Ashley Heath, W.O.R.M., Barrett Davis and Ivy Eld release new albums

INSTANT PLAYLIST: Clockwise from top left, Ashley Heath, W.O.R.M., Barrett Davis and Ivy Eld bring an eclectic mix of music to area listeners. Heath photo by Sandlin Gaither; W.O.R.M. photo by Anthonye Smith; Davis photo by Capturing WNC; Eld photo by Jacqueline Franquez

Online distribution? Someone running her merch table at shows? Well-rounded feedback on songs?

Ashley Heath could get used to this.

Such semiroyal treatment has been the norm since the blues/rock singer-songwriter signed to Organic Records earlier this year. Home to such revered regional Americana artists as Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters, Acoustic Syndicate and Aaron Burdett, the Arden-based company took notice of Heath through, well, carbon-based ways.

Currently based in Black Mountain, the Madison County native recorded her previous two albums with engineer Clay Miller and wanted to do the same for the songs that would become her latest release, Something to Believe.

“He moved out to Crossroads [Recording Studios], so I went out there, loved it and recorded the songs with [my band] in 2021,” Heath says. “And Crossroads had the label upstairs, Organic Records, and so when they heard the songs, they were like, ‘We want to talk about working with you.’”

Over the subsequent year, notes Heath, there was plenty of talk with Organic, which is one of several divisions under Crossroads Label Group. Ultimately, the musician signed on. She says the label’s family feel and understanding of the music industry gives her hope moving forward.

“They really want to put an emphasis on online distribution and radio,” she says, pointing out Organic’s success with landing some of its other artists on noteworthy Spotify and iTunes playlists.  “I don’t know how to do that, you know?”

Heath’s latest EP seems easy to pitch to such tastemakers. Though the six songs in the collection were written before the COVID-19 pandemic, and Heath has penned plenty more tunes as her musical life has largely returned to normal, she prioritized keeping the pre-lockdown creations together. In turn, listeners get a glimpse at an artist wrestling with a difficult yet ultimately transcendent time in her life.

“A lot of times, I think songwriting is therapeutic for the hard stuff — relationships and breakups and things like that,” Heath says. “[These songs] felt powerful and strong, but there’s also a sense of pain or hurt. It’s not necessarily uplifting; it’s more about getting it out.”

Heath notes that she didn’t realize her lyrics were so cathartic until she sought the help of a therapist in late 2020. Though she’s journaled since she was young, regularly consulting a mental health professional has helped unlock more of herself and better understand what she was processing while writing Something to Believe.

“I’m starting to learn so much more about myself by taking the steps to do therapy that now, as I look back on those songs, I can see what was actually going on,” Heath says. “I had no idea I was going through that. But now that I know, I don’t necessarily feel differently, but I am aware of the patterns and I’m aware of more of what I want to feel like instead of what I have felt like.”

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Allow me to reintroduce myself

With Born Legend, Brevard-based hip-hop artist (and former Xpress film critic) Anthonye Smith has established himself as one of the Asheville area’s top MCs. But while the eight tracks serve as an introduction to his talents for most of the musical world, they’re supported by a firm foundation that’s been building since his youth.

Smith released the album under the pseudonym W.O.R.M., a handle that harkens back to his days as a middle school entrepreneur, selling sports cards and candy to his classmates. Impressed by his go-getter mentality, Smith’s uncles likened him to a junior version of Big Worm, the money-collecting drug dealer from the 1995 comedy Friday, and the name stuck.

Smith later turned the nickname into its current acronym, which stands for Working on Receiving Money, but remains committed to the tenets of ’90s hip-hop in his own music. He thanks his uncle Lemmy Smith for fostering that love when the younger Smith was a preteen. The two would ride around in Lemmy’s car listening to music. His uncle’s sound system had plenty of bass, the hip-hop artist recalls, but it was equalized so that the songs’ most important element was at the forefront.

“He always had it so perfect to where it would be balanced out and you would hear every single word, and that’s why I’ve always done what I’ve done with my music,” Smith says. “I pay attention to every single word that I say. I want to make it sound exactly how it’s supposed to sound and enunciate. That came from my mom as well. She didn’t let me talk in any type of broken English at all.”

At that time, Smith notes that hip-hop was still relegated to New York City, whose MCs considered themselves far superior to those from other regions. But with the release of Atlanta-based duo Outkast’s 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Smith had an epiphany.

“Just listening to how they attack the songs — they came with it, and we hadn’t heard Southern emcees do that. So, listening to Big Boi and André [3000], it gave me a sense of self and made me proud,” Smith says. “That, UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty and [Nas’] It Was Written made me want to be a rapper.”

Citing UGK’s Pimp C as his favorite rapper, with birthday twin Nas a close second, Smith employs his heroes’ layered rhyming in his own distinct way, working in fun references to his beloved Florida Gators football team and various pop culture mentions, as well as reflections on life as a single father of two girls.

Working with beats primarily from Austin, Texas-based producer 183realchance, the album’s tracks vary from the cultural critiques of “Social Media” to the lyrically dense yet sonically pleasant “Black Samurai,” which gives even savvy listeners new delights on the fourth or fifth spin.

Though Born Legend was just released, Smith already has his sights on the next W.O.R.M. album, which he’s aiming to make exclusively with Western North Carolina talent. He’s already got a head start, connecting with Davaion “Spaceman Jones” Bristol and Larry “Po’folk” Williams over the past year, and would love to have a guest verse from a different local MC on each track.

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Honest Aesop

When Barrett Davis sings, you believe every word.

That degree of authenticity is rooted in a mountain ancestry. His great-grandfather grew up in Buncombe County during Prohibition. Meanwhile, Davis’ father, a history professor who turned to animal trapping in the 1970s to pay rent, educated the musician about the region’s past. Then there are Davis’ own experiences as a carpenter, which further taught him the value of hard work and brought him in contact with others with deep ties to the region.

All of the above come together on the Brevard-based singer/songwriter’s new album, The Ballad of Aesop Fin, which he hopes assists in the preservation of Appalachian culture while also showing support to individuals enduring the daily struggle of rural poverty.

“My personal background is the driving force behind my desire to tell the tale of modern Appalachian hardships,” Davis says. “In writing, I hope to expose the truth and to shed light on the whole story of modern Appalachia, both the good and the bad.”

The album was produced by Aaron Aiken, guitarist/vocalist of Asheville-based indie rockers Pink Beds and Davis’ former bandmate in the folk group Foxfire. The two formed Foxfire while still teenagers with Clint Roberts and JT Linville (Pretty Little Goat), all of whom have remained close while pursuing their own musical endeavors in Western North Carolina.

The Ballad of Aesop Fin additionally receives an assist on the song “Quiver” from Woody Platt, former frontman of Steep Canyon Rangers and a fellow longtime Transylvania County resident. The two met early during Davis’ time in Foxfire and reconnected a decade later through Davis’ carpentry work.

Complementing Davis’ lyrical prowess, the instrumental interplay throughout the album is likewise strong, especially on “Carolina Still,” in which Jackson Dulaney lays his lap steel over the same solo sections as Derrick Gardner’s keys.

“The combination was definitely unplanned, so Aaron used some mixing techniques and kept all the good stuff,” Davis says. “The outcome was quite pleasant, and very much representative of a Bob Ross moment.”

As for the fictional title character, Davis says Aesop Fin represents the passing of things and the coming of change.

“With respect, I try to make sure that some things stay remembered while I focus on positive change and allow a healthy amount of friction/tension for improvement in my life,” Davis says. “I wish to invoke in my listeners a very similar experience to life as a carpenter, musician and father in rural Appalachia — sensations of extreme cold, hot and humid, discomfort, pain, injuries, mistakes, drunkenness, forgiveness, mourning … wood debris in the lungs, relationship problems and the very soothing sensations of music over open wounds.”

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Scandinavian fire

Had exhaustion and burnout not driven Ivy Eld to the emergency room in 2017, she’s convinced that her self-titled debut EP wouldn’t exist.

The Minnesota native and her husband moved to Asheville in 2006, after which she enrolled in Western Carolina University’s Master of Social Work program. Though she’d played music throughout her life and written songs on and off since elementary school, her creative side became deeply buried for a good portion of her 20s and most of her 30s.

“Between being a psychotherapist, a mom and just a chronic helper-type in general — always trying to rescue others and never myself — I had lost track of my inner artist somewhere along the way,” she says. “But a decade into a career working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and not long after my second child was born, I had a wake-up call. The intensity and demands of the job were taking a toll on my little family and on my own mental and physical health.”

Following the ER visit, Eld laid the groundwork for her private psychotherapist practice and began what she calls “the reclamation of [her] creative self.” In 2018, she started writing and playing out again on guitar and keyboards and promised herself that she would finally create an album of her own.

“It took a few hard years of juggling many challenging life circumstances at once — parenting my two young kiddos, providing psychotherapy to my caseload of clients during a pandemic, my brother [Nathan Webb] getting sick and passing away in 2021, not to mention dealing with all sorts of doubts, imposter syndrome and other inner critics — but the album came to fruition this year,” she says. “That has been a lifetime dream come true. I turned 45 this year, but I feel like I’m just getting started.”

Produced by Adam McDaniel and Lawson Alderson at West Asheville’s Drop of Sun Studios, and tracked alongside drummer Kevin Rumley and multi-instrumentalist Alan Weatherhead, the EP’s five songs are deeply personal and touch on Eld’s experiences throughout the past four years.

“Blue Jay” was written after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault; “Wild North” is about releasing toxic religious, generational and societal patterns and returning to the healthy parts of her Scandinavian roots; and “Dragon’s Tail” similarly explores self-care in the form of drawing boundaries.

Likewise restorative, the album’s other two songs are now forever intertwined with the positive male influences in her life. “Horizon” is Eld’s love song for Rick Brown, her husband of 20-plus years. Meanwhile, the album’s opening track, “Magic in the Blue,” is a reflection on the healing power of art. Though she wrote it a few years before her lone sibling’s death, she now views the song as prophetic in helping her navigate the loss.

“I had written it for future me,” she says. “I don’t think I ever made it through that song in 2021 without crying. Just about every time I sat down at my piano and opened up my mouth to sing it, I would burst into tears. ‘Magic in the Blue’ was my life raft and my solace.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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