So long and thanks for all the tunes

Figuring out his aesthetic: Brian McGee originally moved to the area to pursue wood working, but his lasting impression will be the music he leaves behind. “I thought I wanted to be a woodworker,” he recalls. “Now, I just want to play music again." Photo by Sandlin Gaither

It's been a good run for Brian McGee. 

The one-time frontman for Philadelphia-based punk band Plow United moved to WNC in the late '90s to study wood working, but it's the two albums he released here that will leave a lasting impression on the local arts scene. The first, Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed, was a string-centric, old-timey ordeal, ripe with the raw energy of McGee's earlier efforts, despite its traditional slant. His latest, The Taking or the Leaving, was centered in driving, electric Americana with roots in early rock ‘n’ roll. 

McGee is the first to acknowledge the obvious influence this region had on his artistic development. 

"It was here that I learned about all that folk music and I learned about the whole singer/songwriter scene; it was here I learned about Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt and all that. That's all definitely shaped everything."

Initially, though, his focus was entirely on the folk arts. He enrolled in three programs at Penland, Haywood Community College and the John C. Campbell Folk School, setting aside his songwriting for a time. 

"I wasn't really playing too much music then," he recalls. "I thought I wanted to be a woodworker, which I guess I have sort of turned into one after all the schooling I went to. Now, I just want to play music again."

But McGee says his experience in the arts still seeps into making music. 

"Even once I started writing songs again, between Haywood and Penland, it was a lot of figuring out what you liked and figuring out your aesthetic. It was a little like a soul-searching kind of thing. But it was cool to be like, 'What is it that defines me in this thing that I’m going to make.' And I sometimes think about that with music stuff to figure out what I like."

Now, after 11 years, McGee is saying goodbye to Asheville with a farewell performance at The Grey Eagle. The following morning, he and his wife, local artist Celia Gray, will load into a moving truck and head for New Jersey, where she will attend graduate school at Rutgers.  

While that's the end of the road for Asheville, it's far from the end of Brain McGee's story. The singer already has big plans for his future home, and there's no hint of apprehension in his voice when he discusses the future.
 
To start, McGee is reuniting with his old band, Plow United, for an appearance at Riot Fest in Philadephia. There, he'll perform alongside punk icons like The Descendants, The Dead Milkmen and X. A retrospective is in the works as well, and the band has already been discussing plans for a new record. But don't expect McGee to check his Appalachian influences at the Mason-Dixon. 

"I think we were on the same page thinking the next Plow record might be like a faster louder CCR," he says. "So it's probably not going to be a lot of screaming like I used to do. And we're all in different places, so the topics will all be different."

He's also thinking ahead to his solo work and toying with the idea of a stripped-down acoustic EP. In addition to the appearance at Riot Fest, next month he's scheduled to open a "huge show" at the Bowery Ballroom for The Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon.

"That's going to be the second biggest show I've ever played, with the first being this Riot Fest Plow United reunion. September is going to be action packed. It's going to be f—-ing crazy."

Obviously, McGee has a lot to be excited about. North Carolina has been good to the singer/songwriter, but the certainty in his voice says it all. 

"With as big a pain in the ass all of this is, I feel like my mind is already in Jersey."

— Dane Smith can be reached at dsmith@mountainx.com.

what: Brian McGee farewell show with Electric Owls and PJ Bond
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Aug. 20, 9 p.m. $8/$10

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