Rural Americana: Jonathan Kirby Explores the Quiet Genius of Asheville’s Dan Lewis

November 24, 2019

Very few recordings encapsulate the high, lonesome sounds of Asheville's nascent music scene quite like Dan Lewis's near-perfect long-player, Towards the Light, self-released in 1979. Recorded during overnight sessions at an 8-track jingle house in Nashville, Dan Lewis and engineer Tom Behrens pieced together an honest and introspective songbook, one track at a time, incorporating many of the motifs and moods reverberating along the empty streets of downtown Asheville and into the underground clubs on the town's periphery. Besides authoring one of North Carolina's most sought after LPs (of which only 500 were pressed), Dan Lewis holds the distinction of playing alongside fringe blues legends Walter and Ethel Phelps, plus coordinating and participating in the only concerts to feature Bob Moog at the keys and control knobs of his signature Minimoog. Dan Lewis still lives in the Asheville area and performs sporadically when the near-perfect opportunity arises. 


 

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but by the time I was seven years old, I was living down here in Asheville, which, in those days was a just-about-unknown little haven of a retirement community. It was a very quiet little town. 

 

In what fashion did music enter your life? 

Music was the first thing I really had a powerful emotional reaction to. For me, music has the potential for a certain spirituality. It’s an invisible entity, but it can make you laugh or cry or dance or sing. So, in a way, you could say, “Hey, isn’t that the way to describe magic?” I got into The Beatles and the pop music of the middle ’60s. But then the Beatles just sort of led everybody deeper and deeper. And as the Beatles turned on and their hair got longer, so did the culture of the world. And along the way you got turned onto people like Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and all of a sudden you recognize that these songs were not just about your girlfriend or your boyfriend and getting people to dance but now it was social commentary and it was pointing out that things needed to change and that was also fascinating to me.

 

What is your means on discovering and consuming music? 

My generation was extraordinarily tied to AM radio. Big WISE was the station that all the kids listened to. The guy most connected to Big WISE was Little Joe Brown. Interestingly, as this whole music fever hit the country, he was the guy who would introduce us to, “Hey kids, there’s actually a group coming out of West Asheville called the Fabulous Wunz that have a 45 record out!” And so, all of a sudden, we were listening to our own local music. 

 

Tell me about the clubs, or lack thereof, in Asheville when you were coming of age. 

At one point, there were only two music venues in the entire town. One, in the North End, was the Brass Tap. And initially, that was where the acoustic people started congregating. The very few songwriters, the couple of bluegrass people, the occasional rock and roller—people who were looking for an experience. It was only a mile away from UNCA and so you would also get professors and students coming in for a beer after school. So that sort of became the home of acoustic music. 

The other venue, which was over at Innsbruck Shopping Mall, operated under various names like Smuggler’s Den And O’Dell’s. It was a great big dancehall with chairs and tables and a stage and that’s where the electric music scene found a venue to perform at. So, as bands grew up and gathered and were all vying for very few gigs, it also made for us being able to know each other. It got to the point where, in those days, I could say I knew every musician in the area that was out performing. 

 

 

I know that your time with Walter and Ethel Phelps had a profound impact on you. How did that come about? 

There was a place called the Allen Center and it was right on the edge of the black community in Asheville. They had services and programs and lessons to benefit low-income people. At a certain point, Dick Gilbert, who was the head of the Allen Center, determined that he would like to have a folk-style coffee house. So that became the roots of a third and very important venue, the Asheville Junction Coffeehouse. This was equally, if not more important, than the other two aforementioned venues. Because they brought in a famous folk singer and guitarist by the name of Andy Cohen. He knew all the great folk musicians of the Northeast and the West, so all of a sudden, we’re getting fresh input. 

Andy would also go way out in the mountains and find these old-time players that had been playing all their lives but were only maybe known to their immediate community. So, Andy, being totally fearless, went down into the black community to see if there’s any old black blues players around. And sure enough, it turned out that there were indeed these two people that were older than just about anybody left in the black community. They were known as Uncle Walter and Aunt Ethel. I remember very distinctly the night he had them at the Asheville Junction. They started playing and it was like a time machine. It was very raw. Most people of my generation were trying to play cleanly and in time. And here this old man is just beating this guitar like a drum, to the point of distorting. And when Ethel opened her mouth to sing, she had this amazing voice—sort of like Aretha Franklin, only deeper and darker and richer. And her roots were in black spiritual music. So, Walter was playing these strange old songs and these strange old chords, and he would do things that us young musicians were trying our best not to do. I mean, he’d drop a beat, drop a bar, and yet the perfection of it? The flaws were perfection. 

So, I very quickly became friends with them and started hanging out with them and trying to play music with them. I’d do my best I’d just sit there and pat my foot and keep time. It’s funny, Walter playing by himself, ignored time. It was a free form tone poem. But when I would just sit there and pat my foot, then it would immediately be like, okay now we’ve got a drummer—I’ll follow the drummer. I had an old arch-top guitar and I was playing bottleneck slide on it, so it had the right old-time bluesy feel that, to us, felt right.

 

By this time, what kind of inspiration was feeding material intended for Towards The Light?

I’ll say this—for a fair amount of my young life, I was an incurable romantic. You go back to all these lovely, courtly poems from the century before and a lot of it was naive, but it was well-intentioned. And so, the way I look at it is, a great deal of that recording is both inspired by both my love of nature, my love of romance, and how I felt things ought to be. I think once you’ve explored love in various formats, you can’t just keep writing love songs—you have to start going a little bit deeper.

 

What was the recording process like? 

(Friend and collaborator) Tom Behrens left Asheville for Knoxville, two hours away through the mountains and found a job in a real recording studio. So, once he gets established and learns the ropes, he says to me, “Hey, how’d you like to make an album?” Well, say that to a kid who's totally obsessed with music and writing all the time with little or no outlet for any of that—it was like a dream come true. So, the earliest roots of Towards The Light came from me driving over there—two hours there, two hours back—and learning my way around a recording studio. We worked late at night; we’d literally go in at 10:30, 11 o’clock at night and work till 4 or 5 in the morning. So, then Tom and the guy who owns the recording studio decided they’re gonna move to the big time because another 4 hours deeper into Tennessee is Nashville. Now we’re SIX hours away from Asheville. And as soon as Tom got established, he said, “Hey—come on over! The water’s fine!” So now I’m driving six hours each way. So, that’s where we actually recorded most of Towards The Light. Basically, I would say I played 95% of all the tracks on the album. By having the ability to multitrack and to overdub tracks, then all of a sudden it would be like, “Hey, you got a bass I can borrow? I’m going to sit here and figure this out and I’m gonna go lay some bass tracks.” And it’s funny when you look back on it, you think well, it’s a little amateurish, a little naive, and yet at the time, it was like just painting pictures.

 

 

I genuinely think that “The Blue Ridge Lullaby” is the single greatest song ever written about Western North Carolina. Are you surprised it hasn’t gained more traction as people continue to bug out about leaves?

You know, it’s funny—not to take anything away from his song, but I was always amused by James Taylor. He wrote this song and it has nothing to do with North Carolina other than, “In my mind, I’m gone to Carolina.” Not that it’s not a lovely song—it’s the of the unofficial state song—and yet, in reality, it’s not really about North Carolina. It’s got a couple of neat lines about North Carolina, and then it becomes about him and his interactions. Had he gone one or two steps further, he could have written this absolutely classic song about North Carolina. But hey—he was probably 18 and he was writing about his girlfriend—that’s that. 

 

How did it come to pass that you and Mike Abbott are responsible for the only known recordings of Bob Moog playing his signature Minimoog? 

The second year of Bele Chere is 1980. And so, we're having this meeting and we’re saying okay—what can we do this year that’s even bigger and better. And I think it was [festival organizer] Jon Gossett that said, “You know I heard that Bob Moog moved into the area; Let’s call him and see if he wants to play the festival!” And, you know, I’m the only musician in the crowd and I’m thinking to myself, that’s not gonna happen in a million years. So, I said “Okay—I’ll play the fool in this.” I actually found out his number and called him. He says, “Well is there anybody else playing synthesizers?” Ironically, the only other person in the region at that time playing synthesizers was my close friend Mike Abbott and Mike and I were doing some songwriting and performing as a duo. Bob just immediately says, “Great! I’ll play with you guys!” And, I almost had a heart attack. It was like somebody had thrown a bucket of water over me. 

I called up Mike and I said, “You’re not gonna believe this.” I told him, and he got real quiet on the phone and I realized that he felt that same sense of awe and fear. I said, “Man, we are going to have to step up our game, big time.” So, that put us both into a frenzied mode of creativity. We were continually getting together every free moment and he was composing stuff and I was composing stuff.

The first performance was the summer of 1980 at Bele Chere. And we performed on a stage in front of Pack Library. And because it was Bob Moog—not because it was Dan Lewis or Mike Abbott—most of the festival attendees turned out for that particular show. And the combination of acoustic instruments and Mike’s wonderful keyboard—and then Bob Moog? It was unlike anything Asheville had ever heard before. And it was so successful, I said to Bob, “Would you consider doing one more show? Instead of doing a street festival where there’s all these distractions and distant crowd noises or automobile noise, let’s do a serious one.” I contacted the Asheville Art Museum and they immediately agreed. So, the second—and best—performance was at that time, November 23rd, 1980. The accumulated recordings were later released through the Bob Moog Foundation as Moog, Abbott, And Lewis: The Gig Tape

 

 

You’ve been in Asheville for a very long time and seen many changes. Are there any elements of the old Asheville that you fell in love with that remain visible in modern-day Asheville? 

Asheville has always been a cool place, even when it was abandoned. The fact that it’s an old town, there’s, fortunately, a fair number of the old buildings still intact. I will say this—if you go back to when the hippies first started their back-to-the-earth movement, they were coming out of places like New York City—big cities. And generally speaking, Asheville’s always been fairly inclusive and has continued to be a place that's welcoming of counter-cultural elements. So that remains. 

I think the sad thing is that you have all these talented people who will no longer come out and perform because the money has not changed in 30 to 40 years. Everything else—every single thing you can name—has gone up in price and value. It used to be you could buy a case of beer for $5. Now, we’re buying a pint of beer, made locally, for $5. The great irony is that all these clubs are making so much more money than they used to. Instead of selling Budweisers and PBRs, now they’re selling local beer that hasn’t even been trucked anywhere. Yet there’s no trickle-down when it comes to music. So, musicians, who’ve been playing 30 to 40 years, look out there and go, “Wait a minute—that’s the same money we were getting back in the ’70s. I’m not playing for chump change.”

As a young musician coming up, I was just thirsty to hear my betters. I wanted to steal a chord, I wanted to hear something that would spark something in me. Now when I go out, it seems like everybody is so intent upon their own performance that it doesn’t matter who or what came before or after, to say, “I want my moment and I’m not here to learn anything—I’m here to show what I’ve got.” So, ironically, the less you play, the less people know about you. And you can sort of work yourself right into obscurity waiting for the good gig. So ironically, I’m probably at the peak of my musical powers and yet relatively unknown in my own hometown. So, where do you play? And who will come out? 


 

 

About the Author

Jonathan Kirby is a record collector, author, and producer with the esteemed reissue label, the Numero Group. A native of Winston-Salem, he is an authority on music recorded in the Carolinas and has amassed thousands of independently produced records from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, spanning all genres from doo-wop to hip-hop, folk to funk to rock. From 2007 to 2010, he served as the Associate Editor for the Brooklyn-based music Journal, Wax Poetics, before joining the Numero Group in 2011. He has been nominated for two Grammys in relation to his archival work—in 2014 for his expansive liner notes for Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound and again in 2017 for producing Bobo Yeye: Belle Epoque in Upper Volta. He returned to Winston-Salem in May of 2018 to intensify his research and preservation of the underrated, unknown, and marginalized musicians of North Carolina. He has just completed the cover story for the Oxford American South Carolina Music Issue, where he goes deep on the musical accomplishments of Lake City native and astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair, whose untimely death aboard the Challenger in 1986 put a tragic end to saxophone solos performed in orbit.