Since the late 1950s, folk music has been as essential to urban cafe culture as steamed milk is to cappuccino.
Asheville’s downtown scene, however, has blossomed only in the last decade — though Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe was established on Haywood Street more than 20 years ago. The still-thriving business is as much an Asheville landmark as the old Passim coffeehouse is to the celebrated Boston folk scene (a teenage Joan Baez debuted at the latter venue in 1959, when it was still Club 47; now as Club Passim, it’s also still thriving).
And so today you can hear the picking and pondering of folkies (OK, “singer/songwriters”) in any number of Western North Carolina java joints — from the relatively chi-chi Kismet Cafe in Biltmore Village to the come-as-you-are Relaxed Reader, a vital cog empowering the ongoing West Asheville renaissance.
Some local coffee houses are even fashioning genre niches for themselves — any urban-dwelling mountain-music lover who (commendably) prefers old-time over jam-grass knows that Pyper’s Place in Montford is the place to be most Friday nights.
Panacea Coffee House, a charming barn of a place, has steamed up the bandwagon, too. This downtown Waynesville cafe recently hosted award-winning Native American singer/songwriter and flute-player Bill Miller — though the sheer size of the venue begs more for herds of cloggers than lone troubadours.
But Sweet Heaven Ice Cream & Music Cafe, established in Montford two years ago, may herald a whole new direction in local cafe culture.
The place offers a double scoop, if you will, of homemade frozen confections and live, mostly local, folk-ish performers — including myriad incarnations of country-flavored acts, from the broad flourishes of Sherri Lynn and Mountain Friends to the absorbingly traditional playing of the Dowden Sisters.
Butter Praline and “Nine Pound Hammer” is an eccentric mix of treats made even more so by the place’s rowdily family-friendly atmosphere. All squeaky floors and primary colors, Sweet Heaven is hardly conducive to such classic-coffee-house customs as tortured poetry scribbling.
Store co-owner Lael Gray says the idea for the business took form when she and her husband, singer/songwriter Jeff Japp, were living in Miami.
Japp had been playing in coffeehouses fairly regularly at the time. “Our daughter was about 5 years old, and she loved to come and hear him play,” Gray recalls. “But the environment was a little nerve-racking to deal with when bringing a kid along.”
Plotting a move to Asheville, “Jeff came up with the thought that we could do a coffeehouse with live music, but we could make it an ice-cream shop instead,” Gray reveals. “We figured there had to be other people like us out there who didn’t want to miss out on live music, but couldn’t leave the kids behind very often.”
A place like Sweet Heaven also affords opportunities to the acts it books, points out musician Ami Worthen.
“Many coffee houses, cafes and ice-cream shops have live music that [starts] early in the evening, usually in a nonsmoking environment and often without alcohol — or without alcohol as the primary substance being imbibed,” she explains.
“This type of environment,” Worthen goes on, “allows local musicians to be exposed to a different demographic than the club scene — specifically families with children, older people, and people who just don’t like to go to clubs. Playing [at] such venues can help diversify a musician’s fan base.”
Worthen, who heads novelty-jazz duo Mad Tea Party and Hawaiian party band The Hula Cats, acknowledges the inherent quirkiness of a listening room heavily attended by the under-12 set; she recalls a Halloween gig at Sweet Heaven that was “fun, but also surreal.” Mad Tea Party’s fans that night, she says, “consisted primarily of tiny animals, faeries and ghosts — all with a serious sugar buzz.”
Performing outside at Dog Day Cafe — a Woodfin ice-cream shop open in the warmer months — proved yet another third-eye-opening experience for Worthen and band-mate/husband Jason Krekel.
“[We] played there on Wednesdays for a while,” she recalls. “People would come after church to get ice cream and listen. It was a great place to gain experience performing.
“Some older women who used to watch Jason and I play … saw that we sat on hard wooden stools,” Worthen remembers. “So they brought in seat cushions for us. That kind of thing probably wouldn’t happen at a bar.”