After two glorious days spent driving through mountains blanketed in glowing yellow foliage, and one night of late-season camping gone horribly awry, we emerged from the Blue Ridge Parkway and found ourselves in Asheville, North Carolina.
Asheville is one of those American towns so seemingly perfect, you kind of have to kick yourself for forgetting how beautiful this country can be. A veritable Disneyland for people who like beer and music, Asheville is snuggled between the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. There are mountain views at almost every turn whether you’re downtown, in the calmer West Asheville area, or driving away, longingly, down I-40.
The town is dedicated to keeping its downtown locally owned and supported, so corporations and chains are largely kept out (with the exception of one Urban Outfitters downtown, which the guys of Uncle Mountain explained was fought vehemently). There are “Asheville Local” signs plastering almost every window, co-op supermarkets and at least ten craft breweries, earning it the “Beer City USA” moniker. After seeing Red Emma’s in Baltimore, we began a side quest to seek out community organized spaces in each city we visited. So we found Asheville’s Firestorm Cafe and Bookstore, a “Community Powered and Worker-Owned” nook with a small but compelling selection of books primarily about activism, politics and DIY ethics… and a kick ass Molotov coffee drink that had chili powder, chocolate and espresso.
Asheville’s music scene extends far beyond folk music - we were in town a week before the impending craziness of Moog Fest - a mostly electro festival that brought Moby, Flying Lotus, Atlas Sound and Araabmuzik this year. Alas, we had already set our sights on New Orleans for Halloween, so we kept to schedule and continued on our folkin’ way. We didn’t make it to Moog Fest but we did catch a night of gypsy folk music courtesy of Bloodroot Orkaestarr, a side project of two members of Asheville “absurdist gypsy folk punk funk” band Sirius B.. The Bloodroot show was one of our favorite nights of the trip. In the understated BoBo Gallery, they played traditional Klezmer-inspired music, sang in Romany so convincing that our resident Russian was convinced the lead singer must be from Eastern Europe (he’s not, born and bred Ashevillian - a talk about globalization of folk musics is in store for another post), and got everyone to do the Hora. The participation of the audience, the enthusiasm of the band and the lack of barriers between everyone was incredible. There really is something about circle dancing with strangers - we should all probably do it more often.
Bloodroot Orkaestarr at the BoBo Gallery
We spoke with two local bands, which just barely scratched the surface of experiencing the incredible amount of music coming out of Asheville. First, we met Amanda Anne Platt and Peter James of the The Honeycutters at their home in West Asheville. Sitting in a grassy knoll next to their house, we got the pleasure of filming a song from their new album complete with a badass old-school trailer, perfect afternoon light and rolling hills in the background. Amanda is a transplant to Asheville - she grew up in New York and left Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY as a senior with dreams of crafting guitars. She found an apprenticeship in Asheville, fell into the music scene and met Pete soon after. Pete, also a Northeastern transplant brought down to Asheville on a whim with “$600, some guitars and a car,” just celebrated his 5 year anniversary in the city.
Three days later, we left the fair city of Asheville and drove out into the mountains to Fletcher, North Carolina, where the boys of Uncle Mountain have made their home. Bertha the Toyota Camry eventually wheezed her way up and over the beautiful mountain their newly acquired cabin dream home is perched upon, and we sat with Ryan Furstenberg on the pond full of catfish by their house for a while waiting for the others to get home.
Ryan, Dan Shearin and Ryan Lassiter grew up together in Boone, NC, went to college together and moved to the Asheville area together. They’ve been playing music for years, and their sound truly reflects three people who have learned from each other throughout their lives. After a hearty dinner of vegetarian chili, cornbread and beer, they sat on their couch and launched into “Miles of Skyline,” a song from their album of the same name that they put out on their own this year. We filmed the above video in one take, with little tune-age or preparation by the guys - no small feat considering how perfect their timing, harmonies and rhythm are.
We’re pretty big fans of Couchsurfing.com over here at Folk to Folk, and we tried to stay with new people in every city we visited. In Asheville, we crashed at the house of Patrick, a Carolina native who gave off a stoic ex-Marine vibe at first. But beneath his steely exterior was a pretty rad dude who played us a ton of scratchy, scrappy roots music and told us of his plans to visit the Louisiana Bayou to find some more.
After giving a quick listen to some of the bands we’d spoken with so far, Patrick gave us a bewildered look, shrugged his gentlemanly shoulders and told us that none of it sounded like what he considered to be “folk music.” At the time, we all got a little concerned and defensive - after all, what was the point of our trip if we weren’t actually speaking to what people in different regions of America considered folk?
But Patrick had a point, a point that came up time and again throughout our journey. In setting out to do this project, we had a rough idea of what kind of musicians we wanted to speak to. We bounced around about our definition of folk, from preliminary discussions to long, philosophical conversations while listening to WNCW on winding highways. It’s not clear whether we ever really came to a conclusive definition as far as sound and content goes - it’s possible we never really will.
We have, however, decided that as far as this project goes, when we say “folk” we mean the kind of music that strips down barriers between audience and performer, brings people together and allows us to connect. To some extent, this opens up the definition to a problematic degree: Some will disagree, some will think “folk” needs to be a person with a guitar and a harmonica. But in times like these, we think folk music is music that helps us reconnect with each other on a basic level.
In Asheville, we found that the community embraces the music and the music embraces the community. That’s about as folk as you can get.