Curly Hollow: From Canton to Nashville and back

By DeeAnna Haney • Smoky Mountain News Intern

Although Curly Hollow might sound like the perfect picnic area down some country road, it’s really more a product of imagination than a destination. In fact, the members of the band Curly Hollow aren’t even sure if such a place truly exists — the name simply resonated with them during their search for a title.

The country-pop band has come a long way since the members first met at a showcase in Nashville in July 2010. Now, less than a year later, members Keil Smith, Zakk Merrill, Charlie Lance, Chris Pruett and Ryan Riddle are celebrating the release of their first extended play record, “Love in Theory.”

Curly Hollow’s sound is mellow and modern at the same time, with a touch of many different musical styles. Each member contributes pieces from varying musical influences such as The Temptations, Jason Aldean, and Miles Davis.

“We try to blend different genres together – jazz, rock, country, blues – and just put our own twist to it and it’s fun that way,” said Zakk Merrill, the band’s bass guitarist.

Lead guitarist Charlie Lance tries to ensure the band’s sound stays original and fresh, not sticking with the same chord progressions in each song. He often incorporates what he learns while practicing for his jazz studies classes into songs for the band.

Most reminiscent of the sounds of Rascal Flatts, Curly Hollow’s songs have attracted traditional country music lovers as well as those who normally steer clear of the genre. The band believes they appeal to a wide variety of musical palettes because of the genre infusions and the passion behind each song.

“It’s one thing when you see a band get on stage but their hearts aren’t really in it,” Lance said. “But there is something cool to be said about seeing somebody do something they’re extremely passionate about and that’s what we try to do.”

Already signed to a Christian label before joining Curly Hollow, lead vocalist Keil Smith said he always harbored a penchant for country music. With an admittedly sappy songwriting style, Smith’s lyrics come directly from the heart.

Each member typically contributes to the songwriting process, although Lance has a difficult time putting his thoughts into words. His preference, he said, is to evoke emotion through his guitar.

“Love in Theory” is a collection of six original songs each exploring love in the best and worst forms, from falling in love to heart break. The EP features a satisfying sample of Curly Hollow’s various sounds such as the rock-and-roll duet with Ami Pruett “Home of Glass,” the simple acoustic guitar accompaniment to “Because,” and the traditionally country twang in “fairytale.”

Spectators attending a Curly Hollow show should expect a high-energy concert, Smith said, because the band is eager to play on stage for the first time. His hope is that the band’s chemistry and camaraderie will radiate through the songs.

“When a band does a good job on stage I feel like I know every member when I leave because they put so much into their performance and that’s what we want,” Lance said.

Visit or iTunes to preview Curly Hollow’s music.


See Curly Hollow at the Colonial

Curly Hollow will play its debut concert with opening act Rewind Blue at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at the Colonial Theatre in Canton. A CD release party will follow the concert. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased at the Colonial Theatre or at Simple Taste Grill in Canton.

Small town alive with music

It’s unsurprising that in the mountain town of Sylva, the music scene is a pretty vibrant place to be. With a long and strong heritage of Appalachian music, it’s only natural that a community would grow up around that scene.

But alongside that long-standing bluegrass tradition is a lively music scene that is less public but still growing, offering the area’s younger crowd an alternative musical outlet that they can help create.

Jeremy Rose has spent years doing just that. As the guitarist and vocalist for Sylva indie band Total War, Rose is a strong member of the alternative, pseudo-underground music scene that has grown from the ground up in Sylva and the university community in Cullowhee.

Though he’s quick to point out that the grassroots groundswell is essentially leaderless —“it really is just a community of people just contributing in their own way” — Rose said he’s been actively cultivating it since coming to the town as a shy college student.

“I guess I just happened to run into a bunch of people that were determined to make something to do,” said Rose, explaining how he fell into the town’s musical world.

While Rose said the cultural experiences offered up by Western Carolina University and the town’s fairly active arts groups are excellent, there has always been plethora of people who are looking for something they can be more involved in. Without a venue springing up, they’ve started doing it themselves.

It’s hard, really, to get a concrete picture of how the whole thing started, nebulous as it is, or even a solid definition of what, exactly, constitutes an “underground music scene.”

But by most estimates, young musicians and music lovers of all kinds, from metal to folk to prog-rock to traditional bluegrass, were looking for a place to practice and enjoy the craft they love. From basements to skate parks to old storefronts, bands and their fans started getting together for performances. When one show was shut down, another sprung up in any place willing to hold it, spurred by online forums and homemade ‘zines produced by Rose, et al.

These days, it’s social networking that gets the word out, and when old supporters fade or move away, new ones always seem to spring up to take their place.

Rose thinks this is one of the endearing things about Sylva’s musical life — thanks to the high turnover provided mostly by WCU students, the town is a perpetual blank canvas, with a pretty steady stream of artists willing to paint it.

“One of the nice things about around here is that people tend to be really supportive because they’re just happy that somebody’s doing something,” said Rose. “If you’re doing anything, everyone will at least come check it out.”

Unlike other, larger markets like Asheville or Knoxville, there’s a multitude of engaged and interested potential fans, which can be hard to come by in a place where live music of all genres is abundant. The problem is usually space, and finding places to play can be difficult.

Recently, businesses like Guadalupe Cafe, Soul Infusion Tea House and Signature Brew Coffee have been offering musicians and their fans a place to perform, which helps keep the shows legal. But not having official hosting places hasn’t been a problem, said Rose.

“It’s really independent of venue,” he said. “Even if there’s nothing there, we’ve always found way — you know basements or somebody’s parents house — if people wanted to do it.”

For bands like Gamenight, a Knoxville-based group, that’s what makes Sylva such an enticing place to play.

The group’s drummer Brandon Manis said they’ve been coming to the town for years because it’s just such a welcoming atmosphere. Their first show there was back in 2003, and they’ve played eight to 10 shows there since, always eeking out time for the tiny mountain locale in their regional touring schedule.

“We love that place,” said Manis. “We’ve played in a lot of places and to a lot of people we didn’t really know and people [in Sylva] are just so receptive. People just really appreciate live music there and it’s not so much just a social event. People actually like seeing live music.”

Rose said he hopes that love of live music and desire to be a part of it will continue. He and his band intend to be in it as long as they’re around. Though he doesn’t know if the town is big enough to support a dedicated venue — over the years several have popped up and withered — his hope is that the town’s young people will always care enough to make art and music a part of their lives and their community, in all manner of genres and media.

“Everybody’s into their own thing in the Internet age — you can live in Cherokee or Sylva and still follow Norwegian metal or New York hipster music — and around here people will be open about things that normally wouldn’t be their thing,” said Rose, and the continued growth of that mindset is what he and others hope for the scene they love and have made.

“It would be great if I left for 20 years and came back and there was still a sign in a window that said ‘basement sale this Saturday,’” said Rose. “Because we want people to support us, so we know that we need to be there to support other people, too.”

The blue side of Derek Trucks

By Chris Cooper

The Derek Trucks Band: Already Free

It’s tough to find something new and profound to say about the playing of Derek Trucks. Words like “prodigy” and “virtuoso” are just too easy to grab. That he has taken the style and work of Duane Allman and sprinted with it really isn’t enough- in many ways he’s moved beyond that particular icon’s influence, speaking strictly in the realm of guitar. To see Trucks in the live format, in the moment, is almost always a transformative experience. With each performance, whether with his band, the Allman Brothers, or any other configuration is to see someone channeling something much bigger and more powerful than merely the person playing the notes. Trucks taps into something beyond words, and transcends the mere act of “guitar playing” into something- forgive me- almost holy.

In the 90’s there was an explosion of talented young blues artists- Johnny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and, of course, Derek Trucks. It’s not that the stars of the aforementioned musicians have faded, but the reality is that Trucks is the pick of the litter, if you will. Not to dismiss the talents of Lang and Shepherd, but at the ripe old age of 10, Trucks was on to something most musicians never find- the essence of music itself; pure expression with a hunk of mahogany, some nickel plated steel and a piece of glass. The last name should help figure out the family tree at this point, if you’re not already hip to the story. The names “Trucks” and “Allman Brothers” are pretty much forever linked. And the recent Rolling Stone story about the new breed of guitar hero included Trucks, along with John Mayer and John Frusciante. Don’t get me wrong, but Trucks was the real hero amidst that particular group- true to his vision and relentless in his pursuit of “real music.”

With Already Free, the Derek Trucks Band (DTB) pools all the elements that make them a wonderful and mercurial thing into something truly real. The playing is there- these guys are wonderfully talented musicians- but so are the songs. “Songs...” that can be a weird thing to discuss in the realm of virtuosic playing. There’s “musician’s music,” the stuff that only people that play an instrument can appreciate. Then there’s actual music, the kind that anyone; the fellow at the gas station, the girl that bags your groceries, the guy at the bank, can find something to relate to. Without a doubt, the DTB has found that “golden mean,” to quote the liner notes. With players like Doyle Bramhall II ( if you don’t remember the Arcangels, shame on you,) Oteil Burbridge and Trucks’ wife, Susan Tedeschi contributing to these tracks, the results almost have no choice but to be spectacular. And spectacular they are, from the opening track- Dylan’s “Down In The Flood” to the orginal, and closer, Trucks and vocalist Mike Mattison’s “Already Free.”

Gospel, soul, blues, electric rock, all of it finds the perfect puzzle piece that fits on Already Free. There’s a Bonnie Raitt reference waiting to be made here, that of someone that took their deep blues influence and made it palatable to an infinitely wider audience. But without reaching so far into “pop” as the inimitable Raitt, Trucks and company have produced an album that doesn’t ride entirely on musicianship alone; again, it’s the quality of the songs that carry the weight. “Days Is Almost Gone” deals with the realization that we have a painfully limited amount of time to get the things done that we need done, Bramhall’s “Maybe This Time” the necessity of perseverance in love. This is not “world weary” music, it’s the music of songwriters and musicians that value the limited days we have available on this planet, and that want the most out of them. Tedeschi’s vocal on “Back Where I Started,” co-penned by fellow Allman Brother Warren Haynes, is a fitting ode to love found and the effort to move beyond the past, and considering her relationship to Trucks, it’s almost the perfect love song.

To say that Already Free is an excellent new “blues” release just doesn’t ring as true as it should. Trucks and his band, vocalist Mike Mattison, bassist Todd Smallie, drummer Yonrico Scott, percussionist Count M’Butu and multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge (along with a slew of guests) have released an album of almost limitless merit, and better, limitless spirit. Spin it and you’re sure to find much of what’s been missing from the airwaves lately. See them live- and hold on to your seat. It’ll be quite a ride.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

More gems from the used bin

Robben Ford and the Blue Line: Handful Of Blues

No, it’s not out of print, nor is “Handful Of Blues” all that hard to find. But when one of your favorite CDs finally succumbs to age and years of mishandling, it’s a lovely surprise to find a “new old” copy staring back at you in the used rack. This was just the case recently, when no amount of cleaning or buffing would allow the last three tracks of this stunning modern blues release (from 1995) to play in their entirety.

Ford’s style is a crafty amalgamation of fiery, stinging blues guitar in the Bloomfield vein and a jazzy harmonic sophistication. There are potent smatterings of rock and soul to be found in that mix as well. Somehow, though, Ford is able to never lean to far in any direction — he stays centered in the blues, but is so crafty at sneaking some very forward thinking “un-blues” lines into his phrases that you never get the feeling he’s a jazzbo in disguise. The opening track, “Rugged Road,” prominently displays this trait — it’s an up-tempo burner that features his burnished but biting tone in a series of amazing solos. Vocally, Ford often divides listeners into the “like it/leave it camps,” and admittedly, a gravelly belter he’s not. But the guy’s got a great voice anyway, smooth and controlled.

The other thing (as if there were merely a few) that separates the guitarist from the blues guitar pack is his neck deep sense of groove — the guy’s a machine. Combined with a rhythm section consisting of remarkable players like bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tom Brechtlein, it makes for not only a lesson in stunning modern blues soloing, but also how to make a power trio truly rock. Their cover of the classic “Chevrolet” is old sock funky and deep, deep blue. The instrumental “The Miller’s Son” is a smoking reworking of Clapton’s “Steppin’ Out” framework, and he masterfully reads “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” into a smoky blues/pop tune.

One more thing, and don’t get wrong for saying this, but Robben Ford is one of the few modern blues guitarists that sound NOTHING like the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan. As fine as the Bonamassa’s and Duarte’s out there are, they’re still treading on all too familiar ground. Ford, in the best way, is a different animal altogether.


Sugar: Copper Blue

If we were to reset the “wayback machine” to 1992, and went looking for some crunchy, literate — oh, how I hate this term — ‘post punk’ pop, Bob Mould’s Copper Blue would be an excellent find. From the ashes of Husker Du, Mould decided to slow things down and push the melodies to the forefront, but in doing so kept the guitars roaring and the tunes damn smart. And sometimes disturbing — the grave and darkly sarcastic pixies-esque “Good Idea” will have you tapping your foot and staring at the lyric book in sheer horror.

Being a sucker for smartly crafted, hooky tunes and great guitar tones, it was Sugar’s later release, File Under Easy Listening that initially hipped me to Mould’s overall brilliance as a musician and songwriter. Almost hate to say it, but to my ears Copper Blue is an even better album, though the earliest.

Maybe its Mould’s knack for creating these sunny sounding, chiming songs and sticking disarmingly tortured lyrics beneath the layers of harmony that makes this music stand up so well seventeen years later. Though you can hear differences in the mastering qualities, it’s hard to say that much of this sounds dated at all- save for the synthesizer patch in “Hoover Dam” possibly. But songs like “The Act We Act” and “Changes” manage to deal with the intricacies and difficulties of relationships and loss while somehow making you feel as if you’re speeding down the interstate on a warm day with the windows down. And those of you of the correct music consumption age back in ’92 surely recall the band’s one radio and MTV hit, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” Jangly, hummable and sad as can be. Great stuff.

On a completely different note, I recently picked up the book Jazz Country by Nat Hentoff and found it a remarkably enjoyable, if short, reading experience. Originally published in 1965, it chronicles the story of a talented young trumpet player named Tom Curtis and his attempts to enter the world of jazz. The story dates itself, often beats you over the head with its message, but it still manages to be a wonderful and insightful tale written by someone that understood the culture and mindset of jazz musicians. Tom wants to play jazz, but finds himself initially shut out by the players he admires because of racial tensions at the time. As he’s trying to wrap his mind around the whole thing, get his chops to the point they need to be, decide whether to go to college or play in a band, the kid manages to figure out who he really is and meet some amazing people along the way. Yes, predictable. But you should still read it if you like jazz and have a few hours to kill. It’s well worth the effort.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Striking an electronic chord

By Chris Cooper

Truth be told, I’m not exactly the biggest fan of — here’s the old fogey coming out — “electronic” music. I hear bleeps and bloops, repetitive motifs that are often harmonically half baked and build and build into mostly nothing, and as far as lyrical content is concerned- what lyrical content? Now, my point of reference is a little limited, because if you genuinely dislike something, you’re really not going to pursue much of it. I hate brussel sprouts, had a bad experience as a child with them, and thus never ate them again. So I’m not the prime candidate to ask for advice on brussels sprouts. Or electronic music.

That being said, musician/photographer/writer Michael O’Shea’s Kinjac project hasn’t left my CD player since he dropped off an advance copy. 7 Years Bad Luck is a rare combo of ultra tweaked samples, live drums and bass, distorted vocals and sometimes hyper politically charged intent that initially left me scratching my head before fumbling for the “play” button again... and again. It’s not often that a disc comes along (especially one from a genre of music I typically avoid) that leaves me as dumbfounded as this one has. Of course to anyone more familiar with the style than I, the influences and points of reference are most likely obvious. But to my “guitar/bass/drum/keys/vocal” oriented ears, this stuff sounds intriguingly and almost uncomfortably different.

“The Fall” builds for three minutes before the vocals kick in. It’s that whole “going somewhere” thing again — and go somewhere it does. Structurally, it’s a pretty interesting trick; save the verse for the last minute of the song. Thematically, this is fairly dark stuff as well. Many tunes seem like studies on finding hope among an immense lack thereof, with verses and choruses tangled upon themselves until really, they’re neither. Repetition is used for impact, melodic ideas are shifted and twisted each time they come around again — on the one hand, this is pretty confusing stuff for the “pop” trained ears. On the other, that’s likely why it works as well as it does.

And in the “creepy aural nightmares” corner, we have a disorienting chromatic accordion melody fighting with fuzzed out drum’n’bass on the appropriately titled “Terror.” The sequencing of the tracks on 7 Years Bad Luck is crafty as well, where one song starts and another stops is often a mystery; long instrumental sections give way to sudden bursts of noise, then part of a verse, then everything goes haywire again. “I Walk” operates on such a principle- you think you know what’s happening for minute or so, then you’re wondering if it’s still the same song. A cut that’s sure to stand out is O’Shea’s sampling of Dennis Kucinich’s fierce “Wake Up America” speech into the album’s closing track, which is preceded by an ominous instrumental track cleverly entitled “Optimism.”

Let’s make it clear that Michael O’Shea is this whole project. Every knob that was turned, string plucked (or beaten into submission), microphone placed, vocal delivered; every bit of recording and mastering was done in a modest home studio by O’Shea. And the quality of production made one of the rarest of occurrences happen: while spinning 7 Years Bad Luck at work, a customer stopped in the middle of the store, stared at the speakers, and asked me with widened eyes “What are we listening to?” This wasn’t a new major label release. This is, frankly, pretty challenging stuff. By a local musician. The look on that customer’s face something akin to having been hit by a truck, and really liked it.

If this is any indication of what’s to come on the local music scene for the New Year, consider me inspired. Release date for 7 Years Bad Luck is Jan. 20 — yes folks, Inauguration Day. I’d strongly recommend seeking this one out.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

In the studio...

You start a band. The band writes material, rehearses, and plays some shows. What’s the next step? Merchandising? A world tour? Possibly a big fat record deal and huge cash advance from the label? Wait a minute; the record industry is currently dying a slow and painful death, so ... maybe not.

Henderson pours some hot sauce on it

By Chris Cooper

In guitar circles, certain names are spoken in hushed, respectful tones. Players like Mike Stern, Allan Holdsworth and Scott Henderson — among others, of course — represent the best of the best in regards to the modern jazz/rock genre. These musicians absorbed the nuances of the jazz language and married these ideas to rock’s grittiness and attitude. The result is music that, when it’s not leaping over the head of most listeners, can at one moment inspire and the next make you want to take that six-string plank you noodle around on occasionally out back and burn it out of sheer intimidation.

This one's for Rob

By Chris Cooper

Last summer I wrote an article titled “I Played In A Classic Rock Cover Band And Lived To Tell About It.” It was a semi-humorous account of some friends getting together under the moniker of Alpine Taxi, banging out a batch of tunes in rehearsal, and performing them live at Mill & Main and Guadalupe Café. It was fun and sloppy, and noisy and exhilarating and ... it was a lot of things, some of which weren’t apparent to me until now.

Gems from the used bin

By Chris Cooper

Ah, the joy of finding good stuff in the “undeservedly discarded disc” section of any music store. Here a few recent scores: pop melodrama from Bleu and a superb album from the most underappreciated — and one of the best, in my opinion — bands in the country.

Bluegrass’ contemporary class

The term “contemporary bluegrass” is open to a ridiculous amount of interpretation. For some it signifies anything that strays even a little beyond the template set by Ralph Stanley, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — which means that damn near everything we hear nowadays that falls under the heading of bluegrass is “contemporary.”

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