Three local bands celebrate landmark anniversaries

TIME MARCHES ON: This year marks the 10-year anniversary for Empire Strikes Brass, top, and Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats, bottom. Meanwhile, local group Deep River, center, celebrates 30 years. Photos, from top down, by Carol Spags, courtesy of Deep River and by Tom Farr

Three beloved Asheville-based bands are celebrating anniversaries this summer. Both Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats and Empire Strikes Brass have reached the 10-year milestone, while female-fronted country ensemble Deep River celebrates 30 years of making music together.

Xpress caught up with members of each act to discuss their group’s origin story, some of their early struggles and the secrets to a long musical career.

‘This is your last song … right?’

In May 2012, Pauly Juhl was approached by a friend who wanted a New Orleans-style second-line jazz band to play at a wedding rehearsal. A veteran of Dixieland jazz since his high school days, Juhl says that he “jumped at the opportunity.”

Drawing from Asheville’s deep pool of talent, he recruited some of the best players he could find. “I was able to get Jerome Widenhouse [trumpet], Henry Westmoreland [sousaphone], Jason Bullock [baritone saxophone] and J Good [drums] for the first gig,” he says.

After only a few practices and a couple of gigs, Juhl says he knew he had put together something special. “My mind exploded with possibilities of what a second-line brass band could bring to our community,” he says.

The next step was a bit of guerrilla theater. “We did a second line at the very last Bele Chere festival, unannounced,” Juhl says. “We had hundreds following us through the festival streets till we were met with a line of police officers. They politely suggested, ‘This is your last song … right?’”

He notes that the new group pursued every opportunity to play for people, including “festivals and any other reason to march around and make some noise.”

Juhl emphasizes that, at the time, second-line parades were new to Asheville. But most in downtown Asheville welcomed the sight of horns and dancers streaming down the sidewalks, he remembers. “Anyone who could play a horn or percussion could join us,” he says.

The group expanded to include other respected players from the local music community. Because many of the musicians were in demand, ESB had a revolving-door membership, but the lineup eventually stabilized. Today, the group includes Juhl on saxophone, Alex Bradley on trumpet, Sean Donnelly on keyboard and percussion, JP Furnas on bass, Nik Hope on drums, Debrissa McKinney on vocals, Lenny Pettinelli on keyboard and vocals, Chris Porter on guitar and Kyle Snuffer on trombone.

Holding together such a large ensemble brings its challenges. “Getting nine people and all the gear around isn’t easy,” Juhl says with a smile.

The 2014 addition of Pettinelli on keys and vocals allowed ESB to make the jump into original material. The group released its first album of original music, Theme for a Celebration, in 2017. Returning to Echo Mountain Recording studios in 2019, the group recorded its second album, Brassterpiece Theatre. That same year, ESB played to its largest crowds yet in Morrison, Colo., with several nights at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in front of 10,000 people at each show, sharing the bill with other bands and at times augmenting other acts.

For the band’s recent anniversary show at Salvage Station, many past members and collaborators joined the group onstage. “It was an emotional night,” Juhl says.

ESB will continue to celebrate its 10-year anniversary while on tour this summer and fall. But Juhl says that the band’s local shows are always special.

“Asheville has the best community in the world,” he says. “We travel all over, but we always come home knowing we live in the right place.”

Spinal Tap-like mishaps

Just over a decade ago, Andrew Scotchie was one of many buskers on the streets of downtown Asheville, singing and playing acoustic guitar, accompanied by high school classmate Andrews Adams on harmonica. The experience, Scotchie says, was a departure from his previous musical focus.

“I had just come out of a punk rock trio,” he recalls. “I wanted to try something on the other end of the spectrum.”

Things soon took off and morphed quickly. By 2012, Scotchie was leading a four-piece band, sometimes augmented by a horn section, featuring Bradley and Snuffer from ESB. With his DIY approach to making music as well as promoting it, the still-teenage Scotchie built on local buzz for his band, the River Rats.

Scotchie notes that he has learned from both successes and mistakes along the way. “We’re talking about a career path that isn’t taught in school, requires ample leaps of faith, and, to some, is still considered a fantasy,” he says.

And while he considers his bandmates family, he candidly admits that “finding that balance between sonic soulmates and business partners is quite a journey.” And one that continues to evolve. Since the group’s launch in 2012, the band has seen a rotating cast of members, many of whom continue to fill in when current bandmates are unavailable to perform. Past members have included: Adams, Josh CavinderAsher HillEliza Hill, Amanda HollifieldSean McCannJordan Miller, Brett Tingley and Pettinelli from ESB.

Scotchie applies the same care and effort to marketing his band as he does to the process of writing and arranging his original, blues-tinged rock music. “While I strongly believe in branding and consistency, I also have a severe fear of doing the same thing or sounding the same,” he says.

The band’s 2015 debut, We All Stay Hungry, is defined in part by its youthful enthusiasm. The band’s 2018 sophomore follow-up, Family Dynamo, marked a leap forward, especially in Scotchie’s lyrics. The pandemic didn’t slow the group’s momentum: 2020’s socially conscious Everyone Everywhere built on the previous record’s foundation, and a 2021 EP Live … From a Distance showcased the band — Scotchie plus longtime bassist Keith Harry and drummer Logan Jayne — in its element, live and onstage.

All the while, Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats have maintained a busy tour schedule. And life on the road has included all manner of Spinal Tap-like mishaps. Scotchie ticks off a hilarious (if only in retrospect) list that includes a bat getting trapped in the band’s hotel room and goats eating their set list.

During a high-profile 2018 show in Abingdon, Va., an exuberant Scotchie — equipped with a wireless guitar setup — made his way onto a catwalk above the audience. He later discovered that he had split his pants open on the way up. “I suppose that’s one way to get an audience to remember you,” he says with a laugh.

But Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats have never had much difficulty making an impression upon audiences. And Scotchie is grateful for the support he and his band get in Asheville; the trio has been named Best Rock Band for four years in a row in Mountain Xpress’ annual Best Of WNC readers poll.

“When the band first started playing out, there were some people that treated us like pesky kids,” he says. “But there were many more that acknowledged the music, gave it a chance and were willing to help guide the band. Because they saw how dedicated we were.”

A tight ship

In 1991, Sharon Lewis was singing and playing drums for the all-woman band Amethyst Country. She says that the group broke up the following year because “the other three women were willing to play in smoky bars, and I wasn’t.”

But Lewis already had another band concept in mind. “I decided to create a band featuring three woman vocalists: a soprano, first alto and second alto — for maximum vocal range,” she explains. But that wasn’t all. The group she envisioned would also feature three male instrumentalists, and Lewis would continue to supply the back beat. “Perfect yin yang,” she says. “By early summer 1992, Deep River was born.”

A few months later, one of the original trio of vocalists left the group. After auditions for a replacement, Sandy Howard got the job. (Today, Howard and Lewis are married partners in life, too.) The group settled in Nashville and sought a major label record deal. But Lewis says that their agent wasn’t encouraging, telling them they were “too old.” Lewis didn’t buy that explanation. “We knew by then that what he couldn’t bring himself to say was that we were ‘too gay,’” she says. “Needless to say, it was soul-crushing.”

Lewis and Howard moved their home and band to Asheville in April 2003, a more eclectic and welcoming market. And three years later, Lewis traded in her drumsticks for the bass guitar.

But their new setting didn’t eliminate every challenge. “We’ve had to work hard to find venues for our ’80s and ’90s brand of country music,” Lewis says. “Because Asheville is simply not a country music town.”

Nevertheless, Deep River has persisted, showcasing the group’s signature vocal harmonies with superb instrumental backing. The entire enterprise is built on a no-nonsense, meticulously organized and businesslike foundation; Lewis runs a tight ship.

“Every song has a chart and either an MP3 or video,” she says. “Every musician is expected to learn their parts before coming to rehearsal, every weekly rehearsal has an agenda, and in rehearsals and gigs alike, we expect all members to pay attention to tempo, dynamics, starts and stops.”

In addition to “innumerable” private events, the group — which currently includes Nita Smith (soprano vocalist), Gerry Brown (dobro, pedal steel guitar and acoustic guitar), Justin Watt (drums), Alec Fehl (lead guitar), Howard (vocals and acoustic guitar) and Lewis (vocals and bass) — maintains a busy public concert schedule. Favorite Deep River venues include the Omni Grove Park Inn, The Grey Eagle, the Feed & Seed in Fletcher, Isis Music Hall and The Purple Onion in Saluda.

All that hard work has earned Deep River a dedicated following. “We’ve enjoyed a lot of support from our local fan base, which tends to be baby boomers and Gen X folks, and especially the LGBTQI+ community,” Lewis says.


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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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