Beer and bluegrass would probably make a happy marriage anywhere, but here in Asheville, it’s an effortlessly joyful union, maintains Barley’s Taproom co-owner Doug Beatty — the proud sponsor of the second annual Brewgrass Festival.
“Asheville is an oasis in a conservative desert,” he proclaims, pointing out that the only other beer festival in North Carolina is four hours away, in Durham. “We wanted something that would make us unique among beer festivals and showcase what Asheville is all about.”
Our local oasis promises to be especially refreshing on Sept. 19, when 130 different beers from 35 Southeastern microbreweries — accompanied by big-name musical acts like Norman Blake and Bad Livers — will be on tap at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. This year’s event is expected to draw an even more diverse crowd than last year’s festival. And that’s saying something, claims Beatty.
“We were really surprised by the wide cross-section of people that came out last year,” he notes. “It wasn’t just yuppies or white guys or whatever.”
Apparently, there’s something about unusual beer flavors that unites divergent segments of society.
“People are still talking about the pumpkin- and blueberry-flavored beers,” he boasts.
But it’s the beefed-up music — featuring big-name national acts — that Beatty hopes will dazzle this year’s festivalgoers.
“We want to turn this into a major bluegrass festival, not just a beer event,” he declares, noting that three acoustic stages will keep things hopping. “You can wander up to different bands, and they won’t be playing all over each other,” he explains.
This will also be an environmentally sound event: Instead of using innumerable cups, each festivalgoer will receive a glass at the gate that he or she will be required to hang onto the entire time, Beatty explains. Brewery representatives will dispense a two-ounce pour of every brand you choose — and don’t worry if you’d rather gobble raw pumpkin guts than drink pumpkin-flavored beer.
“We guarantee you’ll find something you’ll like,” he asserts.
What Beatty won’t disclose, though, is the music schedule. In fact, he crows, individual show times for the Brewgrass Festival are Asheville’s best-kept secret.
“If we post what time Norman Blake or Bad Livers are going to play, then everyone might come at once,” Beatty frets, adding, “The best part [about planning the event] was asking Bad Livers if they wanted to do a beer festival. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
But a recent phone interview with Bad Livers chief singer and songwriter Danny Barnes revealed a man with more on his mind than blueberry brew. He reflected on a career that has spanned six-plus years and seven countries, and whose music has spawned a bevy of bizarre monikers ranging from the dumb (“cowpunk”) to the delicious (it’s hard not to smile at “y’all-ternative”).
But be forewarned that Barnes has never taken kindly to any of these indulgently issued labels.
“The [attempted categorization] of the band is as difficult a thing, philosophically, as we’ve had to deal with,” he says earnestly. “My vision for music comes to me from some God-given thing, something that keeps me up at night. It just shows up in my brain. We’re not a country-rock band; we’re not a reggae band; we’re not a ska band; we’re not a blues band. If you’re a blues band, you have labels and clubs already set up just for you. But I don’t make my music so I can sell it — it’s just what it is.”
Lately, Barnes confides, the music has been arriving (“complete songs at once,” he marvels) so fast and furiously that his wife keeps him stocked with blank music sheets wherever he goes. The Livers’ latest CD, Industry and Thrift (Sugar Hill, 1998), includes some definite surprises — like the addition of drums — but then, Bad Livers has never been a band to stagnate.
“Someone said our shtick is that we don’t have a shtick,” he recalls with a laugh.
Most Livers albums have retained traditional bluegrass elements — the fiddle; the banjo; the rattling, desolate vocals — but whether the songs are played at breakneck speed (the group has been described as “the only bluegrass band with a mosh pit”) or as reined-in, mournful elegies, the Livers’ renegade bluegrass has always found a cozy home among the band’s eclectic legion of fans.
“We’re making music that cuts across a lot of boundaries,” Barnes admits. “We get so many different kinds of people, it’s amazing. We really have a cult audience, and they’re fairly fanatical.”
The group’s wild range of backgrounds — Mark Rubin, the former trio’s other remaining member (string bass, tuba, vocals), is a former road manager for several punk bands — has contributed greatly to their defiantly noncohesive audience. In fact, before transferring to their current blues-friendly label, Sugar Hill, they were the odd men out on Touch and Go — which has hosted such punk luminaries as The Jesus Lizard.
“The owner of Touch and Go once told me that he had been putting out records for years, and we were the first band he [recorded that he] could play for his parents,” the singer relates. “It’s totally amazing, when you think of the kind of music that’s being made in America today, that so many different people would be into your [sound]. It’s a serendipitous thing.”
But touring, muses Barnes, has been both bane and bread to the band.
“There have been both moments of hell and moments of beauty in it,” is his romantic summation.
“It’s amazing that we’re still here,” he adds quietly. “Most bands that have been around as long as we have have either made a pile of money or quit. Pure artistic expression is hard to sell. When you buy a Pepsi, you know what it’s going to be [like] before you get there — how big the can is, how much it costs, what it tastes like. My music challenges people more than that. It’s not really what they expect. Sometimes you have to drag people kicking and screaming to what you’re doing.”
Does that include attendees at, say, a microbrewery soiree?
“We’ve done a few beer festivals,” he says, before recalling some perhaps even fonder memories: “We’ve also played places that weren’t beer festivals to begin with that turned out to be beer festivals.”