It all started with an offer, a bar — or restaurant, depending on who you talk to — and a U-Haul truck.
That’s how the Smoky Mountain Brass Band, one of the region’s first and longest standing community bands, got its genesis. Thirty years later, it’s still going strong.
The offer was from Yamaha, a world leader in musical instruments. They were trying to drum up some interest in brass bands in America, so they offered free leases on instruments for the first year.
So, said Dick Trevarthen, the group’s founding conductor, he and a few others who had gone to Raleigh for an interest meeting, went across the street to the bar/restaurant to discuss the proposition.
The next day, they’d loaded a U-Haul and drove their new instruments back to Waynesville. They had officially started a brass band.
In the intervening three decades, the band has gone through many incarnations — a string of conductors, and a long roster of members. They were once fierce competitors, winning the first North American Brass Band Association championship in 1985. Then they had a smaller performing group called the Smoky 12 who traveled to fairs, festivals and the like most every weekend there for a while.
After a few years, they got out of the competition circuit — too taxing, both physically and financially — but they kept on performing around the region, eventually raising enough money to pay off their instruments about 10 years into it.
Ron Heulster is the only band member who has been with it for all 30 years. He figures he wins the group award for going the longest stint without playing his instrument. Heulster spent 20 years away from the horn, and the instrument he plays today he’d never touched before joining the band.
For Heulster, those years of competition and performance-heavy calendars were probably the most exciting he’s seen with the band. But they were also the hardest.
“I think there was a time I thought, ‘is this what it’s like to be a musician?’” said Huelster, who isn’t a musician by trade. In fact, none of the band members are, or ever have been, really.
There have always been music professionals in the band or leading it — band directors of all stripes, some music professors — but mostly, the group is comprised of people in thoroughly non-musical careers.
“The people come from all over,” said John Entzi, the group’s current director. “We’ve got a math teacher at Asheville High School, a financial planner, a former band director retired from Florida, a middle school teacher, a retired salesman, a former music teacher, a pharmacist at Mission. So you can see the wide angle. We’ve got people in there who are professional quality players and people who play the horn only once a week.”
And that has always been a mission of the band, to be for the community.
“One of the first things our board of directors decided was that anyone who wanted to play who could play halfway decently could play at any age,” said Dick Trevarthen, a founding member of the group and its conductor for 11 years.
Of course there is an audition process, but mostly people come for the love of the music.
Before he founded the brass band, Trevarthen tried to get a concert band going in Waynesville. It was mostly brass players that showed up, though.
“Brass players showed up from all over, and very few woodwind players, and that seems to be characteristic,” said Trevarthen.
Bill Bryant, who conducted the group until 2006, said that’s because, among brass players, there’s a distinct camaraderie.
“Brass players feel a certain kinship,” said Bryant. “With brass band people, it’s a following, so that they have their own festivals and their own competitions and their own literature. It’s its own family, its own fraternity of brass players.”
And that probably has something to do with the history of the brass band itself.
Brass bands in the United States just started springing up over the last three decades, and even now they’re usually only found in larger cities like Raleigh and Atlanta.
But the brass band tradition was birthed over a century ago in Great Britain, where amateur musicianship found a home among the working class. Bands were formed in communities, but most notably around large-scale employers such as mills and mines. Where America had company baseball leagues, the British had company brass bands that would pack theaters to compete against each other for cash prizes.
In the 1890s, there were more than 40,000 amateur bands up and down the country, practicing in lunch breaks and after work.
So the tradition is built around the people and the brotherhood that the band forms.
For most in the Smoky Mountain Brass Band, that’s what keeps it an appealing prospect 30 years in.
“I keep going back to the people. They’re the driving force in that band,” said Entzi.
Trevarthen agrees, and he’s glad that the group’s original focus has remained essentially the same.
“It’s the music itself and the camaraderie. We had great musical moments in concerts and in competitions, but also just a great deal of fun,” said Trevarthen.
Now that they’re heading into their 30th season, they’re still looking to make great music and have a great time doing it.
Heulster said he, like many musicians, just love getting up on the stage and performing with other players.
“I do it for the enjoyment of playing,” said Heulster. “I’m not a crossword puzzle person, I read a lot, but music is a way of keeping active. There’s something exciting about playing in a group of people.” And it’s what, after 30 years, keeps him coming back to practice every Tuesday.
See them in concert
When: 3 p.m., June 19
Where: Waynesville Courthouse Steps
Why: Donations will benefit the Phil Campbell High School Band in Phil Campbell, Ala., which was destroyed by tornadoes in April.