When Rolling Stone heralded Asheville as a must-visit music city earlier this year we threw our hands in the air and did our own version of a happy dance. Asheville’s jiving music scene is no surprise for North Carolinians and music lovers, and the shout-out was a boost to the musicians, venues, and most importantly the music legacy of the city.
Asheville’s contribution to sustaining old-time and bluegrass music go a long way back. The Mountain Music and Dance Festival, organized in 1928 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, is the longest-running folk festival in the nation. In 1925, the Okey Recording Company brought recording equipment and sound engineers from New York to Asheville to record mountain musicians and hoping to cash in on the growing national market for old-time country music.
At a historic recording session in Asheville at the Vanderbilt Hotel, Kelly Harrell, Henry Whitter, Wade Ward, Ernest Stoneman, and several other musicians, were all recorded, including local musicians like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Ernest Helton, and Dedrick Harris. At the helm of the search for new talent was Ralph Peer, who in 1928, presided over a recording trip to Bristol, Tennessee, where he would make the first recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers—an event that is considered by many to make the start of modern country music.
Asheville radio station WWNC also played a pivotal role in the popularization of country music as the region’s flagship station. In addition to playing music by area musicians in 1938 the station had the distinction of introducing Bill Monroe and his new band, the Blue Grass Boys, to the wider world of country and popular music.
Flash forward to today where Asheville’s multi-genre, boundary-pushing sound is underscored by its eclecticism with funk, sultry soul, edgy hip-hop and far-flung world music. The city, already noted as a foodtopia for its food and craft beer, is a sonic exploration for travelers. Below is a suggested itinerary as well as some of the top music festivals for the area provided by the folks at Explore Asheville.
Rise and Shine for a 10 a.m. visit to the Moog Factory, founded by electronic music pioneer Robert Moog, who built synthesizers, effects pedals, theremins and more. Visitors can take a free tour of the factor AND best of all you can make your own music at the Moog store. It’s the only place in the world where all of Moog’s instruments are all in one room. Grab a cup of coffee right next door at High Five Coffee before heading nearby to Static Age Records and Voltage Records, each offering new and used vinyl selections.
Next, at 11:30 a.m. or so head to Woodrow Instrument Company in the Grove Arcade — For a different instrument-making experience, this local company offers handcrafted instruments such as upright dulcimers, ukuleles, and guitars.
Work up an appetite for lunch? Restaurants abound in downtown Asheville include many with outdoor seating so that you can enjoy the sounds from buskers. These musical street performers area out and about from late morning until 9 p.m. or so. Ideal locations for busking include the Flat Iron statue on Battery Park Avenue, along Haywood Street by the Grove Arcade and near Pack Square. From retro jazz to bluegrass this street music adds a vibrancy that can’t be beat! (And remember, tipping is encouraged!)
As the day moves into evening enjoy live music in an outdoor setting. Around 4 to 5 p.m. stake out a spot for your lawn chair — Highland Brewing Company opens an outdoor stage from spring to fall, with live music in a meadow setting. The warm months bring plenty of free outdoor festivals, too, such as Downtown After 5 (the third Friday of the month, May through September).
Every Friday night in the rounded outdoor amphitheater of downtown's Pritchard Park people join together to play thundering sounds on the drums, dance to the powerful rhythms, or just sit back and enjoy the show of individuality and diverse community. The Drum Circle is a free event that started in 2001 with 10 drummers. Now weekly ritual draws hundreds of people together during the warm weather months (generally April through October) to play drums, dance and just to listen. If you need an instrument stop by Skinny Beats Drum Shop & Gallery for a percussion instrument and if you have time a lesson!
Dinner time and a show. Head over to West Asheville for a number of listening rooms such as the Isis Restaurant & Music Hall — two floors of dining and performance space inside a gorgeously renovated movie theater. Just down the street, The Mothlight hosts experimental, indie-rock and avant-garde acts (among other genres) in a space that used to house Mr. Fred’s Beds.
Late night rock out — The Grey Eagle, in The River Arts District, is known for its excellent sound and a busy calendar of roots, rock, Americana and other acts. It’s worth a stop to view the venue’s extensive collection of portraits, by photographer and bartender Sandlin Gaither, of the bands that have graced its stage. The River Arts District is also home to the ultra-cool Asheville Guitar Bar and the indoor/outdoor music venue by the river, Salvage Station. Meanwhile, downtown Asheville’s popular venues include The Orange Peel — highlighted in Travel and Leisure, Rolling Stone, and GQ, among other publications — and Jack of the Wood. The latter, a pub with a traditional British Isles feel hosts bands most nights and offers weekly Irish sessions.
Inspired to jam with locals? Asheville’s music scene has over two dozen collaboration opportunities weekly for musicians and special guests. Plan your week with this selection:
Monday: Appalachian Old Time Jam, Up Country Brewing
Tuesday: Funk Jam (10 years running), Asheville Music Hall
Wednesday: Open Can of Jam, Bywater
Thursday: Bluegrass Open Jam Session, Jack of the Wood
Friday: Asheville Drum Circle Pritchard Park
Sunday: afternoon Potluck and Musicians’ Jam, Asheville Guitar Bar
Want to read more about music in Asheville visit https://www.exploreasheville.com/iconic-asheville/music/. Listen to the melodies of Asheville’s music scene at Explore Asheville Radio.