“Not every high-schooler gets to tour with a band,” says Jesse Barry. The petite frontwoman with the huge voice led her group, Skinny Legs and All, throughout high school. The blues-rock five-piece played local stages, private parties, festivals like Springing the Blues in Jacksonville, Fla. and the International Blues Challenge, an annual competition in Memphis.
Those experiences not only left Barry with an enviable collection of photos and videos, but also helped to form her career goals. Currently enrolled at Warren Wilson College, she’s majoring in psychology, minoring in Spanish and beginning to book shows with her new group, The Jesse Barry Trio (with guitarist Kelly Jones and bass player Daniel Iannucci).
Among a long list of plans and dreams, Barry is passionate about working to increase the prevalence of music programs in schools. Skinny Legs and All formed at Evergreen Community Charter School during a jam-band elective initiated by local musician Rick Praytor. “I’ve been told by other kids that we inspired them,” Barry says. “After I was out of high school, I started noticing all these kid bands emerging, and I thought, ‘That’s so cool.’”
School of rock
It makes sense that Asheville’s music scene is not only broadening in terms of numbers of bands, venues and genres, but in the range of ages of its musicians. And, as local music gains wider recognition, more talent moves to town — or grows up here. “Asheville is probably the best place to get a start,” says Ethan Lewis of rock and blues outfit The Lowdown. Lewis has been playing guitar since he was 9 or 10 and singing since he was 11. A transplant from Delaware, he was looking to continue his studies when he moved to Asheville.
“We visited here before me moved,” he says. “We found the Rock Academy. … The instructor invited me to play a song with the band, and I was instantly hooked.” Lewis and drummer Jarred Chapman formed The Lowdown in that program, recruiting bassist Jesse Cole and guitarist Vin Harriman. The band’s first show in its original lineup was in 2013, “and we’ve been going strong every since,” says Lewis.
These days, many local teen bands come out of The Rock Academy of Asheville. That organization was created by musician and educator Anne Coombs, who also founded The Asheville Music School in 1996. About seven years ago, she rebranded, launching the lesson-oriented Music Academy of Asheville. Before the Rock Academy — the band-oriented arm of the school — became a full-time program, Coombs led rock jam camps “at any space I could get for three years before I put a name on it.”
By 2009, the Rock Academy became a year-round program, rather than just a series of summer camps. At one point, Coombs counted 17 bands and musicians who’ve emerged from the school. “They’ve changed the local landscape,” she says. Before the Rock Academy’s presence, “It was really hard to find teens places to play.”
Besides teaching young musicians to play, Coombs also works with local venues such as Highland Brewing Co. and The Altamont Theatre, as well as festivals like Downtown After Five. “People finally get it,” she says. “If they hire the kids to play there, they’ll have 100 people show up. … I used to do early spotlights at Tressa’s on Fridays, and I’d let the teen bands debut there.” Those opening slots started about 7 p.m., and the venue would be packed with parents and friends of the bands alongside other music enthusiasts.
Family and friends
Barry recalls that Skinny Legs and All shows were frequented by her parents’ friends and adult audiences. The band’s catalog included baby boomer-friendly offerings like “The Thrill is Gone” and “Little by Little.” Clay Blair, who performed in the teen Beatles cover band Yesterday’s Tomorrow, had a similar experience. “Our parents loved what we were doing because it was their music,” he says. “I can imagine how much harder it would be for bands to be playing something not as parent-friendly.”
That might be the case for The Laters, a current teen band whose sound runs from punk to metal. “Between everyone in the band, we all listen to that kind of music,” says guitarist Mitchell Nance. “Punk is the main genre we liked enough.” And so the group — including vocalist Rachel Alleman, bassist Kai Kennedy and drummer Aegean Kennedy — all came together around a catalog of covers spanning the ’70s to today.
It’s possible that parents of those musicians are into punk music. But if not, the band has peers and teachers who can relate. The Laters formed at the Rock Academy in February. “Rachel wanted to start a band,” says Nance. “She asked if I wanted to play guitar.” According to Coombs, the Rock Academy’s classes meet each Saturday to rehearse. Within each class of about 10 students, there might be a couple of bands.
Not only do the students practice together, but Coombs books the classes at a number of club nights. There, “they get to play not only with their class groups, but with their bands through Rock Academy,” she says. “Every band and every group gets to have its own night at a club.” If it’s strategically complicated, the end result is more exposure for your artists.
The Laters and fellow Rock Academy classmates The Lowdown just shared the bill at the Hometown Holiday Jam. The annual showcase, organized by the Asheville Musicians Coalition and benefiting Mission Children’s Hospital and MANNA FoodBank, most recently featured local players like Rory Kelly, Drew Heller, Mike Barnes and Marc Keller. Joe Lasher Jr. and Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats, also on the roster, got their starts as teens and have gone on to hold their own as recording artists and touring acts.
Lewis lists the River Rats among his friends. The Lowdown performed at Barnaroo, an annual festival launched by Scotchie and his band. And Lasher’s bassist, Andalyn Lewis, got her start in The Lowdown. As far as local musicians whom Lewis looks up to, Scott Calloway and Jeff Sipe top his list. Patrick Dodd of East Coast Dirt is Lewis’ vocal teacher, and blues musician Marcus King, from Greenville, S.C., is another artist he’s quick to mention. King, whose debut album was released on Warren Haynes’ label, is still a teen himself.
Plenty of kids begin learning an instrument before middle school. Youth orchestras, marching bands and private lessons are markers of many childhoods. “I started playing guitar at age 6,” says Blair. “I took guitar lessons from Jerry Young. He used to teach in Fairview. I owe so much to him, and my dad as well, for getting me into music.”
Blair taught himself to sing and play drums when he was 15, and he and his friend Michael Kinnear formed Yesterday’s Tomorrow. When that group was first performing as a quartet, youngest member Daniel Grant was just 13. The band, which included Robin Zieber, had a five-year run, calling it quits when Blair and Kinnear left for college in 2006.
“Before we were playing actual venues and outdoor events, we were playing in a school gym in Fairview,” Blair says. “It was basically a party where we would rent the gym, invite all of our friends and play most of the night. [It was] some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.” Yesterday’s Tomorrow moved on to paying gigs at bars and restaurants. One venue, in the basement of a hotel, “was pretty raunchy, and we loved it,” says Blair. “Our parents had to be there, but as long as they were with us, they let us play.”
That parental support went a long way, but Yesterday’s Tomorrow had plenty of non-blood-relative fans, too, and help from adult musicians along the way. Blair recalls playing LEAF and meeting folk duo Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie at the festival. The friendship endured — when Irion visits Los Angeles, he catches up with Blair, who now lives there and owns Boulevard Recording.
“Mark and Robert Henderson influenced me to start writing songs and still do to this day,” says Blair of another bond forged during the Yesterday’s Tomorrow era. “They’re some of the most talented songwriters I’ve ever met. … I keep trying to get them to move out here and sign with a publishing company.”
Supporters, especially those who become friends, mentors and collaborators, are invaluable to young musicians. For singer-songwriter Indigo De Souza, those connections helped to shape her burgeoning career. At 14, De Souza was making the round of open mics. She landed in second place at the Brown Bag Songwriting Competition that year — no small feat — and although the runner-up position didn’t come with a recording package, local WNCW DJ Laura Blackley (a singer-songwriter herself) invited De Souza onto her “Local Color” show. The episode was taped at Echo Mountain Recording Studios.
“I had to talk about myself and sing a few songs on the radio,” De Souza remembers. “There was an audience watching me.” The experience was nerve-wracking at the time, but when she was leaving, producers Michael Selverne, owner of production company Welcome to Mars, and Josh Blake, managing director of Independent Arts and Music Asheville, approached the young musician. The two seasoned industry professionals began to work with De Souza, helping her to record songs and book performances.
Two high-profile shows included LEAF, where De Souza played on The Barn stage that Selverne was sponsoring; and at Downtown After 5, where she joined the Asheville All-Stars. Though De Souza mostly performs solo, for larger events, Selverne helps her line up an experienced band (both he and Blake have backed the singer-songwriter). “I’ve just felt really appreciative of the time I’ve got to spend with them,” De Souza says. “Seeing how the industry works has been superbeneficial for me.”
De Souza recently bought a conversion van for touring and spent two months traveling and performing. “I wanted to see what it’s like to make a living paying gigs,” she says. It was challenging — including learning to weather criticism from some listeners — but, “It felt good to make my money doing that.”
Meanwhile Lewis, who hopes to attend the Berklee College of Music and then “settle somewhere and become a session musician,” is open to collaborating on local projects beyond The Lowdown.
And Nance, who also wants to major in music in college, is ready to start writing original songs with The Laters. That group has already performed at One Stop with a touring band from Portland. “I’d like to play at The Grey Eagle and in Pack Square Park,” Nance says. “A lot of bands spring off from Rock Academy. It helps you if you’re wanting to start a band.”
Teen bands are nothing new. From the Jackson 5 to the Jonas Brothers, and from Menudo to Bright Eyes, teen artists have long contributed to the sound and direction of contemporary music. Heck, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 17 when he was hired as a musician at the Salzburg court. Locally, the music scene includes up-and-coming acts like Posh Hammer — whose lineup is still in high school — along with former youth artists like Celtic musician Jack Devereux and bluegrass players Don and Marty Lewis of Sons of Ralph.
Recently, 15-year-old singer-songwriter Ian Ridenhour headlined his first Asheville-area show at White Horse Black Mountain. His debut album, Quietly Making Noise, included contributions from NPR composer BJ Leiderman and folk musician David LaMotte. It just goes to show what you can do with a head start.
Coombs’ programs at the Rock Academy offer student musicians the opportunity to play alongside the likes of Grammy-winning bassist Victor Wooten, American Idol winner Caleb Johnson and AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams (a supporter of the Rock Academy). According to Coombs, the teens bring a sense of enthusiasm to the local music scene. So while they’re learning, they’re contributing, too. And, Coombs adds, “they bring fresh, new, original material.”
De Souza is in the process of figuring out what her next step in the music business will be, but she’s far from taking a break. The singer-songwriter is about to release Boys, a new EP recorded and produced by Ryan Lassiter and Andrew Costantino. Look for updates on De Souza’s Facebook page.
Blair parlayed his early interest into a full-time career. “I was always recording music when I was 12 [or] 13,” he says. “We had a dual cassette machine in my parents’ basement. … It was very rudimentary, but inspired me to try harder.” While he’s enjoying his work in Los Angeles, he does hope to move back to Asheville someday — his Yesterday’s Tomorrow experiences no doubt play a role in that desire.
“Girls would scream for us, it was so much fun. It made us feel like for a moment we were those guys from Liverpool we’d seen in the movies,” Blair remembers of being in the band. “Eventually, we did go to Liverpool in 2004 and play The Cavern Club three nights in a row to a sold-out standing-room audience.”
He adds, “Not many teenage guys from North Carolina can say that!”