Asheville’s Local Music Scene Is Putting North Carolina On The Map In A Big Way

Every fall, the city of Asheville, North Carolina is flooded with tourists who are eager to see autumn leaves. Visitors from all over the world infamously fly to the city during the season to see the trees turn color. Whether it’s because they live in a climate that doesn’t go through the yearly color change, or it’s simply to bask in the beauty of this specific place, apparently the colorful foliage provides a huge seasonal pull for the region.

The correlation is so strong, that a local nearby music festival even draws its name from the phenomenon — the LEAF festival has been going strong for over 20 years and shows no signs of slowing down.

But, when I headed down to Asheville for my first visit late this past fall, I actually had no idea about the stunning foliage that would await me. As a native Oregonian who now lives in LA, this was definitely a sight for sore eyes, though landscape alone isn’t something I’d generally make a long trip for. Instead, I had a different priority in mind, as I usually do — music. The city’s history with music is written proudly, loud and clear in the sole location of the MOOG factory, historic venues like The Orange Peel, and a newly-emerging, highly-regarded recording studio, Echo Mountain Recording.

Composed of two buildings, one of the main recording studios is housed in an old — and slightly spooky — converted church. If you’ve heard The War On Drugs’ 2011 breakout Slave Ambient, the 2014 follow-up, Lost In The Dream, or Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, then you’ve heard this studio’s eerie, bleakly beautiful power. Given the grip those three records, in particular, have on my heart — and a host of others that have also been recorded at Echo Mountain — it was one of my first stops after arriving in the city via a redeye. Still a little sleepy, perhaps I was more attuned to the spiritual aura of the place than usual, but it felt like something more than God glinted in the sunlight. There are certain spaces where you feel like more than yourself, and whatever name you give to that pull, it exists here.

After leaving the quiet sanctuary (quite literally) of the studio, I walked the brief couple blocks downtown, to Pritchard Park, for the weekly drum circle, a community event where anyone can participate in drumming, dancing or watching. Despite my appreciation, I can barely keep rhythm, so I watched the diverse crowd join together in a pursuit so earnest, surely someone there was making a snarky comment about the whole thing on social media.

I didn’t feel that way though — it seemed like a remnant from a more pure era, where a joke or demeaning comment wasn’t a surefire way to gain clout online. And, later in the weekend, when I tried to abandon myself to the rhythm during a drumming class (highly recommended, at Skinny Beats Sound Shop), I realized that sense of freedom is harder to come by than it looks — but live music is a key component in attempting to feel it.

Live music is literally everywhere in Asheville. Somewhere around the fifth stop of the day, I realized every single bar, restaurant, shop, and venue I’d been inside of had featured or catered to live music. In fact, several bands had set up shop on the sidewalks throughout the city, too, so arguably it wasn’t just the times I’d been inside that music had permeated my Asheville experience — and this was just my first day there. Though it may not bear the nickname “Music City” like its Tennessee counterpart Nashville, or boast the beginning of a genre like New York’s hip-hop era, Asheville has slowly but surely become a place that is synonymous with music — especially live music — and lots of it.

Whether it’s folk-rock star Angel Olsen decamping to make her home there, or multiple other acquaintances who work in the music industry, I’ve noticed a steady trickle of ex-pats leaving the more hectic hubs of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York for the haven of North Carolina. Don’t let the name fool you, Asheville is firmly in the south, and as such comes equipped with a slower pace of life and a level of hospitality that you just can’t get elsewhere in America. It’s a city that feels like a small town, but simultaneously has more cultural events going on that plenty of other big cities I’ve visited.

One local attraction that feels oh so uniquely Asheville is the LaZoom Band and Beer bus tour, an old school bus retrofitted to make space for a band to play in the front that carts passengers around to various breweries, and even allows you to drink while driving (the driver, of course, is completely sober). Of everything I did while visiting, this was hands down my favorite activity, toeing the line between playful, useful, and entertaining.

On Saturday night, a friend and I attended Bon Iver’s show at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, and maybe it’s just because I’d been around local musicians all weekend, but the show felt a bit austere. Still, it speaks to Asheville’s appeal — and the city’s local music community — that a superstar like Justin Vernon will book not one, but two shows there as part of a very exclusive, short tour.

After exploring the Moog Factory, and checking out Asheville’s emerging local radio station Asheville FM, I prepared to say goodbye to the city with something quite opposite to foliage photos — a visit to the healing salt caves. Packed to the brim with Himalayan pink salt known for its restorative, cleansing properties, I let all the liquor, beer, and greasy fried food (word to King’s Daddy’s Chicken & Waffle) sweat out in the cool, dark room. Even here, music faintly played, underscoring its presence in the city as a constant, not an exception.

On my cab back to the airport, my driver took me a special route so I could get a better view of the leaves he thought were the most brilliant. It was a nice gesture, but my mind was still back at the local music venue, The Mothlight, remembering Angel Olsen’s surprise appearance at Jaye Bartell’s show. It was with the French folk musicians playing to a half-empty but rapt crowd at the Crow and Quill. It was stuck at Wicked Weed Brewing Pub’s outdoor festival, watching Of Montreal and reminiscing about my obsession with them in college. I missed the leaves because I was lost in the dream, falling for a city on the cusp of a major breakout. Leaves be damned — visit Asheville for the music.

Learn more about Asheville’s music scene.