By Laura LaVoie and Steve Shanafelt
Why are so many creative people drawn to the mountains of Western North Carolina?
Is it simply that the beauty of the hills and valleys of the Blue Ridge is inspiring? Is it the fusion of a rich folk heritage of traditional music and dance meeting a more cosmopolitan community that has always enjoyed the novelties of innovation? Is it blazing fall colors, stunning sunsets and the glory of the natural world colliding with a regular influx of one-time tourists who felt something so special here that they simply never left?
You see, mountains make getting around hard to do. Before we had the modern road system, our area was fairly isolated. Too rugged an area for plantations, the communities tended to be small and self-reliant. When the people who lived there played music, they played the songs like their parents and grandparents played. As the Cherokee traditions, folk music and dance from Irish and Scottish settlers and influences from the African slave populations in the neighboring piedmont area met and combined, the Southern Appalachian region would develop early versions of “old-time” music (the ancestor of bluegrass and country) and clogging (which would later develop into tap dance).
By the time George Vanderbilt decided to construct his “little mountain escape” in the area (we call it the Biltmore Estate today), the local music and dance traditions had become original forms in their own right. It took skilled craftsmen from all over America and Europe to construct the Biltmore Estate, and when the project was completed, many had fallen in love with the area and decided to settle here. Around the same time, a Madison County lawyer-turned-musician named Bascom Lamar Lunsford began his lifelong passion of sharing Appalachian music across the East Coast.
It was Lunsford, in fact, who gathered the talent for what is arguably the first folk music festival in history, the 1928 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville.
Slowly, people across the country, and then the globe, started to realize that this isolated area known mostly for its rural beauty had a unique cultural movement on par with the growing blues and jazz movements of the time.
And as more people began visiting the WNC region, and as the roads and rail systems improved to let the locals visit other places, a huge cultural conversation began. Writers like Thomas Wolfe would introduce the world to the unique culture of the area (both flattering and not so) in works like Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again, while F. Scott Fitzgerald and O. Henry would come to the area looking for inspiration … and work.
The region was thriving, Asheville in particular, bringing hordes of talented musicians and entertainers through. Even after the massive stock market crash and the end of the boom years, many of them stayed in the area.
It’s no surprise, then, that many of those talented folks became teachers. They taught in colleges, in high schools, in private lessons and in clubs just for the joy of it. Some of them stayed for only a few years, some for their entire lives. Many were world-class musicians and dancers with names you’ve probably heard – Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Lou Harrison – while others lived more quiet, obscure lives passing on their lifetimes of knowledge to local students. They built up the music and dance programs at Mars Hill College, UNC-Asheville and Western Carolina. (The Brevard Music Center, for instance, brings hundreds of the most talented classical music students in the Southeast through the region every summer.)
And their students built on those lessons, starting bands and dance troupes, becoming working musicians and dancers across the globe, and founding theaters and music venues.
Some of them even became world-class performers in their own right, bringing local talent back to WNC every chance they get. Native son and Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers Band icon Warren Haynes has brought some of the world’s most famed musicians to town for decades in his annual Christmas Jam event. WNC native Doc Watson not only won seven Grammy awards and helped to make bluegrass a household word, but he also founded MerleFest, which brings a flood of top-notch performers to Wilkesboro every year.
Nationally known events like Bele Chere, MoogFest, Fook Moot and the Lake Eden Arts Festival don’t happen in WNC by accident. Musicians and dancers actively want to come to an area known for having a thriving arts community, and they’ll often sign on even if the money is less than they’re used to. They want to be here because it’s a beautiful, interesting place filled with talented people.
It’s probably the same reason you’re here, right?
And who wouldn’t want to at least visit a community where regular community drum circles happen mere blocks away from Shindig on the Green, one of the longest-running bluegrass/old-time jams in the country? WNC is home to both very traditional events like the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival and the extremely non-traditional Asheville Burlesque and Sideshow Festival. We’re home to countless dance and music organizations, and almost every restaurant or bar with enough floorspace regularly hosts live music and dance events.
If you’re not from a region that is so embracing of music and dance (and artistic and creative expression in general), it can cause a bit of culture shock. And if you truly love those things, it’s a very hard place to leave. Sure, the wages can be low and the cost of living high, but that’s a small price to pay to be around such cultural vitality.
Of course, there might not be a strong musical culture in the area if it were just musicians playing music for their own amusement. But thanks to decades of attracting extraordinarily talented people to the area, the whole region knows that WNC is the place to go for great entertainment as well.
It’s not only part of our culture, it’s part of our economy. It’s why we have venues like the US Cellular Center and Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the Orange Peel and the Grey Eagle, and smaller venues like Jack of the Wood and Bobo that can barely contain the crowds they attract.
These mountains also have a rich tradition of public radio, dating all the way back to WWNC’s first tentative signals from the Vanderbilt Hotel in downtown Asheville in 1927. In fact, when Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys performed a 15-minute segment on the Mountain Music Time show, the station was the first in the nation to broadcast bluegrass music.
Although WWNC long ago switched formats (it’s now a talk radio station), local airwaves still hum with great local and regional music. Based in Spindale (but streaming worldwide), WNCW is known for its eclectic mix of genres and strong support of local music. For man people WNCW is the best place, second only to live music venues, to hear new music. But WNCW is hardly the only radio station to support the local music and dance community. Local public radio station WCQS regularly supports local performers, as does low-powered FM station MAINFM. Meanwhile, the internet-based community radio station Asheville FM is a constant showcase of local talent. Creativity is as much a part of our airwaves as it is of our culture.
There’s more to the story than just music and dance, of course. There’s a huge visual arts and craft scene, a thriving literary community and one of the best street-performance cultures in the nation. Spirituality and alternative health are huge here. The organic food and bustling food communities are putting WNC on the map, while the local beer and brewing industry is already known internationally. Creative, interesting people like being around other creative, interesting people, and for decades they’ve been drawn to WNC because it’s simply a great place to live.
These creative sects are constantly interacting with each other, with outstanding dancers waiting tables in a Waynesville between tours, or an outstanding musician working in an Asheville brewery while saving money for a new album. They rub elbows with each other, attend each others’ performances and collaborate in ways rarely seen outside of arts enclaves in huge cities like New York or Chicago.
Creativity flows through this region just like the French Broad River, carrying top-notch talent through the area in every field, not just music and dance. Maybe it’s the mystical “crystal vortex” you sometimes hear people joking about, energizing the area in supernatural ways. Or maybe it’s a fluke of beauty, timing and coincidence. The important thing is that it exists, right here and now.
Laura LaVoie is a freelance writer living in the mountains of North Carolina in a 120 Square Foot house with her partner and their hairless cat, Piglet. You can read about her tiny house adventures at 120squarefeet.com. Laura also enjoys simple living, brewing and drinking craft beer, and popular culture.
Steve Shanafelt is a freelance writer and editor. He also intermittently documents Asheville’s street performance scene at BuskBreak.com.