Western Carolina Writers’ Showcase blossoms at The Grey Eagle

SING US A SONG: Since 2019, Nick McMahon, top left, has organized the Western North Carolina Writers’ Showcase. Since that time, hundreds of events featuring dozens of local musicians have taken place. The latest get-together features nine singer-songwriters, including, clockwise, starting top right, Scott Stetson, Billy Litz and Melanie Ida Chopko. Photos by or courtesy of, clockwise, starting top left: McMahon, Scott Sturdy Photography, Litz and Brooke Porter

In the spring of 2019, Nick McMahon helped launch the inaugural Western Carolina Writers’ Showcase.

“The idea was to have a traveling songwriter-type show where we take turns swapping our tunes,” he explains.

After a dozen of these events, McMahon began inviting other artists to take part. The concept proved more popular than he had envisioned.

“We’ve probably done close to 150 shows — with nearly 80 different artists — in the last four years,” he says.

More recently, McMahon and current project partner Stephen Evans decided to take the concept to the next level, moving away from  what he describes as “noisy bars and breweries” and into more traditional music venues.

On Sunday, Jan. 8, the latest installment takes place at The Grey Eagle. The event will feature nine local and regional artists and marks the highest-profile date yet for the series.

“If you’ve got original songs, I think you should be able to find a platform for them to be heard,” McMahon emphasizes.

Ahead of the showcase, Xpress spoke with three of the featured artists about their musical careers and what the upcoming experience offers.

‘To help people feel’

“Most folks put me in the category of chamber pop,” says Melanie Ida Chopko, a pianist and recent transplant from the Bay Area. “But I draw from jazz, folk and classical music as well.”

Her EP, I Come From, came out in 2021. The six-song collection features finely wrought, contemplative compositions with a subtly baroque character.

Chopko says that she creates elaborate demos at home and is working toward eventually recording and releasing an album of 10 or more new songs. “I love the process of recording, and I also love the magic of live performance,” she says. The latter, she continues, “creates a space in which the complex human experience has a place to be.”

Events like the upcoming showcase provide an opportunity for togetherness, Chopko believes.

“When I was growing up, I was part of a church,” she explains. “On a weekly basis, I was together with big groups of people. So, if I think about, ‘What am I here to do?’ I’m here to support people, to help people feel and create an experience of transformation, telling the human story through the magic of live performance.”

Chopko’s set at The Grey Eagle will include an assortment of original compositions. “I’ll be playing a lot of newer songs that haven’t been recorded,” she says, “and then one or two from I Come From, just so I can tell people, ‘Hey, this exists in recorded form.’”

Solitary genre

Best known as a member of Asheville indie-pop/soul quartet Hustle Souls, Billy Litz maintains a creatively fertile solo career as well.

“Trumpet and piano are where I feel at home as an instrumentalist,” he says. “But my real passion is just straight-up songwriting.”

His Kid Billy solo project provides a means to pursue that passion. “It’s the most stripped-down side of my musical [personality], where I dive deeper into Americana/roots and lyric-driven songwriting.”

Litz compares his songwriting process to fishing. “I’m throwing out a line, and whatever comes in is what I go with,” he says. “If it turns out to be a folk song, then I know it’s going to be for Kid Billy.”

The lyrics of Kid Billy songs reflect Litz’s worldview but are presented in universal ways. “I wake up every day and try to figure out how to be a human,” he says. “That encompasses everything, and for better or worse, I try to cram all that into the songs.”

Collaboration is at the core of Litz’s work in Hustle Souls; his Kid Billy project is a much more solitary endeavor. “Going with the flow and bringing in surprise elements is a lot of fun with music, but I much prefer spending three hours arranging a song and having it perfect in the way that I envision it,” he explains.

Litz is excited to be part of the Jan. 8 showcase and feels it represents something important. “I’m appreciative of the opportunity to gather fans and creators of this music in one space,” he says. “Because ‘singer-songwriter’ is a solitary genre of music, sometimes.”

No plans necessary 

New York-born singer-songwriter Scott Stetson got his start playing punk rock, opening for headliners like garage-rock legends The Chesterfield Kings. He later took a break from music while living in Charlotte. But once he landed in Asheville in 2001, Stetson got back into the scene, playing with the Dirty Badgers.

These days, however, Stetson’s original music is destined for his solo work.

Keeping an open mind, he notes, has benefited his overall creative approach. “I’ve learned that my songwriting got a lot better when I was just really honest about it,” Stetson says. “When I stopped caring about what ‘sounded cool,’ I found my songs got way better.”

Furthermore, Stetson doesn’t place great emphasis on routine or structure. “I don’t plan,” he says. “When I do, nothing comes out.”

Instead, the songwriter waits until he feels something growing in him that he needs to express. Sometimes those songs are about other people — real or invented — but Stetson’s in there, too. “Parts of myself always end up coming out in the songs,” he acknowledges, “consciously or not.”

New music from Stetson is on its way; in late December, he spent a day at Arrow Sound Studios in Fletcher, recording his debut EP.

And while he’s currently working in the acoustic singer-songwriter idiom, his punk roots are still showing. “I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do, they seem to come out very fast,” he says. “It’s almost like I vomit a song!”

One-of-a-kind event 

In addition to these three musicians, the latest Western Carolina Writers’ Showcase will also feature Troy Crossley, Dulci Ellenberger, Galen Holland, Carey Leigh, Lillie Syracuse and Andrew Thelston.

McMahon believes the showcases have been meaningful for the songwriter community, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shutdown the gatherings.

“We’ve been able to give artists a platform to come out and share their original material. And that was the goal from the get-go,” he says.

McMahon adds that the showcase format provides both quality and variety. “You may have seen one or two of the artists before, but [between featuring] various folks and having spontaneous collaborations every now and then, each show is something you’ll probably never see again.”

WHAT: Western Carolina Writers’ Showcase

WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave. $12

WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 8, 5 p.m. avl.mx/c9t


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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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