Although Bristol, Tenn. is the official, U.S. Congress-sanctioned birthplace of country music, the Asheville area certainly helped in the fomenting of the genre. Lesley “Esley” Riddle, an African-American musician who was born in Burnsville, went on to influence the Carter Family’s sound. And early in his career, Jimmie Rodgers, aka the “Singing Brakeman” and (perhaps more important) the “Father of Country Music” traveled to Asheville in 1927. Here, he and Otis Kuykendall performed on WWNC, the city’s first radio station. A historical marker on Haywood Street commemorates Rodgers’ connection to Asheville.
That was most of 100 years ago, and, while Asheville has never been a country music destination like our rhymingly named neighbor in Tennessee, Western North Carolina’s rich heritage of Appalachian ballads and old-time music blended with bluegrass, folk and Americana to create a distinctive take on the country genre. For years — decades — that’s been most apparent in alt-country sounds, like honky-tonk and outlaw country. More recently, bands like The Honeycutters and Hearts Gone South have reinvigorated a love of classic country’s twang, song craft, earnestness and grit.
But even as more venues offer country nights and embrace two-steps and cakewalks, mainstream country music — the songs played on Top 40 country radio and celebrated at the annual Country Music Awards show — has gotten away from pearl snaps, 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots. And the singles climbing the charts have more in common with 1980s and ’90s rock (electric-guitar solos, shoutouts to metal bands) than with Patsy Cline or George Jones. Is there a place for this latest rock-and-pop iteration of country among local venues and music fans? A number of local artists currently working in that genre say yes.
The new Southern rock
“Country music in Asheville is becoming a thing now, and that’s awesome,” says Joe Lasher Jr. The Weaverville native got his start at 16 and now, at 19, splits his time between WNC and Nashville, where he writes songs. “In Nashville, it’s country and rock in every music venue. Asheville is very unique in its music. It’s made me appreciate all music more, and it shows me I can play country music, but if I want to do something with a little more edge, it’s accepted in Asheville.”
Lasher recently recorded a new EP, Jack to Jesus, at Sound Stage Studios in Nashville. He’ll release it with a local show on Friday, March 18, at The Orange Peel.
Also putting out new music, Jody Medford — an Enka High School alumnus — holds the launch party for his single, “Moonshine,” on Saturday, March 12, at Highland Brewing Co. The show features Kimo Forrest of Southern rock outfit Alabama.
Medford released his single “Southern Born Southern Bred” through Heartland Records last year. “A lot of my friends who are in other bands played on this song with me,” he says. The track, recorded with the band Cash Creek, includes Taylor Swift’s guitarist, Jody Harris, and fiddle player Steve Stokes, who toured with Trace Adkins. The same group, along with Forrest, teamed up for “Moonshine.” That song pays tribute to Maggie Valley’s Popcorn Sutton and even features the late moonshiner’s still.
Medford got his start singing gospel music before going into theme park work. Even in his high school chorus, he had a low voice for his age — an attribute that’s come to define his style as a country artist. “I don’t think there’s ever been a bass vocal that’s [got] more of a rockin’ edge,” Medford says. But “country is Southern rock now. It’s more like a Lynyrd Skynyrd/Molly Hatchet kind of thing.”
That new direction in Top 40 country music also dovetails with Lasher’s tastes. The musician’s press photos over the past couple of years have transitioned from faded denim, wide-brimmed hats and an oversized belt buckle — the calling cards of country artists past — to a sleek leather moto jacket and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. “Joe is modern, contemporary country, which in my opinion is heavily influenced by ’90s rock,” says Lasher’s father and manager, Joe Lasher Sr. “Today’s country music is much broader and encompasses a wide spectrum of influences.” For proof, you need look no further than the 2013 CMA Awards when Foo Fighters’ drummer Dave Grohl sat in with the Zac Brown Band — which recorded Grammy-winning album Uncaged at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios — or last year’s award show when Justin Timberlake joined Chris Stapleton onstage. (Stapleton, for what it’s worth, did wear a cowboy hat.)
A little help from their friends
When the younger Lasher set out to track Jack to Jesus, he brought in producer Jeremy Stover, who’s worked with the likes of Justin Moore and Jack Ingram (as well as producing Nashville Outlaws’ A Tribute to Mötley Crüe). “He put some strong brainpower into it,” Lasher says of Stover’s impact on the EP. “It helped me be country, because I’m a country guy, but I love ’80s and ’90s rock. I found the best songs and produced them the best way, to where it really expresses who I am.”
He adds, “It’s hard to know what’s next. That’s when having somebody like Jeremy Stover as my producer comes in handy. [He’s] in Nashville all the time, and [he’s] the heartbeat of the music. Behind-the-scenes producers are the ones who make the music sound how it does.”
Hendersonville-based brothers Jantzen and Dillon Wray — together known as country-rock duo Carolina Wray — also worked with a producer to hone their sound. It was Ace Enders of Living Room Recording in Hammonton, N.J., who encouraged the Wrays to move beyond their Americana comfort zone. “We had a song written, and he loved it [but said], ‘Let’s try something crazy … take the same song and push the sound in a country direction,’” says Jantzen. Through Enders, the Wrays secured a production deal for about a year.
Before Carolina Wray, Jantzen and Dillon formed Old North State, an acoustic group in the vein of Mumford & Sons. Following their name change, the brothers released two EPs with a distinctly pop-country sound. But the Wrays’ pendulum continues to swing — this time toward the music of their youth. “A lot of country these days has a lot of influence from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen,” says Jantzen. “That’s stuff we grew up on. For me and Dillon, I can say Tom Petty is probably one of the biggest musical influences on us.”
He adds, “Once we drew that conclusion, we naturally started writing more in that direction.” “Drink,” one of Carolina Wray’s new tracks, delivers a percussive uppercut and a bellow of electric guitars. The lyric, “All I need is to get next to you,” is a raw-throated howl, hot on the heels of a Joan Jett-reminiscent first minute. What’s country is the hard-working, hard-playing, blue-collar nod in the lyric, “So get me a drink, it’s been a hell of a week.” It’s a sentiment pervasive among artists like Chris Janson and Luke Bryan.
Jantzen and Dillon’s previous lineup included acoustic guitar, banjo and kick drum. “As songwriters, we wanted to go somewhere bigger that we couldn’t achieve in that instrumentation,” Jantzen says. “I actually play electric guitar all the time now, and Dillon plays drums. We kind of switched instrumentation.”
But it’s not a complete departure. “We enjoyed doing the full-on pop-country stuff, but we’re taking what we learned with that and trying to inject it with the honesty of the music we did with Old North State,” Jantzen says. “It’s just now finding a happy medium.” On Thursday, April 7, Carolina Wray will release Barn Party. The new album takes its name from an Old North State side project.
Jantzen adds, “No matter what we do, genre-wise, we always have our own variation of it that just happens naturally.”
The same is true for musician Chad Mackey, who’s done some songwriting with Carolina Wray. But while Mackey continues to hone his style in contemporary country music, the North Buncombe High School graduate has also found ways to craft the work of being a musician to suit his lifestyle. “I started out playing solo for a few years, then decided to form a band around my music when I moved to Charlotte for college,” he says. For six years, he performed with his eponymous group until he and his wife had children. “At that point, it got to be hard to fit touring and artist promotion into my family life. I decided just to pursue music as a songwriter only because that’s what I really love to do at the core of it all.”
Mackey grew up listening to artists like Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, “who all have had great storytelling songs,” he says. “Today, I’m still attracted to country music for the same storytelling aspect of it. … There are still really well-written songs out there that have ruled country charts in recent years, like ‘I Drive Your Truck’ and ‘The House That Built Me.’ Songs like that speak to people and will always exist in country music, and that’s what makes it so great.”
Mackey says that song ideas come in a number of different ways, from overheard phrases to movie scenes to takeaways from conversations. “I’ve written several songs that have been fully or partially inspired by Asheville,” he says. A favorite, “Small Town Carolina,” is about how Mackey once dreamed of leaving the area, “but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how happy I am here. It also references things like street musicians, Lexington Avenue, hippies, etc.”
He continues, “In Western North Carolina, inspiration to write great country songs is all around you. You just have to recognize it.” Case in point, massive country hit “Cruise,” performed by the band Florida Georgia Line, was co-written by Asheville native Chase Rice. Still, Mackey makes frequent trips to Nashville to pen songs with his friend Michael Aurand. Because it’s a long drive, their collaboration also includes Skype sessions; and at least one song, “What Meets The Eye,” was composed over a couple of weeks’ worth of text messages.
Nashville or not
Medford is also familiar with regular treks to Tennessee, though for now he plans to stay in WNC. “I’ve been advised by a lot of people that I need to move to Nashville,” he says. “But I’ve watched friends who are mega-talented — studio musicians, and one who tours with Jack White — who’ve been breaking their necks and have never got one offer.”
He adds, “I’d rather not make it and not starve to death.”
For artists, relocation makes sense. Rainey Qualley, the daughter of actress Andie MacDowell, was born in Asheville but made the move to Nashville to pursue songwriting. Her first performance on the Grand Ole Opry stage was documented in the Country Deep channel feature, “My Opry Debut,” and she’s opened for Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams Jr. Qualley was at work on an album and unable speak to Xpress at press time.
But Medford believes that marketing is more important than location, as is hard work and making connections. A radio station tour for “Southern Born Southern Bred” resulted in airplay for the single and gave Medford allies at stations in Oklahoma, Kansas and other far-flung locales. Those DJs are now primed to spin his next release, he says. It was groundwork well-laid, as Medford says he’s never been as excited to release a song as he is about his new track, “Moonshine.”
It does seem like the stars — both astronomy- and celebrity-wise — are aligning for Medford. Not only has he attracted the support of high-profile musicians, but is also lining up opening slots on tour with established bands and is working on music for a forthcoming reality TV show (he’s slated to appear on numerous episodes, too).
Lasher, meanwhile, is also poised for his next move. “We lit the fuse. Now we’re just waiting for it to explode,” he says. After the release of Jack to Jesus, he’ll tour the Southeast and continue with his writing trips to Music City. And while he hasn’t sold a song yet, “I’m open for anything — I just like to be involved.”
But even as Lasher looks forward to paying the bills with his music, he’s not in a hurry to move away from WNC. On one hand, he’s already played with Tim McGraw and Montgomery Gentry. And Weaverville, where he grew up and still lives with his parents, “is pretty country,” he says. “I got my country from where I live. … Everywhere I go, I say I’m from Asheville. I’m proud of this place.”
WHO: Jody Medford & The Boys with Kimo Forrest and Cash Creek
WHERE: Highland Brewing Co., 12 Old Charlotte Highway. highlandbrewing.com
WHEN: Saturday, March 12, 9 p.m. $8
WHO: Joe Lasher Jr. with Outshyne and Devils in Dust
WHERE: The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave. theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Friday, March 18, 7:30 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show