“This song was written before the USDA got their hands on organic standards,” announces the booming voice from the stage. It’s a Friday night in late April and the attention of the crowd at Sylva’s Soul Infusion Bistro is centered on bass player Adam Bigelow.
“We in no way endorse USDA organic standards,” Bigelow continues. “Buy local from someone you know. We support the Jackson County Farmers Market — because we’re for real.”
At six-foot-four, with a distinctive baritone and seemingly permanent smile, Adam Bigelow is one of Jackson County’s most recognizable local musicians. He might also be one of the busiest. He performs every Tuesday night at Guadalupe Café’s “Old Timey Music Jam” and is also the bass player for local groups The Dan River Drifters, The Imperative and Cooking with Quanta. In the last two weeks alone, Bigelow has played 11 gigs, with several more still to go.
But musician is only one of Adam Bigelow’s many roles. He might be just as quickly recognized for his work in several Jackson County community and conservation groups. And apart from being a self-professed “plant nerd,” a rock-and-roll evangelist and an active community member, now Adam Bigelow will have a new title — 40-year-old college graduate.
Last Saturday, Bigelow got his bachelor’s in environmental sciences from Western Carolina University.
Thursday evening finds a bare-footed Bigelow at downtown Sylva’s Community Garden, a volunteer organization that supplies organically grown produce to The Community Table, which serves meals to Jackson County residents in need. Bigelow coordinates a weekly volunteer workday, but this particular Thursday also marks Bigelow’s last day of classes at WCU.
“This is exactly where I want to be right now,” he says. “In my happy spot.”
A native of Hampton, Va., Bigelow moved to Sylva from Goldsboro at age 22, intending to study radio and television production at Southwestern Community College. Those plans quickly changed.
“I dropped out of school, but fell in love with the mountains,” he says. “People come here, go to school, and leave. Or people grow up here, stay for a little while and leave. But then there are others that move here from elsewhere and say, ‘This place is amazing. Why would you want to live anywhere else?’ And they stay.”
These days Bigelow is involved with many community efforts, mostly centered on environmental conservation. This is his fifth season at the Community Garden, but he is also involved with the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the Highlands Native Plants Conference and the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference.
“Unfortunately, I have to credit Wal-Mart with sparking my interest in plants,” Bigelow says. He worked in the garden center at the Franklin Wal-Mart for a few years before working for a local landscaping company and taking courses in horticulture. Seeking to “just learn more,” Bigelow returned to school and earned an associate’s degree from Haywood Community College, an experience that he credits with turning him from “a person who liked plants into a horticulturist.”
“I never thought I was going to get a real degree.” Bigelow says. Then, with a characteristic grin, he adds, “It’s an A.A.S. degree, but I wish it was an A.S.S. degree to match my B.S. degree.”
As far-fetched as attaining a degree might have seemed to Bigelow at one time, being a performing musician must have seemed even more unlikely.
“For most people, when you get to your mid twenties, if you haven’t already become an artist, the chances are you’re not going to do it,” he says. “It was really a response to trauma and life changes that put me into playing music.”
Despite taking guitar lessons as a child, Bigelow had abandoned his musical ambitions, due in part to a disastrous elementary school talent show and a failed attempt at performing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Bigelow didn’t perform in front of an audience again until he was 27 and began playing electric bass for a four piece jam and cover band that lasted two shows. But then sometime around August 2001 (the actual founding date is apparently a matter of debate), Bigelow was approached by his friend Greg Walker about a new project.
“That second band was Cooking with Quanta,” Bigelow says. “I have been in that band ever since and I will be in that band for the rest of my life.”
After four years of playing electric bass, Bigelow was introduced to what would become his trademark instrument, the acoustic upright bass. With the upright, he started attending the Old Timey Music Jams, where he began playing with fiddler Ian Moore and guitarist Hal Herzog. The immediate results, however, were not entirely encouraging.
“I played that first night and I didn’t know any of the songs,” Bigelow recalls. “Hal denies this but I remember. At one point, he looked over at me and said, ‘Boy, when you don’t know a song you sure do play it loud.’”
Despite initial set-backs, Bigelow has been playing with Moore and Herzog for three years now. In addition to those performances, Bigelow plays his upright acoustic for the Dan River Drifters, a group of younger “pickers,” with whom he has been playing for over a year.
“I don’t like listening to only one type of music,” Bigelow says. “I don’t even like playing only one type of music. You know, four hours of bluegrass will drive you insane. Four hours of any one type of music will.”
Like most recent and soon-to-be college graduates, Bigelow is nervous about his future. Faced with the daunting task of paying back student loans, he jokes about entering into “an experiment in poverty.” At this point, graduate school is not a favored option, though his hope is to work in garden-based environmental education “teaching people how to create a sustainable future.”
But perhaps most fittingly, his first move upon graduation was to kick back and play some music in celebration, at a graduation-cum-birthday bash to herald his achievements and hope for the future.
“I was thinking, ‘What do I want to do for my graduation?’ and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than play music. I love the fact that I’m a musician. I’m so lucky.”
— By Carrie Eidson