While Bele Chere is in full effect, locals are faced with a conundrum that is uniquely Asheville: whether to enter the horde, wandering through the city streets among the shirtless masses, or to strike out and seek entertainment from acts other than Bele Chere’s typical parade of has-beens and never-weres.
Enter Chastity Brown.
Born just outside of Memphis and now residing in Minneapolis, Brown combines the best parts of her two hometowns’ musical legacies—the soulful gospel of Graceland-ville with the grittier roots of the place that produced Prince.
“I draw from [it all],” says Brown. She says she never quite realized what she sounded like “until people told me that I sound like other artists. I mostly just try to do what I feel, and that’s how it turns out.”
What people hear is Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Tracy Chapman—a potent blend of folk and contemporary soul. While the comparisons to other artists are something Brown admits is inevitable, she remains wary of being pigeonholed.
“I would like to think that I’m doing something new, and I’m doing something that’s fresh.”
Built around Brown’s voice, which can swiftly rise from a mellow croon to a powerful wail, her band The Sound—including percussionist Michael X. Johnson and bassist Don Strong—helps her secure that advantage. These songs are too intimate to be dance numbers, but with enough backbeat to make audiences at least sit up and take note.
“What they can do as a unit is so bad-assed that I want to keep that as the core,” she explains. “I could play with a bigger group”—and she has—“but I prefer to start smaller.”
Brown claims that she “wants to resonate with the people around me.” This seemingly modest goal may arise from her background in the church. Her life story reads much like the stories of other soul singers: the struggle to find oneself in the world, the struggle to find the balance between the rural and the urban, the struggle between the strength of her spiritual side and the weakness of the flesh. A brief flirtation with being a music minister after high school started Brown down the road to writing her own songs and becoming a musician, even though performing live is relatively new to her.
“I’ve been playing since I was a kid, but I’ve [only] been playing live for five years … in the beginning I never thought about sharing my songs with anyone,” she says.
Now she does—and the result is her newest CD, Do the Best You Can, which chronicles Brown’s journey in reconciling the church and her state of being. The music, according to Brown, is the key.
“[It’s] always a very sacred time,” she says in her bio. “It’s still a devotion. I’m not trying to separate my two worlds anymore.”
And so while some Bele Chere headliners play on their laurels for a fee, across town a rising talent gives it up gratis. Really, the choice isn’t Chastity Brown’s.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
Chastity Brown and The Sound play Westville Pub (777 Haywood Road) at 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 28. No cover. 225-9782. Also, listen to Brown on Virato Live, radio station 88O AM, at 11 a.m. Saturday.