“We like to be tight, but we also try to stay loose, if that makes any kind of sense,” explains local singer/songwriter Dave Desmelik.
This isn’t a Zen koan — a mind puzzle like “what is the sound of one hand clapping,” meant to hasten one’s progress toward enlightenment — it’s Desmelik’s philosophy of gigging with his band, the refreshingly named Hillbilly Cadavers.
Since the musician relocated to Asheville three or so years ago, he’s infiltrated the local music scene, put in his time at the open mics (including hosting one at Ruby’s Tap House), networked, played pretty much every venue that would have him, put together a trio that allows him access to larger clubs (try pulling off the Orange Peel as a solo acoustic act), and now is embarking on the next phase of his plan for world domination.
Tao, reveals the American Heritage Dictionary, is “the basic, eternal principle of the universe that transcends reality and is the source of being, non-being, and change.”
Americana music is sort of like that. “[It’s] a big umbrella of folk, roots and singer/songwriter,” Desmelik offers. “I get people all the time [who ask], ‘What do you play?'”
He acts out the rest of the conversation. It goes, Desmelik: “Americana.”
Fan: “What is that?”
Desmelik: “It’s kind of just rock with a twang.”
Some artists huddled under that umbrella might just be embellishing rock with subdued tempos and countrified vocals, but Desmelik brings more to the mic. His voice is warm and mellow without edging into adult-contemporary territory; his melodies are infused with expansive steel-guitar riffs, plaintive harmonica and steady rhythms; and his lyrics point to the romantic buried within the mundane.
“Anyone who likes to listen to song lyrics, they’ll be able to listen to my songs and find something they can relate to,” he says. “I just write what I feel, whether that’s my personal experience or looking through someone else’s eyes.”
And it’s worked so well that not only is Desmelik beginning to tour outside of Western North Carolina, he’s gaining a following in Europe.
Last autumn, Desmelik released his fourth independent CD, When Your Eyes Are Closed. The disc climbed to number 12 on the Freeform American Roots Chart in December and to the number-6 slot on the Euro Americana chart in January of this year.
“I was pleasantly surprised to find it got some good play in Europe,” the musician notes — though that positive response was hardly coincidental. Desmelik sent 50 albums to overseas radio stations, pointing out that Europeans “love their Americana.”
At the same time, the performer, in his trademark laidback style, muses, “The life of an album on the radio can come and go pretty quickly.” So, while he’d like to play for his fans across the Atlantic at some point, he’s hardly mapping out a world tour. In fact, Desmelik isn’t even planning to go as far as New York City.
“For me, I don’t need to go up to New York,” he says. “Sure, there’s the chance there’s some bigwig sitting in a bar in New York who can sign you to a contract, but I’ve been doing this too long to fool myself.”
Originally from Georgia, the musician gained some notoriety in Flagstaff, Ariz., playing with newgrass outfit Onus B. Johnson. That band actually played a co-bill with the quickly swelling surfer-songwriter Jack Johnson.
“That was about six months before he exploded,” Desmelik recalls. “I’m not even sure why they paired us with him.”
The real thing
There’s a Zen saying that goes, “Make haste slowly.”
There’s a Dave Desmelik saying that goes, “I don’t want to be a rock star, I just want to be able to make a living like anybody else.”
His five-year plan is pretty simple: He wants to continue making albums, including, possibly, an all-instrumental disc. He wants to keep playing live, but isn’t interested in pressuring himself to open for Jeff Tweedy at Thomas Wolfe. “I’m just trying to find a happy medium,” he maintains.
The Hillbilly Cadavers (Josh Gibbs on bass, Richard Foulk on drums and occasional help from guitar-slinger Mars Farris) are hitting the road, playing Boone, Charlotte, Atlanta and Chattanooga — but Desmelik (who claims he’s “suffering from a happy marriage”) isn’t interested in living on a tour van.
Currently a substitute elementary-school teacher (further cementing his nice-guy status), the songwriter counts students and their parents among his fans — as well as his fellow musicians. Asked what he’s listening to for inspiration, Desmelik lists friends and other folk artists.
“I do a lot of CD trade with musicians I open for or meet along the way.”
As for his own performance? “I’m not doing this to get glamor and status,” Desmelik insists. “If people come to see a show, they’ll get the real thing.”
Dave Desmelik and the Hillbilly Cadavers play Bele Chere on Sunday, July 30. Look for them at the Rock n’ Kiss Stage on Coxe Avenue at 12:30 p.m.