On a sunny Monday afternoon at Catawba Brewing Co., the bar is comfortably abuzz with patrons eager for a glass of the brewery’s seasonal Peanut Butter Jelly Time brown ale. But under the ferns and palms in the back corner, tucked beside the gleaming silver tanks that make the springtime favorite, is a group more interested in jam — the Musicians in the Round open mic and jam session, that is.
This month, the weekly gathering of Asheville-area artists marks its third year at Catawba’s South Slope location. The event has hosted hundreds of performances (including a harmonica cover of “Wagon Wheel” by vice presidential hopeful Tim Kaine last August) and theme nights ranging from hair metal to cheesy love songs. To celebrate the anniversary, however, organizer Jon Edwards is returning Musicians in the Round to its roots: Every Monday in May is devoted to songs written within 60 miles of Asheville.
“I wanted the theme to kick us into high gear and showcase the amazing talent we have in this area,” says Edwards. “From greats like [Aaron] Woody Wood, who have been doing it forever, to newcomers like Ashley Heath and Jordan Okrend, the singer-songwriters around town are just fantastic.”
The local theme is also a way for Musicians in the Round to highlight its role in the development of Asheville’s music culture. At least four gigging bands have emerged from the jam, and solo songwriters have also found inspiration in the regular sharing of music. Edwards gives the example of Richard J. Gibson: “A year and a half ago, he wasn’t writing any songs,” Edwards says. “He’s been here every single week since then, and he’s written close to 50 tunes.”
Scooter Haywood, who formed the outlaw country group Scooter Haywood and the Repeat Offenders at Musicians in the Round, credits the event’s friendly atmosphere as key to inspiring creativity. “You end up inviting someone to play a song with you — next thing you know, you’re having beers and talking about what you want to do next,” he says. Those spontaneous, low-key performances made it easy for Haywood to find band members and develop new material.
In agreement is Kyley Byrd, whose folk-inspired band Byrdie & The Mutts also arose from the open mic. “I might play the same song with three different people on three different nights here, and each time it sounds completely different,” she says. “It gives you the chance to throw new ingredients in the blender and find these tasty little recipes.” Byrd even learned a new instrument, the ukulele, to jam more easily and sing with other players.
With this atmosphere of collaboration, it’s not surprising that many of the regulars at Musicians in the Round plan to perform the songs of their peers during the May theme month. Byrd says she’ll cover a tune by Gibson, while Haywood mentions the works of Logan Mason and Dave Desmelik as possibilities.
But including songs withing a 60-mile radius of the local theme also allows performers to explore music beyond the current Asheville singer-songwriter community. Regular attendee Steve Ensley says that many historically important country and bluegrass artists have strong connections to the area. “One person a lot of people don’t know is Billy Edd Wheeler,” says Ensley. “He grew up in Kentucky, but he went to school at Warren Wilson [College], married the college president’s daughter and stayed in Swannanoa ever since.” Wheeler’s credits include the Johnny Cash hit “Jackson,” the Elvis Presley single “It’s Midnight,” and the Kenny Rogers classic “Coward of the County.”
Beyond Wheeler and his extensive discography, Ensley mentions Warren Haynes, the Asheville-born guitarist of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, as well as bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs, whose first radio performance was with the Old Fort-based Morris Brothers on WWNC. “I don’t write music — I can’t write a check,” laughs Ensley. “But my hat’s off to these people and the roots of music here.”
Whether old or new, local music brings people together at Musicians in the Round. “The jam gives us an opportunity to play each other’s music and learn from each other,” says Byrd. “It’s the right vibe to keep growing and evolving as musicians.”
WHAT: Musicians in the Round, facebook.com/musiciansintheround
WHERE: Catawba Brewing Co., 32 Banks Ave.
WHEN: Mondays, 5:30-9 p.m.