LA Story: Former Ashevilleans grow their careers in California

STAR TRACK: From roles on "The Newsroom," "Homeland" and Twelve Years a Slave to a new part in "Gotham," Asheville High alumnus Chris Chalk is experiencing success in Los Angeles. "Find what you love doing, and the money will come," he says. "I have to remind myself to remain available for surprise." Photo by Jenny Tunberg

Asheville is more than just an address. Constantly changing, often inspiring and sometimes maddening, it’s played a role in the lives of some acclaimed artists (Bela Bartok, F. Scott Fitzgerald), while others (Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry) couldn’t seem to get away soon enough. And though those names date back to the 20th century, this mountain town continues to attract and foster creative types. But just because they get started here doesn’t mean Asheville is the right place for every artist to remain.

So where do you go when you aspire to more than Western North Carolina can offer? For these four former Ashevilleans, the answer was Los Angeles.

Weather or not

What does LA have that Asheville doesn’t? Jobs and consistent sunshine top the list, and though those whom Xpress polled moved west for the former, the latter aspect has definitely had a hand in keeping them there. “Think about who you are as a human being and decide where you want to place that self,” advises actor Chris Chalk. New York, Chicago and Atlanta all have their own acting scenes, each offering advantages that might speak to particular personality types, he says. “So if you hate the sun, don’t come to LA.”

Chalk, who grew up in Asheville, was settled in New York when a job — the role of Gary Cooper in the HBO series “The Newsroom” — brought him to California. “I thought I would never, ever, ever come to Los Angeles,” he says. “I had that pretentious New York actor thing going, like, ‘I’m a hustler.’ … I got here, and now there’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather be.”

CALIFORNIA DREAMING: Truth & Salvage Co., around the time of the band's 2010 self-titled debut. KInnebrew is in the center, with a headband and beard.
CALIFORNIA DREAMING: Truth & Salvage Co., around the time of the band’s 2010 self-titled debut. Scott Kinnebrew is in the center, with a headband and beard. Photo by Tony Byrd

Scott Kinnebrew had a similar realization. He was based in Asheville when a friend in California asked his band to play her wedding. Kinnebrew drove cross-country for the gig, planning to stick around afterward just to check out the city. “But as soon as I got here, I felt it,” he says. “I was walking down the street thinking, ‘Maybe I want to give it a little bit longer.’” That was nearly 10 years ago.

“You do get used to weather,” says Kinnebrew. “You think, ‘I want some weather. I want some thunderstorms … but I don’t want it to rain for too long.’” Not that a steady supply of vitamin D is solely responsible for his lengthy tenure there. Kinnebrew felt he’d hit a wall in Asheville with the swamp-tinged Americana act Scrappy Hamilton; LA offered opportunities to expand the band’s horizons.

First came the album Once or Twice Every Thousand Years, the group’s poppier turn. After that, a songwriter circle at Crane’s Hollywood Tavern birthed the short-lived Denim Family Band, followed soon after by Truth & Salvage Co. A roots-rock group that included Kinnebrew and fellow former Ashevilleans Walker Young, Bill “Smitty” Smith and Joe Edel, Truth & Salvage caught the attention of Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, who recorded their debut on his Silver Arrow label. “Came here on a different train / Saw everybody in the smoggy rain, and well / Hollywood, never thought would appeal to me. … We’re singin’ with angels / late-night dancing with the devil / whatever you want to find, you will find,” they sing on the track “Welcome to L.A.”

All in a day’s work

Song fodder aside, career moves are clearly a key part of LA’s allure — though it’s not always a case of fame and fortune. Simple numbers help tell the story: As of 2007, the city was home to nearly half a million businesses, compared with 12,773 for Asheville, census data show. “I already had opportunities for contract work, working on productions out here,” says Bradan Dotson, a production assistant and associate producer of music videos. Those jobs came through a buddy who was based in LA.

Dotson’s transition was further eased by his position as director of digital media at Creative Allies, an Asheville startup whose employees are now scattered across the U.S. And making the move with his girlfriend and his brother gave Dotson a built-in support system. (Bradan and Parker Dotson both play in the indie-rock band Antique Firearms.)

“We moved out of Asheville so there wouldn’t be any woulda-coulda-shouldas for us,” says Dotson. “And I’ve always wanted to live in a major city.” As of 2013, the Census Bureau pegged Asheville’s population at 87,236; Los Angeles, meanwhile, was approaching 4 million.

Photographer Maggie West left Asheville for the West Coast six years ago, though she wasn’t sure she’d make a living with her camera. “Part of the reason I moved to LA is because of the variety of jobs within the entertainment industry,” she says. “I was initially really interested in production design and ended up doing some work in that field before becoming a full-time photographer.”

These days, West primarily works on fashion and beauty shoots, doing some celebrity and music portraiture on the side. She’s shot ads for Ford, Dr Pepper and Budweiser and counts Spike Lee, Pharrell Williams, Common and other celebs among her clientele. “I wanted to move someplace where I could grow as an artist,” she says. “While I love Asheville, I just wanted to be in a city where there were more work opportunities and other artists to collaborate with. One of the best things about doing what I do in LA is that I regularly get to work with models, stylists and makeup artists from all over the world.”

And in a city that presents opportunities for people willing to hustle and work their way up, West advises those looking to get ahead to “intern and assist for free. The people who do that a lot tend to meet way more cool people and can eventually get better-paid assisting jobs.”

For Chalk, experience and perseverance paid off. “Being a black dude — any minority — it can get really nonspecific,” he says about the film and TV roles he’s encountered. “I look for anything that lends itself to a full-rounded human being.” Last month the actor announced that he’d be appearing as a young Lucius Fox in the DC Comics-themed TV series “Gotham.”

WESTWARD EXPANSION: Maggie West left Asheville to explore her options. She was interested in production design and ended up doing some work in that field before becoming a full-time photographer. Her client list in LA includes Empire of the Sun and Wolfgang Gartner among others, and she has an art book coming out in June.
WESTWARD EXPANSION: Maggie West left Asheville to explore her options. She was interested in production design and ended up doing some work in that field before becoming a full-time photographer. Her client list in LA includes Empire of the Sun and Wolfgang Gartner among others, and she has an art book coming out in June. Photo by Anna West

What dreams may come

But while Chalk relocated to LA mainly to further his artistic aspirations, for Dotson, it was more of a mix of career opportunities.  Antique Firearms is currently writing and recording its third album, though the move meant the loss of two band members who chose to stay in Asheville. “It’s a step back to basics,” the musician says. “We’re getting back to a more experimental tone. We’re trying to make songs that are unique and cultivating our own sound.”

The good news is that longtime collaborator and producer Will Worthington has agreed to settle in Southern California. “The game plan is that it will be the three of us in a recording and live setting, with looping and all of us playing multiple instruments,” says Dotson. Speaking of his brother and Worthington, he adds, “When the three of us are together, that’s when the magic happens.” [Editor’s note: Since the writing of the story, Parker has returned to Asheville, and Bradan reports that he will be recording a non-Antique Firearms album.]

But Kinnebrew offers a darker perspective. “You give it a shot, and you end up doing a combination of what you thought you were going to do and something else,” he says. Like Dotson, Kinnebrew has been finding plenty of contract work. The short-term jobs sometimes come with grueling hours, but they make it possible for a touring musician to make extra money as needed without committing to a 9-to-5 schedule. Contract work can be lucrative, too, but after a decade, Kinnebrew wonders how much longer the lifestyle will fit his needs.

On the bright side, he points out, “My vision of music has changed so much. I had to step up my game. I’ve accomplished more than I even thought I could or would.” And since Truth & Salvage Co. is touring less these days, Kinnebrew has found time for his own projects (such as Scott Kinnebrew & the Bad Squirrels), as well as working with other musicians. “I never thought I’d be producing a record. I never really even understood what that meant before moving to Los Angeles,” he says.

The shady side of the street

There are trade-offs, of course, starting with sunburn, celebrity overload and traffic. Among the people Xpress spoke to, though, the latter was less of an issue than parking (“Most people don’t realize there’s a subway,” says Dotson). “Parking tickets,” says West, “are a million dollars each, and you will get them if you even glance at a sign the wrong way. When you get one of these, which you definitely will, pay it immediately! If not, it keeps growing until it’s the cost of a month’s rent. It’s a nightmare.”

It’s not just those tickets that add up, either. West counsels anyone thinking about making the move to start saving money. “Everything is way more expensive here, and it can take forever to get a job,” she says. “When I moved to LA, I pretty much didn’t know anyone. The first few months were pretty difficult, but I eventually made friends with some really amazing people that I am still really close with today.”

And then there’s LA’s plasticky reputation. “People think it’s pretentious, cranking the American machine,” says Dotson. “There is a lot of that, but that’s kind of the industry here, and it has been for a long time.” And while that’s not what he’s into, Dotson says it wasn’t unexpected, adding, “There are a lot worse problems to have than over-glamorousness.”

Still, it’s not for everyone. And in fact, plenty of current Asheville residents have made the opposite move. Local comedian Tom Chalmers launched his “Listen to This” series at the Sacred Fools Theater Company in LA. Musician and composer Lenny Pettinelli grew up in Los Angeles, influenced by the city’s conscious hip-hop scene before relocating to Asheville, where he started his VOV (Vibration of Versatility) recording project. Diamond Thieves tattoo artist Sam Garrett is originally from LA; musician and filmmaker Ben Lovett — a Georgia native — also left Hollywood for Asheville.

Kinnebrew, though, seems to be on the fence. “You can’t see yourself here forever,” he says. “But the longer you’re here, the fewer connections you have in other places.” On the other hand, spending more time in Los Angeles can mean forging more connections within that vibrant scene.

It’s worked for Chalk, who’s only seen his star rise. From pre-LA theater roles to parts in major motion pictures like Twelve Years a Slave, the experience has proved positive: “Any way you get to do your art is pretty dope,” he says. “The plan is stay: I got furniture.”

And then there are the tacos. Dotson, who’s been scouting LA’s tortilla-wrapped treats, says his favorites come from a place in Los Feliz. But ask West what she misses most about Asheville and she names her parents, her sister … and Mamacita’s burritos.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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