Like it or not, declares Rick Morris, Vincent’s Ear isn’t closing.
Morris, the Lexington Avenue venue’s self-described “spiritual owner,” has wearied of recent rumors heralding his scrappy club’s impending demise in the wake of the neighboring Asheville Community Resource Center eviction.
Detractors of “funky Lexington” be damned; Vincent’s remains good news for Asheville, where an ever-fattening wad of precious tourism dollars rides in atop guitar solos and fiddle runs.
“As a market for live music, the area’s just boomed, as much as the real-estate industry,” notes Tyler Richardson, co-owner of The Grey Eagle.
And Vincent’s, dating to 1993, is now the oldest downtown venue devoted to original live music, its reputation built on talented homegrown acts (most significantly, DrugMoney) and experimental/avant shows by touring performers of every stripe.
Yet, 10 years is the equivalent of a lifetime for original live music in WNC. In that span, the local-venue horizon has been all but razed and rebuilt, with our music scene blowing up to where it’s routinely discussed in clubs from Seattle to New York City.
That Asheville vibe
WNC, positioned between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., has always been able to draw touring acts.
“It’s just routing,” notes Ted Warner, co-owner of Gatsby’s for almost a quarter-century before the Walnut Street rock-and-blues club closed in October 1998, and who bought the seminal Be Here Now in 1995 (running it until losing the lease on the city-owned property in ’98).
And now that Asheville’s become, y’know, hip, the musicians — singer/songwriters, jazzers, bluegrass and old-time pickers — are pouring in to stay, joining our heavy concentration of hometown dynamos.
“You can’t swing a massage therapist without hitting a musician,” jokes Morris.
Or, for that matter, a festival where music is all or at least part of the focus.
“We’re creating a vibe here in Asheville where it’s not an event unless it includes live music,” observes Lesley Groetsch, who co-owns The Orange Peel with husband Jack.
We’re also creating a problem, Richardson suggests.
“The level of musicianship among local musicians is always increasing,” he observes, “and a lot of them are getting ignored right now.”
By the mid-’90s, only a couple of private downtown-Asheville venues were devoted to original live music. While Vincent’s was then just getting started, the old rock/R&B club 45 Cherry was winding down.
The rock-and-blues Gatsby’s was by then a local fixture, while a few blocks away stood the new 31 Patton (now Stella Blue, downtown’s second-oldest club). And just south of Pack Square on Biltmore Avenue was a young Be Here Now.
Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria opened a little further down Biltmore in 1994. Though hardly a conventional music venue, the popular eatery became a staunch friend to bluegrass, old-time, jazz and blues, paying local and regional acts for no-cover shows. (Newer local restaurants like Hannah Flannagan’s and Thibodaux Jones have since followed suit).
Meanwhile, over in Black Mountain, the Town Pump had already weathered a dozen years (under ownership of the enigmatic Bill Harkness), while two blocks away, the first incarnation of The Grey Eagle was opening as heir to the fabled McDibb’s, which closed at its second location (further up Cherry Street) in March 1992.
And it’s with McDibb’s that any discussion of WNC’s growth into a celebrated live-music area should begin.
Reputations are made of these
The hallowed Black Mountain venue opened in October 1978 on the site of what’s now the Town Pump. McDibb’s hosted acts such as Taj Mahal, Doc Watson and then-newcomer Alison Krauss.
“If I’d had redneck music, I’d have made a lot of money,” quips McDibb’s owner David Peele, who also founded the influential (and likewise defunct) Black Mountain Music Festival.
McDibb’s soon became a template for other clubs (The Grey Eagle, BHN, The Handlebar in Greenville), training new and influential outside eyes on WNC’s music scene.
“I might have started something,” Peele concedes.
When McDibb’s closed after 14 years, this country’s “new folk” revival was in full swing. It proved great timing for the fledgling Grey Eagle, which carved out its own good name largely through booking some of America’s premiere singer/songwriters (Performing Songwriter magazine even spotlighted the club).
But by then, Asheville’s Be Here Now had arisen as WNC’s most visible listening room, offering bigger names (Emmylou Harris, Los Lobos) in an intimate setting.
Original owner Chris Hardwicke promised greater financial guarantees to musicians, but could be a nightmare if BHN didn’t fill (one performer pulled a pistol on Hardwicke over pay).
BHN routinely alienated performers, reveals Joe Haugh. And ultimately, that helped other clubs like Stella Blue, which he’s co-owned with Peggie McGrath since 1997, and which is now undergoing massive renovations.