One day in 2012, Gar Ragland was visiting Asheville from Brooklyn, N.Y., meeting with a musician client who was in town from Nashville, Tenn. For 11 years, Ragland had been producing annual performances, events and songwriting competitions at Lincoln Center in New York City through an organization he created called NewSong, which aims to support and promote emerging artists. So when he heard impressive rumors about a beloved recording studio in downtown Asheville called Echo Mountain, he thought he’d swing by after lunch to see if he could take an impromptu tour.
“I rang the buzzer,” he says, “and as luck would have it, Jessica Tomasin, the studio’s manager, was there and was familiar with NewSong. She was apparently planning to reach out and talk about doing a sponsorship as a marketing opportunity for the studio, so we partnered in that way, and one thing led to another. A room became available here, and my wife and I were like, ‘Asheville? Sure!’ We moved down and we love it here. It’s been really good to us and our family.”
Despite having relocated to Asheville six years ago, working out of an office at Echo Mountain, Ragland has continued to produce NewSong’s annual Music Performance & Songwriting Competition in addition to a summertime outdoor concert series in its plaza. But this month, at long last, Ragland is officially moving the NewSong Performance & Songwriting Competition to his relatively new hometown.
The 2018 NewSong finalists will showcase and compete at Isis Music Hall on Saturday, Dec. 15, judged by Ragland; Diana Ezerins from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; Elysa Marden from Arts Brookfield in New York; and a surprise local celebrity judge. And though a winner will be chosen, Ragland says his primary focus is on offering these remarkable emerging artists connections and exposure.
“We work hard to foster a very collaborative, community-building environment,” he says. “I think being in Asheville … the culture and the environment is going to be more amenable to that and foster that community aspect of the program than [we were able to do in] New York. I think some artists are intimidated and disoriented by being there if they don’t have much familiarity with the place.”
Ragland points to a partnership he’s forged with Blue Ridge Public Radio, which will be a media sponsor of the event at Isis, and he relishes the opportunity to build more connections through Asheville Music Professionals and other local groups that are dedicated to nurturing the city’s vibrant and fast-growing music industry.
Though Ragland is careful to point out that NewSong is an international organization, working with artists and markets far beyond Western North Carolina, he’s thrilled that Asheville artists have appeared in the short list of NewSong finalists in both 2017 and 2018.
Last year, Brie Capone made a splash at Lincoln Center, and she’ll be appearing at Isis to entertain the crowd on Dec. 15 as the judges deliberate to choose their 2018 winner.
Finalists this year include local singer-songwriter Carly Taich, who also won the LEAF Festival Singer-Songwriter Competition (a partnership with NewSong) in May. She’ll be joined by Tobias the Owl of Seattle; Alice Howe, Kaiti Jones, and Liz Frame & The Kickers from the Boston area; and Alex Wong, Suzie Brown, and Mel Bryant & the Mercy Makers from Nashville.
Each of these artists will have big shoes to fill. NewSong has been instrumental in supporting emerging talent since 2001, and many of the artists it has celebrated have developed strong and notable careers.
Rose Cousins — whose last album, Natural Conclusion (2017), won a number of JUNO and East Coast Music Awards and was nominated for a Grammy — won the songwriting contest in 2007. A year earlier, the winner was Ingrid Michaelson, who has since recorded six albums, collaborated with Sara Bareilles and appeared on Broadway with Josh Groban in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Michaelson, says Ragland, “was still teaching high school in Staten Island, just starting to write her own songs” when she entered the NewSong competition. “She was a real delight to work with.”
Fans tapped into the singer-songwriter world may also recognize names such as Ana Egge (2007 finalist), Robby Hecht (2008 finalist), Rose Polenzani (2008 winner), David Berkeley (2010 finalist), Amber Rubarth (2010 winner), Rachael Kilgour (2015 winner), and Crys Matthews (2017 winner).
Though these artists have all built a name for themselves since working with NewSong, Ragland notes that the songwriting contest exists to shed light on similar artists on the rise. “We’re not working with household names that have draw power,” he says. “We’re working with emerging artists that are, in all likelihood, unknown. … But this is a wonderful platform for fans who are looking to discover truly exceptional emerging talent.”
WHAT: NewSong Music Performance & Songwriting Competition
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 15, 8 p.m. $12 advance/$15 at the door