Local Music

Anthony Mulcahy

In one sense, Christopher Paul Stelling is always ready to tour. He drives a Ford Transit van with a lofted bed in the back, and bins of albums, shirts and buttons beneath, along with a makeshift lounge behind the front seats. 

“I got that with 25,000 miles on it, it’s got 155,000, I got it in 2017 and I didn’t tour last year,” he said. “You kinda use vehicles like Kleenex.” 

On this day, he’s pulled the van into the parking lot of Summit Coffee in the River Arts District and walked to a nearby picnic table to talk about the path to his newest record, “Forgiving it All.” Stelling launches the album Sept. 25 at the Grey Eagle in Asheville. 

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Taurus Lenoir remembers journaling as a 10-year-old. As an adult rapper, she rarely writes anything down before she hears a beat. Lenoir said the music inspires her words.

“My sister encouraged freestyling off instrumentals, not even writing a song, just freestyling on that beat, going off the top of your head. So we would just do that for fun,” Lenoir recalled. “She knew what she wanted to do. Me, I was just flowing with the wind. I don’t think she was like ‘Pursue this rap career,’ but I think she was just like ‘You got talent right here.’”

 

Lenoir goes by the stage name Suruat—it’s her first name spelled backwards—and she works in a form of rap music called trap. That often combines minimalist beats with graphic lyrics. She’s performing her music as part of a comedy lineup Sept. 2 at the Orange Peel and over Labor Day weekend as part of the Goombay Festival in downtown Asheville.

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Even when he dropped out of high school at 16, hopped trains and hitchhiked his way out of Southern Indiana, the man known to friends and fans today as Cactus believed he was on a mission. 

  

“I didn’t run away, I ran to,” Cactus said. “I always knew there was more out there and I wanted to find it as quickly as possible.” 

  

Cactus is the founding ringmaster of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, an amorphous, horn-based funk hip-hop band with music written for families with young kids. Skidoo won a Grammy Award in 2016 for Best Children's Album. 

 

The band just released its second album in collaboration with the Asheville Symphony. And Cactus has a new audiobook, his first, designed for young people, to teach personal and cultural storytelling through songcraft. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo performs on the second night of the LEAF Downtown Festival in Asheville, Aug. 28. 

Charlie Boss

Indigo De Souza could be a spokeswoman for the DIY ethos. Of the more than dozen tattoos along her legs, arms and hands, several came from her own hand. 

 

“I stick and poke a lot of them, just with a needle and ink. I did this one, this one and this one,” she said, pointing around her legs. “Like this one is a drawing I did when I was little. And this is an image of the church, this church.” 

 

This church-turned-residence, in Madison County, is where De Souza has lived since January. Friends come over to chill in the wide-open former worship hall downstairs. Crammed into a small, quiet space upstairs, there are guitars, keyboards and a couple of weather-beaten drums. This is where De Souza’s DIY musical expressions begin taking shape.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


The three women of the Smoky Mountain Sirens all had other things happening in music when they came together in 2019. They started like a lot of bands, covering other artists’ songs in local bars. 

  

“It was, like, ‘oh god,' it just felt like selling our souls for a while,” said guitarist and vocalist Aimee Jacob Oliver. 

 

But with the pandemic, Oliver, bassist Ashli Rose and drummer Eliza Hill committed to writing and moving forward with their own songs. The Sirens haven’t released any recorded music publicly but, with the return of live shows, they're still one of Asheville’s most talked-about newer bands.

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Anya Hinkle is known largely for her time in the Americana bands Tellico and Dehlia Low. She made moves about two years ago to leave the safety of a band and embark on her own. With the pandemic, those moves grew into a calling.

 

“I really had an opportunity to perform online and work up all these solo shows because I had to,” she said. “I just had that space and that pause button to naturally grow into becoming a singer-songwriter. That pause button gave me the confidence in those songs, in those lyrics, in the vocals, feeling like that’s enough, without a whole band behind you backing you up.”

Scott Friedlander

When you think of musicians made for Asheville, Min Xiao-Fen doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. Min grew up in a musical family in Nanjing, China, became a virtuoso of the pipa and performed as a soloist for over a decade with traditional Chinese orchestras.

“I feel lost a little bit in China. Everything’s controlled, China’s system. Even when you play music, you have to play exactly as master taught you how to play. You have to be very controlled, disciplined,” Min said. “I just feel I want a change. I wanted to go to other countries to see if maybe I could change my career. I don’t really know what I want. I just thought maybe I could find something for myself.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Even through their masks, you could sense the smiles across the faces of John and Judy Nelson, of Asheville, as they waited to get into Friday night’s concert at Isis Music Hall.

“I am ready to sit back, have some good food and listen to some good music,” John Nelson said. “It’s gonna be a great night.”

And it’s the kind of night few in this region have been able to experience over the past 13 months—live music inside a club. But as North Carolina has relaxed some conditions for indoor gatherings, local venues have started booking indoor shows—with capacity restrictions and masking protocols in place.

Ash Devine


 

Ash Devine was giving an online ukulele lesson to a 10-year-old boy Wednesday afternoon when news about the turmoil at the nation’s capitol scrolled on her Facebook newsfeed. Devine finished the lesson and immediately went on Facebook Live herself.

“I was seeing so much stress and fear and panic in people’s posts and knew I had something to offer to redirect that into a more unified, positive direction,” she said. “I thought, let’s do an intervention with song, that we can get through this together.”

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Carly Taich didn’t post anything on social media, light a candle in mourning or plan a post-pandemic farewell tour.

She had devoted her young adult life to her own fearless folk pop, as she calls it. She had made two full albums over the previous eight years, And sometime in the middle of 2018, at age 27, she’d prepared herself to say goodbye to music altogether.

‘I was very uncomfortable with the industry of music. It just got to be a toxic relationship,” Taich said. “The toxicity comes from not enjoying performing anymore, not wanting to write, comparing myself to everyone, like not even being able to enjoy other people’s music because it was always a contest.”

exploreasheville.com

Live concerts with live audiences seem so long ago—no masks, no social distancing and, also, no concern for volume.

But for the first time in 20 years, Asheville officials want to update the city’s vague noise ordinance to reflect concerns and complaints from a growing residential population. And that has raised alarms in a music community nearly muted by the pandemic. 

Matt Peiken | BPR News

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Rabbit Motel in Asheville’s South Slope drew touring black musicians to the four tiny rooms out back and the soul food restaurant facing McDowell Street. On Saturday, the motel launched its new life as SoundSpace, with the four motel rooms converted to rehearsal studios for bands to rent by the hour or month, with plans to refurbish and reopen the soul food restaurant in about a year.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Eighty-one years ago, when Asheville had two daily newspapers, the new art deco building that housed them across from the Grove Arcade featured tall ceilings, glass block windows, frosted light sconces and vast, marble floors with custom inlays. On the third story, long ago hidden beneath asbestos tiling, there was another unique floor. 

“And you see all these pock marks?” Gar Ragland said, pointing down. “These are cello stands, these are mic stands, I mean, who knows?”

When Ragland learned this was also the one-time home of WWNC-AM Radio, he knew he’d found the home for his own dream—of resurrecting an artifact from a bygone musical era while giving Asheville something altogether new: A vinyl records pressing plant.

Kristen Marie Greene of KMG*Photography


Eleanor Underhill’s new record is called “Land of the Living,” and listening straight through can be a little dizzying.

Her songs skip from ‘90s alt-rock (“Strange Chemistry”) and synth pop (“Run with the Wolves”) to banjo-inflected techno (“Middle of Life”), straight-up R&B (“Easier Than This”) and the rootsy Americana at the foundation of Underhill’s musical history. And then there’s the intimate storytelling, some of it from a third-person distance, some from first-person vulnerability.

Jern Watson


Earlier this year, just as Covid-19 shut down the nation, Jared MacEachern moved with his girlfriend into the home he just bought in the mountains of Santa Cruz, Calif. As the wildfires there forced them to evacuate just a few days ago, MacEachern sounded surprisingly calm as he spoke from a friend’s house in San Francisco.

“The air at the house, there are times when it’s clear and we can’t even tell, and there are other times it’s really smoky, it stinks, my throat gets really scratchy,” MacEachern said. “But luckily, the flames have stayed a good distance away, so we’re thankful for that.”

His outlook in the face of potential disaster perhaps stems from a greater life perspective.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


You could consider 12:32pm Thursday as an official time of death for The Mothlight, an anchor of Asheville’s live music scene since it opened seven years ago. Within minutes of the announced closure on the club’s Facebook page, fans and musicians flooded owners Jon and Amanda Hency with notes of shock, grief and gratitude.

Mike Martinez, vocalist-guitarist of the Asheville band Natural Born Leaders, speaks in this video chat with BPR arts producer Matt Peiken about participating in the protests in and around Pack Square and channeling his anger into his songwriting.


Musical artists looking for some magic catapult out of obscurity can hardly find a more alluring vehicle than NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. Judges in 2018 spotlighted the Asheville band Natural Born Leaders, who found themselves with new listeners from around the world. 

Nearly 50 bands and solo artists from this region entered videos into the 2020 competition.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Asheville Music Hall has seen four times the number of people turn out for its weekly virtual trivia nights than those who actually came to the club to play trivia before the pandemic. Still, it’s a thin silver lining. Matteo LaMuraglia, the club’s talent buyer, says Asheville Music Hall will go out of business within a year without the return of live, general admission concerts.

“We’d be in danger with a year of no shows,” LaMuraglia said. “We can work around it for the time being, as seated comedy, as seated live music shows, but the space is built to be a GA standing-room only (space).”

While many local musicians have taken to virtual performances to bring in some money and maintain their profiles, venues built on live music face far greater challenges while dark.


Four live music venues in Asheville have joined a new national effort to lobby Congress for more financial help while they remain closed because of the Coronavirus.

The National Independent Venue Association is a coalition of more than 800 clubs around the country, including the Orange Peel, the Odditorium, the Grey Eagle and Asheville Music Hall. 

Roberto Ricciuti / WireImage

Before the Coronavirus sent everyone home, Angel Olsen estimates spending about nine months every year on the road, away from Asheville, performing her music all over the world.

It makes the Coronavirus-caused cancellation all the more disappointing of her April 17 concert at Harrah's Cherokee Center in Asheville—part of an entire U.S. headlining tour wiped out by the pandemic. It would have been Olsen's largest home show to date.

 

“I’ve been up until now pretty protective of overplaying Asheville,” she said. “I live here and I want this to still be a place I come home to.”

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Cynthia McDermott is tall, tattooed and muscular, and that visual is all the more more striking when you see her on stage with a tiny mandolin, singing her custom mashup of early jazz, hip-hop and contemporary R&B.

“I wanted to find a way to make older jazz and swing more relevant to a wider audience and also to myself,” she said.

McDermott’s band is the Pimps of Pompe and, before the Coronavirus wiped out every public function, they had a March 31 show planned to celebrate their self-titled debut album. The songs jump from Beyonce and Salt ‘n’ Pepa to Django Reinhardt and a couple originals.

Evoke Emotion Photography


Melissa Hyman is a cellist and Ryan Furstenberg a guitarist, who write and record music as The Moon and You from their home in West Asheville. For the married couple and countless musicians here and everywhere, March 13 was their Black Friday.

“I was realizing we were gonna need to cancel everything,” Hyman said.

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Blake Ellege is a musician and vocalist in Brevard who counts nine bands he performs in. He remembers getting a call last Thursday warning the Coronavirus could threaten some upcoming shows.

“I kid you not, literally, five minutes later, the same colleague notified me that two of my gigs that week had been canceled,” Ellege said.

Five hours later, another call—more canceled shows. An hour after that, one of Ellege’s side hustles—spending two months every spring as an Easter Bunny mascot at the Asheville Mall—was also gone.

“It was a matter of four days that I lost all of my income for March and April,” he said. “It’s amazing just to see so many musicians that I look up to who are losing work just like me, and I thought something needs to be done, something has to be done.”

Ellege dreamed up what he’s calling the Quarantine Concert Series. He has partnered with the video outlet I Am AVL and the Orange Peel to produce nightly concerts from local artists. These performances, hosted in the Orange Peel’s Pulp Lounge, are livestreamed through I AM AVL’s website and Facebook page, where audiences are encouraged to tip artists.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


If you’re not a fan of the current U.S. president and are looking for a little cathartic relief, you might want to stop by George Terry’s studio in Asheville’s Ramp building.

There, hanging or leaning against walls or stacked against one another are large, bright, cartoonish paintings of President Trump pictured in one humiliating scene after another. Here he is getting rebuffed by an elegant Meryl Streep. And there he is getting sandwich-tackled by a couple of NFL players. In one series, Uncle Sam grasps Trump by an ankle and dangles him over a waterfall.

“It’s very important that I’m in these paintings,” Terry said. “Rather than just take potshots at negative things, I need to have my personal convictions be involved.”


Andrew Fletcher earned his credibility as a musician by doubling as a piano mover.

“I’ve never claimed to be the best piano player in town, but I will claim to be the hardest working,” he said. “And when people watch you unload a piano from a truck and wheel it into a venue, they’ll believe that claim.”

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Shane Parish says he’s a self-taught musician, which isn’t a typical credential for someone earning a living as a guitar instructor.

“I’m not coming at it from this woo-woo perspective,” he said of his teaching practice. “We can get very specific and technical and advanced, theoretically, but I realized most of it is being present with that person in our time together. I look at it as a conversation about something we are mutually interested in.”

This is an evolved and expanded view for someone, while growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., who came to music as a lifeline.

Audrey Wash


Asheville’s Tongues of Fire are still a young band, but vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Lowell Hobbs has already absorbed some time-worn lessons.

For instance, twice now, the band has invested many months, untold amounts of money and healthy doses of hope to perform at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Tex.

“We’ve never been accepted officially, but that has not stopped us,” Hobbs said. “It’s interesting being one of the bigger bands in Asheville, like our shows are usually packed, and then we’ll go down to SXSW and it’s like being thrown into this sea. I spent like six months working every contact I had and just begging people, and get like three showcases and maybe one of them is good. It’s definitely really frustrating and we’re very burned out, but we’re not gonna stop.”

Stephan Pruitt Photography


When Ashley Heath sings of trying her best, in her new song “I Remember,” she might as well be crooning about her career. Certainly nobody in the local music scene works harder than Heath at living and working full time as a musician. 

“I just did some intention journaling and, making small steps to get to the bigger picture,” she said. “It sucked a lot and still does sometimes, but I just decided I don’t want to just be in the bar playing for a hundred bucks, these three-hour solo shows in the BBQ joint, for forever.” 

Erika Taylor


There are violinists who make music, and then there are artists such as Meg Mulhearn, who use the violin as sort of a paintbrush

“A lot of times when people find out I’m a violinist or a fiddler, they’ll ask if I play bluegrass or old-time or something like that and I have in the past,” Mulhearn said. “I think I wanted to do something more experimental or unexpected with the violin.”

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