Men Making Music and Making Music Happen!

By: Peggy Ratusz


What a daunting task for me to narrow this feature down to just a few men who make music,  and men who make music happen. For those of you not mentioned in this feature, know that it is only because I haven’t yet been given an advance to write my full length book: Men Who Make Music in WNC.


For Jacob Rodriguez, baritone saxophonist, and trumpeter Justin Ray, taking residency in Asheville NC but touring nationally and internationally for the past many years with Warner Brothers recording artist Michael Buble, is a musical godsend for all of us. Rodriguez and Ray have played on albums such as Michael Buble Meets Madison Square Garden.  And both were featured in the PBS Great Performances Series documenting that Grammy winning live album.  Jacob started playing sax at age 11 in San Antonio, Texas and in 2001 graduated from Texas State University, San Marcos. He moved to New York City after that and by 2005 he was graduated from Manhattan School of Music. He joined Buble’s band in 2007. Thirty-seven year old Ray graduated high school in Albuquerque, NM and received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and after, completed his Masters Degree in Music Education at The University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He’s been touring with Buble’s band for the past nine years. Both of these outstanding horn players perform with some of Asheville’s best bands when they have breaks from touring with Buble: Stephaniesid, The Archrivals, Jon Reid, Alien Music Club. These composers, lyricists, arrangers, producers and players possess solid, sincere, playful, sexy, funky, bombastic, melancholy, stupendous virtuosic chops and it’s our great pleasure to neighbor with such warm and caring unaffected individuals. When they’re here, you’ll find them at Barley’s on Biltmore Avenue on any given Thursday, playing the weekly Jazz Jam hosted by local jazz guitarist Jonathan Pearlman, or at Tressa’s on Broadway for Hard Bop Wednesdays (1st and 3rd of the month).


Brian Lee is a man on a mission. And together with his wife, Tiffany Hampton Lee they bought and renovated the 4- story, 117 year old historic building located at 18 Church Street which they named The Altamont Theatre. This fully realized, sonically pleasing listening room with state of the art sound and stage is now a venue for local, regional, national and internationally known musicians from all walks and genres. The Lee’s successfully completed the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification which is a rating system that promotes efficiency and other environmentally friendly construction guidelines. The main floor entrance houses the ticket office and the 120-150 capacity black-box theater and the basement level is an aesthetically pleasing freshly designed art gallery and bar with restrooms. There’s an official “green room” with separate dressing areas and bathrooms as well as their administrative offices. The top two floors consist of 6 vacation rental apartments that when available, out of town acts can utilize for an overnight stay. So far, Brian and Tiffany have hosted some outstanding shows starring such greats as Kim Richey, Chuck Brodsky, Laurence Juber, John McVey, Mary Gauthier, Bill Staines and Bob Margolin. Coming up in June you’ll have a chance to hear The Trishas on June 2nd, Madison Violet on June 3rd, Lovestruck Suckers with 10 Cent Poetry on June 9t and on June 19th a UK Comedic String Band called New Rope. The July 13-15th weekend will pack a wallop with 4 great acts including Big Daddy Love, Brushfire Stankgrass, Free Plantet Radio with the Billy Sea and Gina Sicilia. Along with these fantastic and wonderfully diverse shows, they have incorporated weekly music series’ such as Tuesday’s Original Music Night hosted by phenomenal upright bassist, Mike Holstein, and versatile drummer, Justin Watt. Also on the calendar every month is the Sound Check Music series hosted by sound engineer to the stars and multi-instrumentalist singer songwriter, Aaron Price. Most shows start at a palatable 8p. Please check their website and support this relatively new and extremely vital listening room venue.


Alright, alright, alright!!! Recently transplanted Tampa Bay, Florida Bluesman, Al “Coffee” McDaniel is one of the best performers gracing Asheville and surrounding area stages. His smooth baritone voice has been compared to Richie Havens and his guitar style is deliberate and colorful. Armed with a Gibson Les Paul Custom his shows are irresistibly entertaining. He customizes the covers and he blows your mind with powerful original Rhythm and Blues. His 2007 release, “Blues in My Shoes” came out and what followed was a barrage of positive reviews across the Southeast. McDaniel was raised in Florida and his first experience on stage, at 5 years of age was with a sibling group called “The Sunbeam Singers.”  They sang in churches every Sunday and were regular guests on local radio programs. Rotating nightclub gigs followed when he was merely 14 years old. His singing and playing were so mature and mesmerizing that club owners made concessions that allowed him to play even though he was not of legal drinking age. In High School he was part of a five piece group that called themselves The Tampanian Pimps and he performed with them locally until graduation. During that tenure the group went from a 5 piece to a 12 member show band that included an MC!  After high school he helped form “The Congregation Band” and for the next 10 years, they played many Florida hot spots.  He recorded 2 Gospel Albums as well:  “A Message to Deliver” and “Be Paryed Up” and went on a national tour from Washington D.C. to Las Vegas, supporting those records that included television appearances such as The Bobby Jones Gospel Show.  After touring, he returned to his hometown and began working in the nightclub scene again and started an independent record label, CPA Records. “Al Coffee and Special Blend” was a project that he started where he pulled from a stable of Tampa Bay thoroughbred musicians. They played the hotel circuit including an exclusive with Marriott Resorts. When he and his wife, Sherry married in 2008, she told him she yearned to get back to her roots. The Tri Cities area where she was born and raised beckoned to her and Coffee willingly followed her here in October of 2011. They bought a house in Mars Hill and since then he’s played local venues such as Olive or Twist and Tressa’s. Moving forward, he hopes to work to help rejuvenate the Blues Society that went defunct two years ago. His new band, “Al Coffee and Da Grind” includes notable local players such as Duane Simpson, Jeff Rudolph, Rob Geisler, Ben Bejorlie, Jake Wolf, and Jay Tooke. He’s currently working on his next independent release that will be a collaborative effort using Florida and North Carolinian musicians. CPA Records is a fully functioning in-home studio that is equipped to handle producing a fully retailed ready project. Check out his work, his studio, his record label and his calendar at


Our beloved brother, Aaron Price is a guy who everybody either has worked with or wants to. He’s a musician, producer, composer, sound engineer and friend. The diversity of form, function and feel he embodies is every fellow musician’s dream come true and makes him the proverbial go-to guy whether it’s behind the board or behind one of the many instruments he’s mastered. Oh and lest I forget to mention, he’s a Buncombe County Internet Chess champion! The list of incredible records he’s played on and/or produced or co-produced is long. He’s worked with locals Malcolm Holcomb, Kellin Watson, The Honeycutters, Amanda Platt, Nikki Talley, Aaron Wood, etc, etc, as well as even more well known artists like Jesse Mae Hemphill, Scrappy  Hamilton, The Blue Rags and most recently Blues guitarist, John McVey. He’s had his hands in many musical theater productions and co-owns Collapsible Studios.  Where he found time to write, record and release his piano solo album, Bouquet or his pop album Glass Opera is anyone’s guess. From a very young age, his skills were honed in Lutheran and Methodist churches where the music was often led by his mother. During his childhood he spent 6 years as a member of the Raleigh Boy’s Choir and earned a Marketing degree at Appalachian State University. While attending college, he moonlighted playing Jazz piano in the ASU Jazz Ensemble. Within a year of moving to Asheville in 1997, he formed a cabaret act with native chanteuse Kelly Brown and upright bassist, Mike Holstein called Vendetta and the Nines, later renamed Vendetta Crème Cabaret.  He’s been called the “man behind the Asheville sound” and it’s a moniker that fits him to a “T.”


Richard McSherry learned about producing shows, managing music venues and booking name brand acts from Hollywood royalty. His affiliation with the Phoenix family (as in River Phoenix) started in the early 1990’s when the late actor planned to open a 2000 capacity club in St. Petersburg, Florida called The Rubb which later became Twilight. Love of music was the fuel that made his engine run, and his enthusiasm down the fast track of educating himself in the art of hospitality and promoting artists, keeping the focus on the musician, has paid off quite a bit. Soon he was booking everybody from Buena Vista Social Club to the Red Hot Chili Peppers; from Eddie Money to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as well as Melissa Ferrick, The Donnas, North Mississippi All Stars and more. “Good music at good prices” has always been his motto, as he sits behind the wheel booking music for Jack of the Wood in downtown Asheville and Jack of Hearts in Weaverville. Landing in Asheville almost two years ago and in the midst of this teetering economy, he was fortunate to find himself behind the bar at Jack of the Wood on Bele Chere weekend, while still living out of his van. The Mountains called to him after attending shows here years ago that he’d booked for an artist he was managing from California’s Big Sur area. His deliberate efficiency stems from the respect he has for all types of artists. Honoring living legends as well as up and coming, on the fringe and sought after entertainers, bands, solo artists and songwriters both male and female proves that spreading the love around is the right thing to do, as evidenced by the capacity turn out for many of the shows he has and does schedule. He recently invited 75 year old surfer guitar legend, Dick Dale to the Wood for a sold-out show and as I write this, 72 year old Blues Queen, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins is set to play a trio of shows at both Jacks.  In this town, it’s a huge task attempting to include the oodles of great talent we have in our own back yard, but he manages to do it pretty doggone well. Many of the all-day shows at Jack of the Wood and Jack of Hearts are free, while someone like Jim Lauderdale on June 9th who will be with his band at Jack of the Wood and a solo show on Sunday June 10th’s Jack of Hearts Brunch are priced higher but what you get in return is a unique and rare intimate experience. Local Bluegrassers, Sanctum Sully, will open for both of Lauderdale’s shows. The owner of Harvest Records, Mark Capon and his band Floating Action with Seth Kaufman at the front, will be at Jack of the Wood on Friday June 1st for $7. Richard told me that Capon’s input, guidance and friendship has helped him more than he can say. And Richard adds that “none of what I do could be possible without the help of my girlfriend, Afton Duckworth whose publicity efforts and support with all angles to getting things done, is something I marvel and appreciate.”  Behind every great man, is a self-propelled and dedicated woman; right ladies?


Peggy Ratusz is a songstress, writer and vocal coach;


Photo Credits (in order)
Beasley, Rodriguez, Ray & Davis  Photo by Frank Zipperer

Al Coffee McDaniel at the Altamont  Photo by Peggy Ratusz
Aaron Price
Photo by Frank Zipperer

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker