Thanksgiving is a time for gathering with friends and family to share a meal and convey gratitude — and sometimes, play a little music.
Taking a pause from menu planning, Xpress spoke with a few area artists and venue owners who have turned the holiday weekend into an annual celebration of song and fellowship — traditions upended in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanksgiving 2020 was tough on many people, including Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry. Since 2005, the singer/guitarist for Acoustic Syndicate looked forward to playing in the bluegrass rock band’s annual holiday weekend show, which originated at The Orange Peel and shifted to The Grey Eagle in 2014. But with the venue and many other spaces not yet back to hosting in-person performances last November, the event was canceled.
“I really missed it. That left a huge hole in my year, and I’m sure it did for a lot of folks,” McMurry says. “A lot of things didn’t happen. We didn’t have our family gatherings. For the last 10 years, I’ve had at least 50 people at my house for Thanksgiving, and that didn’t happen. But I’m optimistic and I’m looking forward to the days that we can get back to being sensibly and responsibly together again. Let’s get this COVID thing in the rearview mirror and move on.”
Acoustic Syndicate will be part of one such gathering when the tradition resumes on Saturday, Nov. 27. In the years since the group moved the event from downtown to the River Arts District, McMurry and company have made plenty of fond memories — including one occasion when, unbeknownst to the band, someone passed out jars of moonshine, resulting in an especially raucous and joyful atmosphere.
“It’s such a warm and inviting place to be, and it’s got a good vibe,” McMurry says. “It’s always kind of a homecoming. That’s what it feels like to me — like a family reunion. It’s always a happy occasion.”
The return to The Grey Eagle is especially meaningful for Acoustic Syndicate this year. Though his entire family network and close friends are vaccinated, McMurry says he can’t justify having a big get-together at his house this Thanksgiving and risk older friends getting sick. Instead, the Asheville venue — which requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from within 48 hours — will serve as a fine substitute for his Cleveland County farm. And though McMurry wishes that infection rates were low enough that mandatory mask-wearing indoors wasn’t necessary, he agrees that it’s the smart thing to do right now and, while inconvenient, it isn’t “a complete buzzkill.”
“As far as the band goes, we try not to let that affect us at all because it’s not really for us. It’s for the people,” he says. “Our job is to do the best we can under those circumstances, and if that means kicking it up a notch, then that’s what we’ll do.” avl.mx/at3
Songs of thanks
Also in 2005, Asheville-based singer/songwriter David Wilcox began his own annual holiday show at The Grey Eagle. Around that time, he and his family had embraced a quasi-nomadic lifestyle but knew they’d be home for Thanksgiving and able to reconnect with loved ones.
“We had this Airstream for two years, and it was lovely home-schooling our boy and seeing all the national parks,” Wilcox says. “We would come back through Asheville in the fall, and that was a time to catch up with our musical friends.”
Over the years, Wilcox has looped in such fellow local artists as David LaMotte, Billy Jonas and Chris Rosser to join him onstage, all of whom he says are quick to accept his invitations and appreciate the opportunity to catch up. Like Acoustic Syndicate, Wilcox was unable to continue that tradition at The Grey Eagle in 2020. But instead of canceling the event outright, he presented it as a solo livestream. While he appreciated learning how to perform in the digital realm, he notes the change was “really weird” and is elated to be back gigging in front of people in the same space.
“I’ve got, like, 30 new songs that are really influenced by my gratitude and my appreciation for things that I had taken for granted before,” Wilcox says. “They’re about how I stay inspired and how I stay curious and the lessons that I’ve learned, and I think that’s a real common ground with what we’ve all been through.”
In his recent performances, Wilcox has felt a complementary sense of gratitude from attendees, whose strong “need for music and the need for gathering itself” has resulted in a “beautiful energy” between concertgoers and the musician. The Friday, Nov. 26, return to The Grey Eagle is a chance for Wilcox to see even more familiar faces, who he says appreciate the holiday tradition as much as he does.
“It would be fun for me to play more regularly in town, but I kind of like having a normal civilian life here and making this gig a little more special instead of having a monthly little residency in a smaller club,” he says. “It’s kind of fun that my crowd remembers, ‘Oh, Dave’s doing that Thanksgiving thing.’ So, they don’t need to comb the calendars to find out where I’m going to be. It just makes it easier.” avl.mx/at4
Isis Music Hall & Kitchen 743 opened in October 2012 but didn’t host its first musical performance until that December. The following Thanksgiving weekend, co-owner Scott Woody booked celebrated folk trio The Kruger Brothers for consecutive nights — and did so again the next Thanksgiving weekend and every one after that until 2019, when the Wilkesboro-based band played the Diana Wortham Theatre.
“We have a smaller capacity and [The Kruger Brothers] can certainly draw,” Woody says. “They’ve been real kind to us, and I think they like our space quite well because of the sound and everything. So, it’s always been a pretty fun thing for us.”
For Thanksgiving, the Krugers typically travel to Asheville with their wives and stay with friends for the weekend to make the occasion extra special, Woody notes, adding that the band’s family-oriented approach to life aligns well with Isis’ family-owned professional dealings. The warm atmosphere of the back-to-back evenings has also resonated with Isis’ patrons, many of whom have folded the events into their own traditions.
“The one year that we didn’t have it, I recall that one of our patrons indicated that they always celebrated their wedding anniversary with the Krugers,” Woody says. “There are a lot of very familiar faces for those particular shows.”
Since Isis is permitted as a restaurant, the business was able to reopen and program music earlier in the pandemic than venues without a food service classification. Though the statewide indoor capacity restrictions in fall 2020 made booking the Krugers for Thanksgiving weekend impractical, Woody was able to bring in local singer/songwriter Chuck Brodsky that Saturday and attracted a strong turnout.
With the Krugers on tour in Europe this fall, Woody hopes to book them between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and to resume their November holiday tradition in 2022. But for this Thanksgiving, he’s lined up an all-local set of main stage shows, including vocalist Kat Williams (Friday, Nov. 26), singer/songwriter Seth Walker (Saturday, Nov. 27) and jazz group The Page Brothers Quartet (Sunday, Nov. 28). Williams’ concert was originally going to be with local instrumentalist ensemble Free Planet Radio, but the group’s bassist, Eliot Wadopian, died unexpectedly in September. In changing her plans, Williams is embracing a theme of gratitude for the performance and views it as an opportunity to give back to her supporters.
“I kind of bring a realistic approach to the table through entertainment. Whatever I can do to help, I am here to help and serve — that’s it,” Williams says. “This show is a wonderful chance for me to show the good folks of Western North Carolina, Scott and his family just how much I appreciate them and how grateful I am to be part of this loving community.” avl.mx/at2