The Grey Eagle celebrates its 25th anniversary

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED: North Carolina-based Mandolin Orange, pictured, is one of the bands performing at Grey Eagle 25. The festival at Lake Eden commemorates the quarter-century mark for local music hall The Grey Eagle. Other acts on the celebratory roster include Hayes Carll, The Suffers, Kurtis Blow and Sierra Hull. Photo by Kendall Bailey

One of Western North Carolina’s most popular music venues, The Grey Eagle, is taking a well-deserved victory lap. In celebration of its 25th anniversary, the listening room is hosting a music festival. Too big and varied an event to fit inside the roughly 550-person capacity of the venue, Grey Eagle 25 will take place outdoors at Lake Eden on Saturday, June 29.

The lineup includes artists key in The Grey Eagle’s history (Unknown Hinson, James McMurtry, Of Montreal and The Budos Band to name a few). On the occasion of the venue’s anniversary, owners and managers past and present take a look back at the history of the beloved music hall.

In 1999, then-owner Tyler Richardson moved the venue from its original Black Mountain location to Asheville’s River Arts District. Jeff Whitworth was visiting from South Carolina to take in a show featuring Vic Chesnutt and Kristin Hersh, and immediately noticed that the room had a special vibe. “I was used to seeing shows in Charleston: crowds going for the bar, and there happens to be a show happening,” he says. “In Asheville, that script was totally flipped: People were here for the music.” He knew he wanted to work there.

Three months later, he says, “I was beating down the door of The Grey Eagle every day for them to hire me. I came in three or four days in a row, just letting them know I wasn’t going away.” At that point, The Grey Eagle’s staff totaled four or five people. The hall’s focus was primarily on singer-songwriters like Mary Gauthier, and it was the largest capacity music room in town.

In early 2000, The Grey Eagle experienced a four-day consecutive run of especially noteworthy shows: Bill Mallonee’s Vigilantes of Love, McMurtry and Unknown Hinson were the first three. The fourth night featured blues icons R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford.

Whitworth showed up early and asked, “You need any help?” Richardson asked him if he could work the door. “And that was the first night of the rest of my life,” Whitworth says.

Soon thereafter, Richardson asked Whitworth if he’d like to run the sound for an open mic night. “Which I had never done before,” he emphasizes. But he soon mastered the gear. The all-hands-on-deck nature of the small staff meant that Whitworth was bartending, too. “I did whatever they needed, whenever,” he says.

Whitworth recalls a night in 2004 when he was chatting with Brian Landrum, whose alt-country band Black Eyed Dog had just finished a set. “Tyler came over and asked us, ‘Y’all wanna buy a club?’ A month later we were signing paperwork and taking over a lease,” Whitworth says. “I think Tyler had subconsciously been grooming me for that, all along the way.”

When they’d book a rock show with a standing-room-only crowd, Whitworth would stop and think, “Man, it could be like this every night.” They started taking risks on the kinds of artists they booked. A John Doe show stretched the limits of what the venue could afford, but Whitworth says that the well-attended concert, featuring the former guitarist of the band X, “was a turning point. People would say, ‘That guy was just at The Grey Eagle. It’s not just folk shows anymore.’”

The venue made a practice of nurturing artists who put on great shows. One such act was Barbez, a Brooklyn group featuring a theremin player and a Russian opera singer. “They eventually kind of disappeared,” Whitworth says. “But for every one of those, there’s The Lumineers or St. Paul and the Broken Bones, bands we helped develop who went on to bigger things.”

As Whitworth and his wife anticipated the birth of their second child, the decision was made to sell the venue to Russ and Sarah Keith. Russ had initially come on board as a minor partner. “I started gathering the finances with the help of Mountain BizWorks,” he says. When he took over, he added a storage space for 250 chairs as well as a monitor console, further improving the room’s sound. He also got a liquor license; the bar at The Grey Eagle now features spirits alongside its beer, wine and cider offerings.

And he grew the staff. “Jeff started with five people,” Keith says. “We’re at almost 20 employees now.”

But bigger changes were to come. Keith recalls telling Whitworth — now the talent booker — “I want music in here every night. I have employees here I need to support.” The venue also added outdoor patio shows. Russ says now, The Grey Eagle “might have 10 dark days a year.”

The patio shows present an opportunity for local acts to build an audience. “A classic example is my security guy, Brody Hunt,” says Keith. The Asheville-based honky-tonk singer-songwriter started out at The Grey Eagle playing on the patio. “And then he opened up for JD McPherson the other night: sold out, 550 people.”

Whitworth says that he often hears positive comments. “People will tell me, ‘Thank you for hosting metal shows at The Grey Eagle,’ or, ‘I’m glad somebody’s booking real hip-hop shows.’”

Today, The Grey Eagle is woven into the fabric of the region’s community and culture. “We try to give back to the community,” says Sarah Keith. “I’ve been working on doing fundraisers for nonprofits and collaborating within the community to do events. It all just adds to the excitement.”

A new projection system allows the room to be used to show sporting events; touring musicians use it for special effects, too. A closed-circuit camera captures the bands onstage and displays those moving images on a large screen in the bar/restaurant area “for people who want to sit down,” Sarah says.

She credits much of The Grey Eagle’s enduring success over the last quarter-century to two things: “It’s such an intimate listening room, and everybody involved is like family.”

Whitworth effortlessly reels off a long list of artists who have played The Grey Eagle multiple times, names like the Amanda Anne Platt, The Krektones and Laura Blackley. “Russ is all about preserving the legacy and maintaining what was already building,” he says. “The interaction between performer and artist is unparalleled in this room. That’s the big draw for me.”

WHAT: The Grey Eagle 25th Anniversary Celebration featuring Mandolin Orange, The Budos Band, James McMurtry, Of Montreal and more
WHERE: Lake Eden, Black Mountain, thegreyeagleanniversary.com
WHEN: Saturday, June 29, noon, $75 advance/$85 day of show

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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