BY ALLI MARSHALL
Asheville’s music and art scene, thankfully, is far more interesting than Rolling Stone portrayed in its March 21 issue. And it’s also a good deal less shiny.
The magazine first took note of Asheville’s uniqueness in 2000 when it called our city the new freak capital of the U.S. In fairness, Ukiah Morrison had run for City Council on a pro-marijuana platform, dressed only in a thong and body paint. But the story was nonetheless a work of pigeonholing: Few of the city’s other 72,000 residents traipsed regularly through downtown in near-naked glory. Still, there was something charming (if inaccurate) about being labeled “freaks,” enough so that, in the aftermath, “Keep Asheville Weird” bumper stickers grew in popularity.
Nearly two decades later, Rolling Stone has swept back through to pen “Why Asheville, North Carolina, Is the New Must-Visit Music City.” While the story is complimentary, it paints an inaccurate outsider picture of Asheville’s music scene.
Though most of the artists named in the story have garnered national attention, many other similarly talented artists perform without such accolades. The cost of living here is high, and wages are low: Those seeking success in creative pursuits — or even just regular gigs and enthusiastic fans — often cobble together multiple jobs to support themselves while playing small stages far from the national spotlight.
Many of the bands Rolling Stone spotlighted are not from Western North Carolina. The only quotes in the story are from white men. Only two women-led bands are mentioned (Rising Appalachia and River Whyless) and Fantastic Negrito (who is not a local) is the only person of color referenced. Most of the venues mentioned are located downtown; few of the businesses named are owned by women and none by people of color. So, ultimately, this article serves as an advertisement for a very narrow scope of music and a slim swath of enterprise.
This is not to diminish the inherent worth of those local musical acts and businesses spotlighted, but it does detract from the multidimensionality of both entities. “Rock, world, hip-hop and electronic are readily discoverable,” the article states, without explaining how or where, “but it’s Americana and bluegrass that reign as the predominant sound.” Those genres are perhaps most visible, but not predominant. (On a recent busy Friday night, Americana, roots and country offerings made up only about one-fourth of listings in Xpress’ music calendar.)
Imagine if Asheville’s music scene really was populated overwhelmingly by Americana acts: Those bands would not have developed their unique sounds by rubbing elbows with jazz, funk, blues, metal, punk, experimental and other genres that call Asheville home. The city would not contain, in its DNA, a proclivity toward the inventive mashups and risk-taking that gave us the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival or All Go West; acts like Spaceman Jones and the Motherships, Lizz Wright, Natural Born Leaders or Coconut Cake; and eclectic venues like Static Age, Sly Grog Lounge, The BLOCK off Biltmore, The Odditorium and The Black Cloud, among others.
Furthermore, the businesses listed in the Rolling Stone story are ultimately devalued by not being represented in their full scope of offerings. Echo Mountain, for instance, is name-checked for recording the albums of eight rock, Americana and country acts led by white male artists. But what about the works of brown, black, queer and women artists? Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, Amy Ray of Indigo Girls, Sylvan Esso, Rachael Kilgour, The Broadcast, Alex Krug and others have all tracked projects at the famed studio.
Asheville’s music scene is richer, deeper and more nuanced than the glossy and curated image drawn by Rolling Stone. It extends beyond the beaten path and the mainstream. It’s queer, multiethnic, fringe and gritty. To allow a national publication to brand Asheville as anything else is to hand over the reins of this city’s collective and evolving vision. It also sets a precedent for would-be tourists to come looking for the predominantly white, male, Americana music scene they’ve been promised and (like the Rolling Stone writer) stop short of plumbing the depths to discover the true Asheville experience — thus further pushing those lesser-known but equally deserving artists and stages to the fringes.
Alli Marshall is the Arts & Entertainment editor for Xpress.