Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around
Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around every bend in the road, communities with identities all their own remind us that our mountains contain multitudes.
Let us begin in the center — Pack Square Park in the heart of downtown Asheville — and follow the sound of drums in the distance. Within two blocks, our feet will switch from a casual walk to an anchor for our hips to sway, moved by a tribe of like-minded lovers of rhythm.
A percussion circle in Pritchard Park is contributing to a groove that cannot be stopped. Hands clasping tambourines, bongos, washboards scraped with metal picks, African drums clenched between the players’ knees, cowbells, cymbals, wood blocks slapped together or banged with sticks. One child has a hubcap that she pocks with a rock. There’s a trio of belly dancers clicking their castanets as their hips rock and sway, and every person present, regardless of gender, creed, or color, claps along. One elderly couple, with their long gray braids swishing through the air, attempts a rumba. Children bounce and jump and squeal. All the glorious hands slap and thrust in tandem.
Surrounding this beautiful exuberance are buskers ensconced in their own bubbles of music, each staking out a street corner and dropping a hat to gather change. Buskers have long been a component that defines the city, and in 2014, the Asheville Buskers Collective was established by Abby “The Spoon Lady” Roach, whose flashing silver utensils create hypersonic polyrhythms as she sinks like a Buddha into the blues or rockabilly of her compatriots. Classically trained dancers and athletic hip-hop enthusiasts trade pirouettes and pelvic thrusts as they respond to the songs emanating from their boom boxes.
Asheville is a town made for drifting, like a bull’s-eye surrounded by interlocking highways that lures artists, musicians, and truth-seekers to come and settle for a spell or forever. Take Lyle Rickards, who’s perched in a storefront, fingering his dulcimer and toting a can of bear mace should anyone get any nefarious ideas about his collection plate. Nearby, Bobby Sax presses his lips against his horn after an Asheville Tourists baseball game. And then there’s Dade Murphy, a living silver statue inside his painted business suit, and mime-influenced gesticulations make him appear in constant thrall to the wind and the passing cars. Yet a child’s gentle pat on his belly can send him into a joyous series of disciplined shivers.
North, just away from downtown, inside the Moog Museum, electronic notes and chords beep, squawk, swell, and fade like robots in conversation. Just as children acquire language to tell the stories that are already within them, Robert Moog used his fascination with the theremin to create the world’s first commercial keyboard synthesizer, which changed the face of music forever. Eventually, like so many others, he found his way to Asheville, where he taught at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and continued to work on designs for instruments whose otherworldly soundscapes challenge and delight generations of innovative composers and listeners.
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Continue with me on a northwest course along the French Broad River, listening to the wind in the pines and the rustle of rhododendrons next to the gurgling water. Birds and crickets and frogs take turns as their part of the symphony. Let’s take a rest at The Marshall Depot, where the Southern Railway stopped for passengers until the 1970s. A handful of local bands are scheduled every Friday night, and there is no admission fee. The former train station opens its doors to professionals and front-porch amateurs alike, who ply their country and bluegrass chops.
Famed songwriter Mickey Newbury once told me that the blues came from the sound of a train clacking down the tracks: “You’re either blue because you can hear it coming and you cannot ride, or blue because it’s leaving and passed you by.” Fiddle players from every nook, cranny, and holler in Madison County find their way to The Marshall Depot, sawing on their instruments and measuring their worth.
Fiddlers from every nook, cranny, and holler in Madison County find their way to The Marshall Depot.
But the gold standard for bluegrass fiddle players stands and delivers at the other end of town, at Zuma Coffee & Provisions’ Thursday Night Jam, in the hallowed personage of Bobby Hicks. Dubbed by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe as “the truest fiddler I ever heard,” 89-year-old Hicks has played on more than 50 albums and won three Grammys, and he invites anyone with sufficient gumption to share the stage and play with him. Chicken pickin’ banjo players and harmonica aficionados match wits and licks with the master. Bluegrass lovers and mournful ballad singers converge on the sleepy little town and wake it up most weekends, sharing the age-old tragedies that make for the best ballads: the dirt-poor heartbreak of unrequited love and the high, plaintive, lonesome hiccups that stab into the listener’s broken places and settle there.
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I have stood on Mount Mitchell, the highest mountaintop in the Eastern United States, near the origin of the South Toe River — water so cold that it takes your breath away when you leap into its hidden swimming holes. I stood on the crest of that mountain, 6,600 feet high, and could hear a marching band playing during halftime of the local high school football game miles away. I imagined the frills and hats, the horns lifted in harmony, and the washtub thump of the bass drum keeping time. A little hoot owl was roused by the same atmospheric rumble and followed me down the trail, calling, flitting from tree to tree in the darkness.
I hurled my whole self into that stillness, surrendering to the multiverse of sonic architecture that is never completed but erected one melody at a time, as the excited nocturnal bird strings out its contribution beneath a billion stars, making a necklace of shimmering notes that pulls me home.