetsch agrees that roots music informs indie. “Take Kellin Watson,” he says. “I’d call her indie, but she’s related to Doc Watson.”

    I’d be curious to learn how Kellin Watson can be defined as “indie”, other than the fact she is unsigned. Sounds like maybe blues, country, or even Gospel.

  7. Say Wikipedia

    Singer/guitarist Eric Bachmann, guitarist Eric Johnson, bassist Matt Gentling, and drummer Mark Price, all originally from Asheville, NC, formed Archers of Loaf in the early 1990s.

  8. September Girl

    old skool: ever heard of the internet, cd players, cassettes. Why would you think New Orleanians and Knoxvillians would be clueless about WNC music? Both Groetsch and Capps booked indie NC music at clubs and events in their respective hometowns before being involved with The OP. Capps has been booking music in this market for decades. Why so prickly? Oh, and supporting live local music is a value that you bring with you anywhere you go. Mention Capps in Knoxville or Groetsch in New Orleans and you’ll find out they have stellar reputations for supporting the scenes there. They’ve also continued to help export Asheville music to those places and others. Check out the liner notes from a few local bands’ cds and you’ll see both of them a number of times. I’m done. I have to go email my congress people about passing the stimulus package.

    one more thought. there was music here in Asheville before any of the clubs and before people even thought about making money off of music. That’s one of the unique and special things about this area.

  9. Ex-Pat

    This piece is (OK, I’m gonna be polite) really a bunch of nonsense. It’s based on the false premise that there is some deep social divide here between two monolothically distinct musical forms (itself a fallacy). So-called Appalachian music is an historical amalgam of various world folk musics that hybridized elements of Celtic, African and other styles.

    Is there an imagination deficit going on there or what? I really miss the days when Xpress used to have meaningful news on your front cover, not this…deep reach into the asinine. I mean, this is some Take 5-style self-abasement. It’s demoralizing. And as a long time reader, I feel culturally demoralized by it.

    I find it interesting that as the times have demanded more and better news coverage over the last decade, Xpress has gone the opposite direction, embracing fluff like this ever tighter. I understand you feel like you have to compete for advertising more than ever now, but…ugh. It sincerely hurts.

  10. Jon Elliston


    Thanks for weighing in on this week’s cover story, and sorry to hear that it has demoralized you. The story has definitely provoked some thoughtful commentary here, in our Forums, on the streets and in cafes and clubs. It’s clearly not to everyone’s liking, a situation we find ourselves in with almost any cover story.

    And while I agree with you that these times call for more and better news coverage, I have to pick a bone with your contention that Xpress is “going in the opposite direction.” From where I sit, surrounded by hard-working writers, editors, photographers and multimedia hands who labor daily to discover and report the news — including many a story that takes considerable time and energy — I see a staff that puts a premium on telling lots of good, hard news. And not only do I see that as a continuation of Xpress’ long-standing approach, I’d even say that we’re more committed to getting the news out now more than ever, because we have the means, on the Web site, to report news almost instantaneously, whereas we used to be limited to publishing only once a week. Look at the many and varied breaking news items on the home page on any given day, and you’ll see what I mean.

    Or pick up this week’s newspaper, for that matter. There’s more to a newspaper than its cover: Look inside, and you’ll find a penetrating commentary about Asheville’s art scene; an in-depth story profiling the concerns among local crafters, toy sellers and libraries over new federal lead-testing rules; our always-authoritative and detailed coverage of the most recent City Council meeting; a business column with news about local jobs and training opportunities; a report on the important I-26 debate between Newman and Lutoksky; more on the transparency concerns at URTV; the scoop on how the Phish ticket fiasco went down; news on Buncombe County’s space crunch and stimulus-package hopes; a profile of the Board of Realtors new president, with her thoughts on how Asheville can get out of the housing clump; a preview of safe-sex workshops for young women, etc.

    I could go on, but you get the idea: We’re bringing the news, and it’s as high a priority as it has ever been. And lastly, I can assure that a need to sell ads had nothing to do with the selection of the cover story.

    Again, thanks for reading Xpress, and for sharing your concerns here.

    Jon Elliston
    Mountain Xpress

  11. Ex-Pat

    Thank you. I apologize for being so flippantly outraged. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today.

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