Country and bluegrass performer Sherri Lynn Clark tells a story about how her dad used to take her along when he played the Grand Ole Opry. When Clark, a toddler, fell asleep, her parents would place her in the most convenient place: “I grew up in my dad’s guitar case,” she boasted during a recent interview.
But, despite the promising bright lights of Nashville, Clark’s father — Eugene “Red” Howard — kept his home base in Asheville. “He didn’t want to uproot the family,” the singer notes. “I was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital, my parents were born here and their parents were born here, so I have a lot of history here.”
That said, it just kind of makes sense that the songstress made a name for herself, with 25 years on the local scene to her credit. But knowing the ins and outs of area clubs and cafes doesn’t always mean getting the gig — or does it?
Blame it on McDibb’s
“There was some neat music stuff going on,” reminisces singer/songwriter David LaMotte of the time he moved to this area. It was 1990, big-name folkie David Wilcox was just taking off, and (now defunct) McDibb’s in Black Mountain was the place to play.
“McDibb’s gave birth to the acoustic-music scene before I was a part of it,” LaMotte notes.
Back when the folk singer was just starting to grow his trademark tresses, he was happy to land a slot playing in local restaurants where people paid more attention to their lamb chops than his lyrics. “I was tickled pink to play gigs for 40 bucks and tips,” he recalls. “Basically, if I could scare up eight or ten $75 or $100 gigs a month, I could make it.”
And, he was playing what he describes as “all the painful classics.” Yep, David LaMotte played “Margaritaville.”
“But your standards change as you go, of course,” he points out. These days, the musician claims Germany as his best market, and also plays regular tours in Australia. He spends 200 days on the road annually, and now plays only a few shows locally each year — usually at The Grey Eagle.
“I think there’s some wisdom to picking one room and really working it,” he advises. “When you get started, the rule is, play any room, anywhere, for any amount of money.”
But things are different after 15 years. “At this point in my career, I run the risk of playing locally too much,” LaMotte says. He doesn’t want people to blow off his show, assuming they’ll just catch him next weekend.
Still, the songwriter has no plans to quit calling Western North Carolina home. “It’s a great place to make art,” he enthuses, quickly adding, “it’s not a great place to make a living — but I don’t know of a great place to make a living playing original songs.
“I feel fortunate to have started when I did, on the front of this wave. I’d hate to get started now.”
Kill ’em with kindness
Americana-flavored singer/songwriter Dave Desmelik might bristle at LaMotte’s revelation — if he wasn’t such a nice guy.
The ueber-positive Desmelik put in his time at his previous digs — Flagstaff, Ariz. — playing with newgrass act Onus B. Johnson. But then he decided to move back east, closer to his Georgia roots.
“For me, it was like completely starting over,” the performer admits. “I had to get back in the trenches, [play] open-mic nights and start networking.”
But, in his year-and-a-half in town, Desmelik is already a familiar name on club rosters. He hosts a Thursday-night open mic at Ruby’s Tap House. And he’s putting together a band.
“As a solo act, it’s hard to get gigs,” the musician notes. “It’s a harder draw to get people through the doors, and a lot of bars book bands based on how many people they’ll bring in.”
Figuring out what venues want is a big part of getting a foot in the door. That, along with persistence and a good demo. Desmelik arrived in Asheville with three independently released CDs under his belt, which made it easier to put together press kits.
“Starting over, I just ask for the initial chance,” the singer/songwriter explains, adding, with his hallmark charisma, that “the scene here has embraced me.”
Actually, upbeat seems to be Desmelik’s M.O. He insists that the variety of clubs in the area promises gigs for all determined musicians — and he even shrugs off the competition factor. “I think we’ve all got to support each other,” he says.
Clark is also a big proponent of support — especially when it comes to the heavy-hitter local musicians she’s played with. She counts folk historian David Holt, gritty singer/songwriter Malcolm Holcombe and performer/producer Sam Milner among her influences, and simply raves about her current band mates.
But even with her musician father’s contacts, Clark — who plays mainly bluegrass and country covers, mixed with a few Beatles tunes — still had to pay her dues. “I was just getting started with my music in ’82/-’83,” she reminisces. “The first place I gigged was McDibb’s in Black Mountain.” She also lists the bluegrass jams at Barley’s and slots at Beanstreets as places where she began her professional career.
Today, she keeps busy playing the Paddler’s Pub, Biltmore Estate, Sweet Heaven, and the Earth Fare Cafe, plus occasional appearances at The Town Pump and Malaprop’s.
“There are a lot more places open [to play] now than there were when I got started,” Clark says. “It’s nice having more venues, because it gives all the musicians in the area a place to play,” she echoes Desmelik.
But there is a downside. “I have conversations with people who say [they’ve] just moved here and want to find places to play. It’s exciting that a lot of people are moving here — but it’s getting more crowded,” she admits.
Still, the congestion doesn’t seem to have hurt Clark’s own gig quota. She plays up to five shows a week during the summer months — and that’s all on the weekends. “You get familiar with the clubs and the people. Being born here and knowing the people, you kind of have a rapport with them,” the singer says.
She credits her current success to the loyalty of those fans and venues — plus her own steadfastness, along with lots of hard work.