Saint Disruption’s origin story seems destined to go down as one of the all-time great anecdotes in music history.
In 2008, Asheville-based biophysicist and shaman Jeff Firewalker Schmitt and renowned keyboardist John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) just so happened to be visiting the same healer deep inside the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador. The two became fast friends and kept in touch over the years, confident that they’d eventually work together. But it wasn’t until the start of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined Medeski from touring, that they committed to a project.
“It was kind of based on a mutual discovery of ours that we were both huge fans of [hip-hop pioneers] The Last Poets and understood their seminal place in music history and in the history of giving voice to the oppressed,” Schmitt says.
A drummer since his teenage days, Schmitt had largely set music aside to focus on his work as a folk healer and practitioner of plant medicine. But after being instructed in meditation to put his professional findings to poetry and music, he crafted 10 solo demos that spoke to what he calls “the unhealed ethos of the American landscape” that began bubbling to the surface of society at large after the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd.
Though happy with those initial creations, Schmitt sensed something was missing. Tapping into indigenous wisdom that encourages people to seek out original sources, he tracked down and called Last Poets member Umar Bin Hassan, who he says “put truth-telling to music” during the civil rights movement and provided the main inspiration for Schmitt’s songwriting. During their engaging conversation, Hassan blessed the project by letting Schmitt use his autobiographical poem “Painstorms,” providing what Schmitt dubs “the seed crystal” for Saint Disruption.
Medeski got to work fleshing out the sonic landscape in a studio down the road from his upstate New York home. Meanwhile, through longtime friend Cactus “Agent 23” Sullivan, Schmitt recruited nearly a dozen fellow Asheville artists to collaborate on the jazz/hip-hop fusion album, eventually titled Rose in the Oblivion, with producer Michael Hynes. Among them were Free Planet Radio percussionist River Guerguerian, Free Radio MCs Austn Haynes and Johnny Reynolds, and the latters’ vocalist bandmates Debrissa McKinney and Datrian Johnson.
Schmitt, Medeski, the above core ensemble and a few other local musicians will play The Grey Eagle on Sunday, Aug. 29, and are planning a regional tour, most likely sans Medeski. Rounding out the band’s vision is a hardcover coffee table book featuring 16 paintings by 10 Asheville-area artists that visually interpret individual songs or the album overall, plus a poetry podcast spotlighting talented young writers that will debut in late June.
“So much of Asheville’s well-being and economy and draw comes from the fact that we have such a sound creative class here,” Schmitt says. “It wasn’t necessarily calculated, but what’s happened is that Saint Disruption has kind of turned into a music and art collective.” avl.mx/9c7
Making the grade
Listening to Southerner, the new EP from nonbinary singer-songwriter and queer country musician vigilance deadname (deliberately lowercase), you may wonder if you’ve discovered a long-lost Michael Stipe project. While the similarities in vocal timbre and creative lyrics aren’t purposeful homages, the Asheville-based artist is nevertheless open to the possibility that Stipe’s band, R.E.M., has played a part on some artistic level.
“The foundation of my musical taste was classic rock in my dad’s truck,” says deadname. “Obviously, R.E.M. is a part of that canon, and I think we have a lot more unconscious influences than conscious ones.”
Chief among the intentional inspirations of what the artist calls “those red truck tracks” are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Billy Joel. And deadname also feels strongly impacted by the work of Brandi Carlile, Paul Simon, Thelonious Monk and Dwight Yoakam. This melting pot of musical heroes is evident on Southerner, the creative component of deadname’s senior capstone project at Warren Wilson College, undertaken with the musician’s professor and primary music mentor, Jason DeCristofaro.
“I brought him some original tunes I wanted to use, and he used those pieces to teach me a variety of styles to use as my palette for arranging,” deadname says. “That’s how I was able to communicate in a wide variety of styles, from Americana to rhumba.”
Kevin Kehrberg, deadname’s bass teacher and former major adviser, played a critical role in the project’s academic side. According to the artist, classes with Kehrberg “focused on conceptualizing and researching the ethnography attached to Southerner, which consisted of interviews with other queer country musicians in town and researching the feelings about queer country that they held in common.”
The result is a demonstration of deadname’s ability to perform a number of instruments — acoustic and Fender Rhodes pianos, acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, drum set, hand percussion, organ and all vocals, to be precise — across a spectrum of styles. And the lyrical exploration of how country music “illuminates what it means to be a queer Southerner,” as the EP’s Bandcamp description puts it, adds to Asheville’s already rich queer country scene, which also includes Lo Wolf, Laura Blackley, Broken Family Band, Yeller, Snakemusk, Reversels, deadname’s own band, Bless Your Heart, and a new collective the musician is a part of, called Crooked Holler.
“I can speak for Bless Your Heart in saying we actively seek out other queer country/Southern artists to play with,” deadname says. “I feel a strong bond with that community.” avl.mx/9c8
Bringing it all back home
After graduating from Brevard High School, Clint Roberts spent a few years bouncing in and out of college in Boone and Asheville, trying to figure out whether he could make school jibe with his particular disposition.
“To a fault, I can be very dismissive of people telling me what I should pay attention to,” he says. “That mentality isn’t particularly compatible with a career in higher education.”
During that time, he also parted ways with his folk band, The Fox Fire, focused on his solo career and eventually moved to Nashville, spending a few years trying to break through.
“While I ultimately found it difficult to make a name for myself, I took the work ethic and mentality that I gained back to Western North Carolina, and I’ve been there ever since,” Roberts says.
Now based in Asheville, the Americana artist credits his family for their support while he honed his solo skills — including a wise-beyond-his-years singing voice. The assistance also allowed him to stockpile enough original material for his debut album, Rose Songs, which he was able to grant his full attention to during the pandemic, thanks to the absence of what he calls “the very pleasant distraction of live shows,” and being signed by the Carry On Music label.
To record the collection, Roberts returned to Nashville and, in collaboration with producer Ben Fowler and such talented, witty session musicians as Gordon Mote and Bryan Sutton, feels he got the songs as close as possible to how he envisioned them. The days they spent tracking flew by for Roberts but taught him plenty, including just how green he is in the music business.
“I started the sessions by overexplaining what I wanted from each song. Once I understood the caliber of musicians I was working with, I learned to keep my mouth shut and trust their intuitions,” Roberts says. “Occasionally, some creative course correction was necessary, but for the most part, everyone intuitively understood what I wanted, or simply had better ideas.”
As the album’s title hints, many of the compositions on Rose Songs are about one person, and with that project now out in the world, Roberts is finding inspiration from a range of different sources. Temporarily satisfied with writing introspective songs, he notes that he’s trying to be more outwardly focused with subject material and has been writing more cultural and political commentaries. He also wants to get back into assuming the perspectives of different characters, much like the great Tom Waits.
“I doubt that I’ll ever come close to his genius, but it’s something to aspire to,” Roberts says. avl.mx/9c9