Cheap rents, open mics and writing lessons

People ask me how the Asheville of the ’90s compares to Asheville now. The easiest way for me to explain it is to tell them that, back then, if you were semi-employed (maybe a student or part-time bartender) you lived in a big Victorian house in Montford. Those who were unemployed or in a punk band that had no gigs or income stream whatsoever would reside in downtown lofts. Meanwhile, if you lived in West Asheville, your friends would rarely come to visit because it was much too far to drive. The community there was also generally very conservative and right-wing. So, having a home in West Asheville was a socially-isolating experience.

There were multi-story buildings downtown for sale for $150,000 but very few people were interested in buying them. The Grove Arcade was a boarded-up warehouse, and you could rent a room on Biltmore Avenue, in the same block as Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues and Ananda Hair Salon, for about $100 a week. Perri Crutcher, the fanciest floral designer in Western North Carolina, whose designs were in all the best homes in Biltmore Forest, was working out of an alley until he could afford to rent a shop and go indoors.

Back then, Tyler Ramsey (of Band of Horses) was either busking for change on the sidewalk or playing for free at a little pasta joint (Basta Pasta) downtown. As a Mountain Xpress reporter, I went to hear music at Be Here Now and wound up standing around in the back chatting with Jewel Kilcher (the singer-songwriter known as Jewel) who was clutching a guitar and eating a slice of pizza. She had opened for some mediocre act. Six months later, I heard that she had won a Grammy and was on the cover of Vogue. Around that time, The White Stripes played a show at Vincent’s Ear, which was pretty much a hole-in-the-wall dive on Lexington Avenue. About a year later, they were arguably the most popular new group in America.

I ran into Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence, Hidalgo) while waiting to use the bathroom at Tressa’s during open mic night. I was pretty sure he was that Hollywood actor Owen Wilson. He was a nervous wreck, practicing to read a poem. His hands were shaking from stage fright. Then he got up and read it, and it was the worst performance of the whole night. He sat down and Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo) got up and sang Roger Miller’s circa-1960s hit, “King of the Road.” Buscemi brought down the house and got a roaring ovation. But none of this was considered extraordinary — it was just the way we all expected Asheville to be in those days.

I have supported myself as a writer for about 15 years, but I don’t think that would have ever been possible were it not for Xpress. I have never encountered a more generous and inclusive publication. The editors gave me my first paid assignment, and basically taught me how to write. They would never reject anything I submitted, or even criticize it. They would just quietly tweak it, polish it and publish it. Then I would compare my version to the one that was published, and that’s how I became aware of my mistakes and figured out how to write like a professional.

I would go to see my editor and she would have a big yellow legal pad with page after page of chicken scratch. I mean, the writing was not even legible. That is how one of the reporters turned in his stories. But she would patiently transcribe them and rewrite them anyway, then publish them and pay him. What publication does that? But Xpress valued the ideas and the stories, and that guy had fantastic stories to tell. Xpress gave everyone a chance, without exception, and to me, that was a rare gift that really helped to build, define and celebrate the Asheville community.

Freelance writers were so welcomed at Xpress, and so nurtured and encouraged. It is an exaggeration to call what I was back then a “freelance writer.” I was not a writer, I was just one more fellow with a desire to be a writer. Xpress editors gave me the opportunity. They made me a writer long before I was qualified to be one. For that I will be forever grateful.

Tom Kerr is an award-winning freelance writer and author of The Underground Asheville Guidebook.



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