Twenty years ago, Stephen Evans wasn’t sure if he’d ever play with a band again. The breakup of Mean Season, the rock group with which he’d hoped to make it big, had driven the singer-songwriter from Atlanta to Asheville in search of a new start. Evans dove into hiking, classes at UNC Asheville and bartending work — music became a sporadic hobby of informal jams and open-mic nights.
That change didn’t last. “I got into some pretty serious depression because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, otherwise,” says Evans. “I needed something to get my juices flowing again, and I decided to give music another try.” At The Grey Eagle on Sunday, Sept. 24, Evans and his current band, the True Grits, release an EP claiming those troubles are (in the words of its title) under the bridge.
The new record revisits songs that Evans first crafted during his transition between cities. “After the band broke up, I played solo for a while, and I was writing a lot of songs during that time,” he says.
“I was in the middle of relationship stuff, as well, so I had a lot of material,” he adds with a laugh.
The music on Under the Bridge does show its roots in the middle of the 1990s. Although the instruments are mostly acoustic, the jangle of guitar and Evans’ expressive tenor evoke the era’s grunge aesthetic. The results on songs such as “Waiting” give a vibe not unlike Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set, or the Foo Fighters’ Skin and Bones acoustic album.
Other tracks on the EP reveal how Asheville worked its way into Evans’ songwriting after his move. “I was just impressed with the surroundings here. When I got into hiking in the mountains, I found that it was very peaceful and relieved you of the stress of your day-to-day stuff,” he says.
“Cherokee Hills,” in particular, recounts the healing he found in his new home. Evans sings, “Mountain laurel, you glow like a pearl / how you open my eyes / Mountain laurel, your flowers unfurl / and take me to the sky,” as a heavy, folksy waltz backs up the sentiment.
Throughout the record, Evans’ bandmates in the True Grits pull the sound in the folk-rock direction they first explored in their 2005 debut, Something to Bleed. Brian Shoemaker (bass/lead guitar/backing vocals) and Sam Hess (drums) make a steady, unfussy rhythm section, while Woodstock (mandolin) fills out the music’s high end with tremolo lead lines and complementary chords.
For the EP, Evans also drew from two other bands. The first is The Floating Men, the Nashville-based indie group in which his older brother, Scot Evans, played bass. “My brother’s band influenced me a lot with their writing, especially through my younger years,” he says. In tribute to that early influence, the True Grits cover The Floating Men’s “A Rose for Emily,” based on the short story of the same name by William Faulkner.
The second band is Mean Season — the group whose breakup originally led Evans to make the Asheville move. Former Mean Season guitarist Shawn Duxbury is featured in the lead acoustic part on “Waiting,” contributing an intricate lick over his old bandmate’s strumming. “That’s kind of a salute to my past too because it led to where I am now,” says Evans. “Shawn was a big part of my musical growth, so I wanted to have him there.”
Reflecting on his development between when he first wrote the songs on Under the Bridge and now, Evans says the years have mellowed his approach. “Fame isn’t really the goal. We just want to keep making better and better records and having fun with it,” he explains.
That goes for the style of the music as well. When asked how his self of two decades ago would have responded to the new EP, Evans says, “I think he would be a little surprised that I went in this direction — he was definitely more of a rock guy.” But, he adds, “I think he would still like it.”
WHAT: Stephen Evans & The True Grits EP release show
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 24, 8 p.m. $7 advance/$10 day of show