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.