Asheville’s Music Culture

Imagine you are walking through the streets of modern day downtown Asheville. You see the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains in the background, people chitchatting outside local, ethnic eateries, people in business suits mingling with people with ponytails and tattoos. You hear a local club blasting top forty hits, and somewhere off in the distance you hear the booming of a drum circle. It is the diverse personalities found in Asheville that help make this town so unique. Asheville is a hybrid of local customs and modern influence, both embraced by its citizens. However, the mixing of the local culture and mainstream American culture did not happen without a battle from the locals, especially when talking about music. As Asheville developed into the beautiful, mountainous tourist destination that it is today, Ashevilleans attempted to hold onto their unique, local music culture, resulting in the musically diverse city that is modern Asheville.

Blue Ridge Parkway

 

Located at 2100 ft in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Buncombe County, Asheville was not always the desired tourist destination or music hotspot that it is today. The small town, described as “The Land in the Sky” by author Christian Ried due to its sublime and entrancing mountains, began to grow around 1880 with the establishment of the first railroad in the area. The invention and availability of the car also stimulated growth in Western North Carolina since these towns were previously only reached by carriage or horse. Tourists began to flock this “Land in the Sky” for what they believed was a health restoring environment. The mountains were the principle attraction. Asheville began to boom as a tourist destination during a prosperous period during the late 19th and early 20th century. As tourism grew, the town’s population itself quickly began to expand. Tourism was an important mode of economic development in Asheville during this time. The growing population and economy allowed Asheville to begin developing its infamous music scene. However, the 1929 stock market crash caused Asheville to be suspended in time with little development for almost 50 years (Oakley 53). This lull in development was a result of the prideful little town’s refusal to declare bankruptcy. However, during this standstill period, Asheville was able to institute aspects of their unique, local mountain culture.

In the early 20th century, after the tourism boom, Asheville’s musical scene was similar to that of other American towns during this time period. The original Asheville Music Festival in 1920 consisted of a total of nine concerts. The concerts included symphonies, choirs and operas. This is not the type of music one would expect to hear in modern day Asheville. However, during this early time period, traditional Appalachian music was also developing. Folk music can be described as music used for personal and group enjoyment and continuation of historical narrative (McClatchy). Traditional Appalachian music was based mostly upon Anglo-Celtic folk ballads and instrumental dance tunes (McClatchy). Women sung the music unaccompanied since it was believed it was their role to maintain a family’s cultural heritage. These traditional Celtic ballads had a particular tonal, nasal quality that is prominent in many traditional Appalachian singers (McClatchy). The content of the songs changed to reflect American traditions and locations over time. One of the greatest influences on Appalachian music was that of the African American slaves’ songs of work and worship. Also the percussion of the slave music changed the rhythms of Appalachian singing and dancing.  During this time period, religious music including “white Country gospel” was probably the most prevalent music heard in the Appalachian Mountains (McClatchy). The three types of religious music included ballads, hymns, and revival spiritual songs (McClatchy). Anglo-Celtic folk and traditional slave music characterized Asheville’s original music scene.

The instrumental traditions of the mountains started as Anglo-Celtic dance tunes, but were reshaped. The fiddle was the main instrument often playing alone since a piano was often too expensive to purchase (McClatchy). This resulted in many early songs being very rhythmic and more structured. In the 1860s (after the civil war), the banjo was introduced to the Southern Mountains and included in traditional music (McClatchy). The contribution on the banjo produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm. Irish immigration added the sound of pipes to the music. In 1910, the guitar began to gain popularity. As the number of percussive instruments grew, the tunes became more elaborate and melodic (McClatchy).

In the late 1920s, industrialization produced even more mobility and tourism continued to rise. This resulted in popular music of the time being brought to the mountains. This also resulted in increased accessibility of instruments due to mail order and mass production (McClatchy). Radio stations enabled the traditional and mainstream styles to begin to overlap. The old norm for the mountain music began to be referred to as “old-time” music as the region became more mainstream. However, this “old-time” music also began to gain mainstream popularity as fiddlers and rural performers began to get record deals. Although most audiences preferred popular songs played in an old-time manner, the traditional Appalachian music style was still being exposed to the nation. The singers were typically males and duets became prominent in the 1930s (McClatchy). However, again, the Great Depression put a hold on the commercial practicality of old-time music found in the Appalachian Mountains and specifically Asheville, North Carolina. This being said, although traditional music advanced locally during the developmental lull after the Great Depression, the national folk record industry lacked progress.

Traditional Folk Band at the 2008 The Asheville Music Jamboree (photo credit: Kevin Bond)

Eventually traditional music of the mountains gave way to the beginnings of modern commercial country music, and much of the old-time music reverted back to being “folk” music — focusing on personal and group enjoyment and continuation of historical heritage. In Asheville, old-time music is upheld through numerous community traditions. Shindig on the Green, a weekly institution that starts at sundown every Saturday night from the first weekend in July until September, offers traditional Appalachian music, dance and jam sessions (Oakley 55). John Ellis described Shindig on the Green as, “the back porch on stage—and all for free” (Oakley 55). This event has the finest bluegrass and old-time music in the area. Another notorious local Asheville tradition includes the Asheville Drum Circle. The drum circle tradition relates back to the percussion aspect of folk music, which originated from slave songs. The drum circle was rated the “Best Beat” in the U.S. Airways: The Magazine that Connects You September 2009 issue (Oakley 70). Anyone is welcome to join the famous Asheville drum circle. Novices and professionals alike show up to Prichard Park on Friday night with a drum and freely groove to the beat (Oakley 70). The drum circle has been described by Cecil Bothwell as the “heartbeat of the city”. Local traditions such as Shindig on the Green and the Friday night Asheville Drum Circle helps to keep old-time music alive.

Famous Friday Evening Drum Circle

Although Asheville has successfully maintained many aspects of its traditional music, it could not escape mainstream music entering its culture as technology advanced. Prior to the Great Depression, Asheville’s local artist were beginning to become popular in American culture. However, the 50 year lull in the town’s production prevented Asheville from reentering the national music scene until about 1979. Since then, Asheville has become a well-known hub for contemporary music. The Orange Peel, an Asheville music club, originally opened in the 1970s. The club was later shut down but revived in 2002 due to Asheville’s desire to revitalize their original downtown culture. Since then, The Orange Peel has been named by Rolling Stones magazine as one of the top five live-music clubs in the nation (Oakley 53). The club as hosted many famous headliners including the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Damien Rich, Flaming Lips, Blondie and Bob Dylan. The famous KarmaSonics record store on Biltmore Avenue is home to an impressive collection of rare vinyl records and CDs. Asheville has become known around the nation as a music friendly city and therefore has attracted many talented local musicians. Big name artists stop by to play surprisingly intimate shows due to the small famous Asheville venues (Bothwell 79). The Asheville Civic Center is often the venue for big name entertainers. Downtown After Five is an event that occurs once a month and consists of outdoors blues, rock and jams concerts that typically host pretty big name artists. The genres of modern music performed in Asheville greatly vary. Bob Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer and a pioneer of electronic music, spent his final years in Asheville and set up a company here that continues his musical vision (Bothwell 80). Many venues host many differing types of music including but not limited to rock, indie, country, folk, jazz, beach music, blues, and ethnic music. As Asheville developed into a large, desirable city, mainstream music began to become a prominent part of the town’s culture.

Overtime, Asheville has established many famous local and mainstream festivals that attract numerous tourists every year. In April, Westfest is a local event that reestablished Western Asheville’s sense of community (Bothwell 79). The event includes music, food, art and fun and helps local Ashevilleans escape the mainstream invasion into their once rural mountain town and helps maintain a sense of community. Another local event includes Concerts on the Quad which takes place on the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s campus lawn. These concerts include a range of entertainers from swing bands to story tellers to steel drum bands (Bothwell 79). Bele Chere is the most famous festival in Asheville and occurs in the last weekend in July. The festival originally featured local entertainers and artisans but is not heavily advertised and has become more widespread.  There are now about 300,000 festival goers each year who explore the downtown festival’s music, arts and crafts, food, drink, and summer weather. The tourist invasion during this time of year has resulted in discontent with many of the locals who strive to keep many of their local traditions. Bele Chere was rated by the September 2009 issue of U.S. Airways: The Magazine that Connects You as the “Best Festival” in Asheville (Oakley 56). August in Asheville is famous for its Mid Day Musicals where various age groups perform popular tunes from Broadway shows, musicals, or from a particular era (Bothwell 80). August is also the time for Goombay, a street celebration of African American and African Caribbean cultures held annually since 1982 (Bothwell 80). Fiesta Latina occurs in September as a celebration of the Hispanic and Latino community in Western North Carolina. The Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival also occurs in September. The festival is said to be similar to what Bele Chere was before it became so mainstream. The festival therefore has more of a local feel to it (Bothwell 81). At the end of the year, the famous Asheville Christmas Jam brings together all winter-time Asheville goers for a musical celebration during the holidays (Bothwell 82). As you can tell, Asheville is known for a wide range of festivals throughout the year.

Modern Asheville is the largest city in Western North Carolina and its music scene is all encompassing. You can walk through Asheville and see greatly contradictory personalities living in unison in a beautiful mountainous paradise. Although the locals to strive to maintain folk traditions and a sense of community, a happy medium has been achieved by the town providing festivals and venues that focus only on the traditional aspects of Asheville music along with mainstream, modern festivals and venues. According to the Houston Chronicle, “The music scene in Asheville is boiling and about to explode”. It’s been said that, “You only have to walk downtown to hear a strumming of a guitar or the easy tones of someone blowing a horn.” (Oakley 52). Asheville has become known as one of the most famous, eclectic music cities in the country. Musicians flock from all around for the chance to perform or start their career in Asheville. The combination of mainstream and local music cultures makes Asheville what it is today.

 

Works Cited

Bothwell, Cecil. Finding Your Way in Asheville. 3rd ed. Asheville, NC: Brace Ulysses Books, 2009. 78-84. Print.

First Annual Asheville Music Festival. Asheville, NC. 16-21 Aug. 1920. Program.

McClatchy, Debbie. “Appalachian Traditional Music.”Musical Traditions. Musical Traditions Web Services, 27 June 2000. Web. 15 Mar 2011.

The North Carolina Historical Review. 80. North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2003. 54-80. Print.

Oakley, Nancy. “Keys to the City of Asheville.” U.S. Airways: The Magazine that Connects You. Sep. 2009: 52-71. Print.

Second Annual Asheville Music Festival. Asheville, NC. 8-13 Aug. 1921. Program.

Third Annual Asheville Music Festival. Asheville, NC. 7-12 Aug. 1922. Program.

Webb, Charles A. Asheville, North Carolina: Forty-Six Years In Asheville 1889-1935. Asheville, NC: Asheville Rotary Club, 1935. Print.

About the Author

Anna Volz is a Freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a pre-nursing major and aspires to get her doctorate in physical therapy.

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