Bringing improv to the traditional

With tunes that rush quickly along and take unexpected twists and turns, Sylva-based The Dan River Drifters are anything but lazy and predictable, like their name might suggest.

The band’s high-energy and sometime improvisational approach to bluegrass makes them an exciting group in which to listen.

Although they are relatively new to the Western North Carolina music scene, the group’s beginnings go back to a couple of the members’ childhood.

Long-time friends Jesse Lapinski and Andrew Lawson began playing open mic nights together and took the name The Dan River Drifters almost three years ago while attending Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. The calm, paddler–friendly Dan River runs through Stokes County, where Lapinski and Lawson lived as kids.

Over time, as the two made friends with other area musicians, the group expanded. Originally a duo, the band more than doubled to a quintet, adding Adam Bigelow, Tim Sheehan and Jesse’s younger brother Zach Lapinski.

“It just kind of fell into place,” Jesse said.

Jesse performs with the mandolin and guitar, while Lawson plays guitar and harmonica. Zach and Sheehan, who still attend WCU, play guitar and the five-string banjo, respectively. The most recognizable name on the band’s roster is Sylva Renaissance man Bigelow, who plays bass for the Drifters. Bigelow is heavily involved in many Jackson County community efforts, particularly environmental conservation. All five contribute to the group vocally.

“We are all good friends,” Lawson said.

Although bluegrass seems like the natural choice for bands in Western North Carolina, Sheehan was the person who really drew them to playing the genre, said Jesse, who used to play in a punk rock band.

At WCU, Jesse studied music education with a focus on jazz, from which the group took its improvisational style.

“Every time we do play, you will hear something new,” Jesse said.

The solo ad-libs give each band member to showcase his pickin’ skills.

“To me, when people solo, it’s like they are telling a story,” Jesse said.

During their shows, the Drifters play traditional bluegrass songs but mix in a fresh, high-energy sound. About one-third of the Drifters’ repertoire is songs they personally penned. Their tunes, most of which are collaborative efforts by Jesse and Lawson, take on some traditional bluegrass themes — murder ballads, moonshine and outlaws.

While the highest point in their career thus far came last April when they opened for the nationally known and locally loved Freight Hoppers, the Drifters most memorable performance was at a wedding in Cashiers with an enthusiastic audience. The wedding party had traveled in from Boston, and the Drifters had been asked to provide the music. Lawson said it was one of their best audiences.

“They loved it,” Lawson said. “I guess it makes them feel like they are from the mountains.”

Since most of its members have graduated from WCU, scheduling band practices has become more challenging. But, it has also allowed the band to expand its reach beyond Cullowhee and Sylva. Now that half the group lives in Asheville, the Drifters regularly perform at The Altamont Brewing Company and other venues around the city.

The next step is a CD — something they can give to venues to help them book gigs or sell to fans.

“Maybe a demo CD will get somebody to open the door for us,” Lawson said.


Hear them live

The Dan River Drifters will play at 8 p.m., April 14, at the Tuckaseegee Tavern on Depot Street in Bryson City. Or, catch them the following weekend on April 28 at Greening Up the Mountains in Sylva. The show begins at 11:45 a.m.

For a list of more performances or to hear their song “Blinkin’ Lincoln,” check out Dan River Drifters on Facebook.

Third time’s the charm for The Strand revival

The old Strand movie theater in downtown Waynesville is finally getting a new lease on life after two false starts in the past decade to revive the shuttered Main Street icon.

The building was bought in foreclosure last year by Rodney and Lorraine Conard, who have already begun renovations to transform it into a live performance venue.

“I have just always loved the building,” Rodney said, ever since he watched Flash Gordon travel to strange, fictional lands at the old movie theater as a boy.

Following a romanticized dream of owning his hometown theater is ultimately not what drove him and Lorraine to save the building, however. It was far more utilitarian: Rodney needed warehouse space for his thriving business buying and refurbishing used barcode readers, a niche business to say the least.

The economic downturn meant plenty of retailers were going out of business and unloading their inventory of barcode readers for cheap. And as a result, the business prospered.

Rodney is business partners with Lorraine’s brother, who initially started the venture.

“(The business) started literally in my brother’s closet,” Lorraine said.

It grew to fill part of the Conards’ basement and then the whole basement.

That is when they decided to start searching for somewhere to house all of the barcode readers.

Happenstance, divine intervention or a little of both led the Conards to The Strands’ doorstep. After looking for about a year, the Conards bought the building that formerly housed The Strand. The property was in foreclosure when the Conards bought it for $182,000, according to county land records.

It did not take long for them to decide to revive the theater aspect as well.

“We walked in and saw the stage was still there and everything,” Rodney said. Soon after — within three seconds, according to Lorraine — they realized that they needed to keep at least part of The Strand for its original artistic purpose.

Lorraine is a popular singer-songwriter based in Waynesville with a large and loyal following.

“This is the best of both worlds,” Rodney said. “We can save the building.”

Under the Conards ownership, the building will take on several different faces. It will act as a storage space for the inventory of bar-code readers, an office, retail shop and 80-seat performance venue.

When the couple bought the structure, it was barely more than that. The building had no electricity, no heat, no air and no plumbing.

“It was a shell of a building,” Rodney said.

Currently, the Main Street entrance is covered in plywood. The long, thin entrance hall that once featured a ticket booth and ramps leading down to the theater or up to the balcony will now become retail space. The Conards do not yet know what the retail space will house, or whether they will run a store themselves or lease it out.

And, people will now enter the theater from an alley door off Wall Street rather then Main Street. The entrance will have a “speakeasy feel,” Lorraine said.

The theater space will have 80 seats and keep its original stage and rounded walls. The remaining space will house the storage and office space.

Construction started in October, and Lorraine said they expect to finish the storage and office space by late summer or early fall. However, she is not sure when a store and the theater will open, but they plan to hold several fundraisers to help with their theater renovation efforts.

Lorraine has several ideas for events that the theater can offer, including a Thursday night music series and lunchtime speakers.

The Strand’s stage will prominently feature local and regional artists. And, Lorraine tossed out the idea of having local restaurants provide food if it hosts lunchtime events.

“Our whole goal with the theater is to pull together local businesses,” Lorraine said.

But, the community will ultimately dictate what shows the revamped Strand will host.

“What the theater becomes is totally dependent on the community,” Lorraine said.

The couple has even gone so far as to post a survey to its Facebook page, asking people what type of events and who specifically they would like to see.

“It is not a for-profit venture,” Lorraine said, adding that they simply want it to be self-sustaining and “contribute to the revitalization” of Waynesville’s downtown.

But, for the small theater to survive, people will need to come out and support it.

“Come out and be apart of downtown,” Lorraine said. “It takes a little effort on the individual’s part.”

Downtown business owners often hear that they should stay open later or host events, but then they don’t get the foot traffic or attendance required to make the events sustainable, Lorraine said.


An institution

The Strand opened on Main Street in the 1940s, an era before TVs were a mandatory household appliance and people flocked to movie theaters in droves. It operated as a movie theater until the late 1970s when it changed into a primarily performance venue for The Haywood Regional Arts Theater group.

Because it was so popular and stayed open for so long, The Strand became a beloved institution in Waynesville. Those residents who had the opportunity to visit it remember the theater fondly.

In 1993, however, HART moved into its own performing arts center on Pigeon Street, and The Strand was left empty.

On two separate occasions during the past decade, attempts were made to revive The Strand, but their dreams never came to fruition.

• In 2005, Joey Massie, whose family founded The Strand in the ‘40s, announced plans to transform the venue into a movie theater and pizza joint, but the idea never became a reality.

• In 2010, Richard Miller, a downtown Waynesville businessman and property owner, announced plans to turn The Strand into a combination movie theater, live performance venue, beer brewery, art gallery and restaurant. That concept never came to be either.


Lend a hand for The Strand

Lorraine and Rodney Conard will host a fundraiser to help with their renovations to the old Strand movie theater on Main Street in Waynesville on May 6 at the new Headwaters Brewing Company in Waynesville. Admission will cost $20 and include one Headwaters brew paired with a specially made chocolate from Chocolate MD in Sylva.

Check out

Pleasantly unearthing a few long-dormant memories

I unpacked my *euphonium recently — my first love was music; writing was a fallback position — and started fooling with it again. Despite not having held this horn more than just a few times in some two decades, I’m rediscovering deeply familiar patterns. I’ve also suddenly grasped that I’m less thinking and more instinctual than I might prefer to believe: Methods of doing and being have hardwired my brain.

I found myself holding and inserting the mouthpiece into the instrument in a particular manner — into the horn’s leadpipe, a quick turn to the right and click, the mouthpiece shank is locked safely into place. The euphonium I cradle in a certain way, a familiar, comforting feeling of completeness in my arms, like hugging a child or embracing a lover. The warm-up I used for so many years, too many years ago, I remember perfectly; though the sounds I’m producing are less than pleasing to my ear. I remember what a euphonium should sound like, and this isn’t it.

Patterns and habits dominate me much like my old cat has patterns and habits that dominate him. Edgar is physically beyond catching prey, but still he twitches into kill-it mode when birds land near his sunning spot on the porch. The grooves are deep. Say a Carolina wren lingers and Edgar hears the call of the wild, he forces himself up and starts a geriatric semblance of a stalk. Reality intervenes in the form of achy joints and molasses-like movements, and the old cat soon gives up the painful creeping in favor of comfortable snoozing.

Edgar can no more stop hunting prey than I can forget the warm-up I once sailed through as a mere introduction to hours and hours of daily practice. Today, the warm-up exhausts me, as the mere acts of twitching and attempting a stalk exhaust Edgar.

You could argue that Edgar’s response to birds is instinct and not habit, but I don’t think that is true, or at least not true in totality. I have another cat that “kills” socks. So I feel safe, sort of, in arguing that Edgar’s incessant bird stalking is in some part, at least, habit too.

Do something long enough, create an inner pattern, and it becomes part of you. For better or worse, we are what we do and do.  

Patterns are internal and external, of course. The word “patterns” speaks to habit, but more generally to repetition. Not surprisingly, once I started thinking about patterns, it seems as if I see them everywhere: patterns that drive my behavior and ones that occur in a much broader and more universal sense.

A week or so ago I was driving along the road paralleling the Tuckasegee River between Webster and Dillsboro. It was late afternoon. The sun backlit the trees and cast amazing shadows onto the blacktop. I found myself mesmerized and lost in those shadow trees, something incredibly beautiful that I normally would have driven over without appreciating.

Artists, I thought, notice such visual patterns as a matter of course. How wonderful that must be. I’m more likely to notice patterns in sound, both by ear and through the eye in my mind’s hearing, than I am visual repetition.

Spurred by the late author Frank Kermode’s wonderful book, Shakespeare’s Language, I recently reread “Hamlet” to enjoy the patterns our greatest playwright wrote. It was as if a whole new play with endlessly fascinating repetitions opened before me.

Kermode noted that Shakespeare played with hendiadys (hen-DYE-a-dees) throughout “Hamlet.” This is a literary device by which two words are linked by a conjunction to express a single idea. Or put another way, you express a single idea using two nouns instead of a noun and its qualifier. One modern example I found: “he came despite the rain and weather” rather than “he came despite the rainy weather.”

“The doubling devices give the verse its tune, or might perhaps be thought a sort of ground bass that sounds everywhere, sometimes faintly, and the few interruptions in it derive their power to surprise or amuse by the very absence of the now familiar tune,” Kermode wrote.

Examples from when Hamlet first sees the Ghost: “spirits of health, or goblin damn’d,” “airs from heaven, or blasts from hell,” “intents wicked, or charitable.”

Shakespeare was playing with his patterns. I suspect he did so with gleeful abandon (should I write, with glee and abandon?), caught in the endless possibilities of doubleness.

On a much more mundane, me-not-Shakespeare level, I found myself caught like that by those tree-shadow patterns. I just couldn’t quit seeing them after noticing them. And I haven’t quit thinking about them since.

*Euphonium: A member of the low brass family that is pitched the same as a cello or tenor voice. This is a lovely, versatile instrument that is sadly neglected in the U.S., with players relegated in this country to professional status only as members of military bands. At a certain point in my 20s, while busily auditioning for military bands in Washington, D.C., it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t well suited for the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy or Coast Guard … way too much telling on my part, as it were.

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

Good old-fashioned shape note ‘sing’ fills hall at Lake Junaluska

It took just moments for this roomful of 60 people with their varying musical backgrounds and abilities to unite in song. But they did just that thanks to the guidance of shape-note teacher Anne Lough of Haywood County, who walked them through the basics of this historic musical method.

Lough is an instructor and performer, versed in traditional singing, storytelling, folklore, folk dance and the shape-note tradition. An enthusiastic and charismatic speaker — even on this day with the start of a bad cold — Lough is exceptionally skilled at persuading shy potential musicians to forget their hesitations and join in an old-fashioned sing-along like this one last week at Lake Junaluska. The “sing” was part of the monthly “Live and Learn” series, which features guest speakers and authors on an array of topics, from history to the environment, and in this case, heritage.

“This connects people with their heritage,” Lough said after the event. “This really is Americana — whether they are Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian.”

Shape notes are a musical notation in which symbols or “shapes” — diamonds, squares, upside-down triangles, right-side-up triangles and so on — match solfege syllables (think do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do). Shape notes allow singers to learn tunes easily and quickly than learning to read music — even the explanation takes longer and is more difficult to grasp than the actual shape-note system.

People who have encountered shape-note singing don’t soon forget the experience. Kate Thurber, a resident of Massachusetts who winters in Waynesville, first heard the unique singing at a Mountain Heritage Day event a couple years ago. She was at the traditional arts and crafts venue at Western Carolina University in the company of a friend.

“It was pouring the rain and we happened to go in a building and they happened to be doing shaped note singing. It was beautiful,” said Thurber, who welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the technique.

Culture and music, Lough told the crowd, go hand in hand: shape notes “are part of our Protestant hymn tradition here in America,” she said. “It’s very important to American musical history.”

And the Southern Appalachians have a particularly rich tradition in shape-note singing, one that lives on in “sings” today.

Initially in America, the pilgrims were strictly singers of psalms. They used the Ainsworth Psalter, published in Holland in 1612 and brought to these shores in 1620.

But culture and music do indeed go together, and as the decades passed and more secular folk arrived in America, purely religious singing gave way to more casual singing in the community.

Rote learning, the primary method of teaching and learning vocal pieces, was slow and cumbersome.

Enter shape-note singing, a means to help singing teachers help those wanting to sing. A three-shape system dominated pre-Civil War; after that, a seven-shape system came on the scene, too, not so much replacing the previous notations as supplementing them. But the system’s roots are much more ancient than America, Lough said.

Guido of Arezzo, a medieval monk, is believed to have created a method of teaching vocal songs that was dubbed the Guidonian Hand. In this system, each portion of the hand represented a specific note. While teaching, the music instructor would indicate which notes to sing by pointing at his hand.

From a simple hand grew entire musical-notation systems.

Lough, a native of Virginia, has lived in Western North Carolina with her husband, Rob, since the 1990s. She said the musical culture here has proven a wonderful experience for the couple: Rob Lough, like his wife, is a musician.

“I could never have imagined the richness, the interest in preservation” found here in WNC, Lough said, who added she doubted that there is anywhere else outside this region that would have allowed her to make her living as a musician. Lough plays the autoharp, guitar, hammered and mountain dulcimer.

Sylva band’s jazz renditions are bringing the sexy back

With a Billie Holiday-style microphone, an Apple computer camera and her two bandmates on either side, Maggie Tobias transforms from a lively newspaper reporter into a sultry jazz singer.

“You can put on a mask a little bit; it’s very theatrical,” said Tobias, a 23-year-old reporter for The Sylva Herald and Ruralite.

Tobias and fellow musicians Michael Collings and Jeff Savage compose Maggie and The Romantics, a jazz band from Sylva.

Tobias described Maggie and The Romantics as a fusion band. Their original songs always have jazz roots but can also be classified as funk, salsa or singer/songwriter.


Sampling an idea

Last month, the band started an early resolution, the kind typically reserved for New Year’s — to write one original song a week. The exercise helps them hone their songwriting skills and learn to create new tunes quickly.

Although it may seem daunting, the task is easier than one might think, Tobias said. Just start with a single theme or idea, she said, and form the song from there.

“It’s not going to be perfect. There are going to be some things you wish you changed,” Tobias said.

Each week, a different band member debuts their new song.

“They (Collings and Savage) are really good,” Tobias said. “It always surprised me how they can take this little song I’ve been singing in my head and make it into a real song. That’s pretty cool.”

The group uses the camera on an Apple computer, an external microphone and five or six takes to record the original song and post it to YouTube.

The idea for the weekly song came from Savage, who told them about a more than two-decade-long project by They Might Be Giants, Tobias said.

From 1983 to 2006, the alternative music group They Might Be Giants recorded new songs each week, and sometimes daily, on an answering machine. People would call the answering machine to hear the band’s newest recording.

While Maggie and The Romantics original song project may not last that long, Tobias said the troupe will post “as many as we can.”

As of Monday, their four videos had racked up a few hundred views each and mostly positive comments.

“People have said they like it,” Tobias said.

Like any family, hers had a few critics, she said.

“My mom told me to stop being so sultry in my videos,” Tobias said, adding that one of her sisters thinks she puts on a different voice when she sings.

The trio hopes to include other local artists in their future videos and posted a call for guest musicians on their Facebook page.

Tobias is currently composing a folk song for Kelly Jewell-Timco, a hula-hooper and wife of a coworker, and is making plans to perform a Frank Sinatra-style song with trumpeter Boyd Sossamon.


The band’s genesis

Tobias began singing at the First Presbyterian Church in Sylva, where bandmates Collings and Savage also play.

“I’ve sung my entire life,” said Tobias, who was a member of her college jazz band. “My whole family is very musical.”

However, it wasn’t until high school that her first boyfriend — a fan of music icons Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and John Coltrane — kick-started her affinity for jazz and blues tunes.

“There is something just kind of sultry about jazz,” Tobias said. “It’s kind of a sexy, evolving art form.”

Some people think that the time for jazz music has come and gone, but artists such as Diana Krall and Corinne Bailey Rae continue to add a modern flair to the genre.

“I think people kind of see jazz as a museum art form,” Tobias said. “It’s like classical music; it’s untouchable. It’s hard to see it as the popular music that it once was.”

Collings, a bassist, and Savage, a guitar player, had performed together as a jazz duo for six years at Sylva establishments like Guadalupe Café, where they play for tips. And after meeting her at the church, Collings and Savage asked Tobias to join them for a jazz cover gig.

Tobias said she thinks being a girl helped with the tips during her first performance with the guys.

“I think that’s kind of why they wanted me to keep playing with them, because after that one show we got so many tips,” Tobias said.

Soon after her first gig with the duet, Tobias started writing original songs, which the troupe performed in addition to traditional jazz standards.

The trio decided to cement their partnership by creating a band name. After receiving such suggestions as Beauty and the Beats, The Lovesick Fools, and Lady and the Tramps did they settle on Maggie and The Romantics.

“It just kind of sounded right,” Tobias said.

The band plays at various Sylva locales for tips about once a week in addition to its weekly YouTube melodies but is looking at branching out to venues in other Western North Carolina communities.

“We really like playing,” Tobias said. “It’s not the main source of income for any of us, so we can just have fun and take our time.”


See Maggie and The Romantics in action

Where: JJ’s Canteen & Eatery on N.C. 107 in Glenville

When: 8 p.m, Jan. 27

What else: Tips are accepted

Like Maggie and The Romantics on Facebook or check out their YouTube channel, MaggieRomanticsMusic.

Appalachian lifestyle takes center stage

If there’s one thing that runs deep in Appalachia, it’s roots. Whether it’s the roots of its ancient pines or the roots of a unique way of life still celebrated here, the Smokies are steeped in heritage.

And now, with a new festival sprouting up this weekend, Waynesville visitors and residents can celebrate the history and legacy of that singular Appalachian liftestyle.

The Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration is a day-long festival dedicated to the traditions that define the region, like bluegrass music, arts and crafts, and practical crafts like blacksmithing, quilting and wood turning.

Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, said a spate of interest in the subject helped spark the idea for the festival.

“There’s a lot of interest in heritage, history and culture. People seem to be really drawn to that throughout the Southeast,” said Phillips.

Festival-goers will have the chance to see live demonstrations of traditional Appalachian handicrafts and practices, such as basket making, blacksmithing, quilting, weaving, wood working, wood carving, pottery, painting and soap making.

Folk toys, old tractors and old tools and other elements of old Appalachia will be on display. Meanwhile, artists and craftspeople still keeping those traditions alive will be on hand to sell their creations.

Even the food, said Phillips, is reminiscent of the old mountain South.

“We’ll have cornbread and beans, corn cakes, iced tea and lemonade,” said Phillips, plus a plethora of other foods that find their roots here.

For mountain music aficionados, however, there will be more than a few acts to choose from.

Headlining the event will be folk musician David Holt. Holt has four Grammys under his belt and a musical resume that spans four decades. He’s played with bluegrass legends like Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and spent much of his early career traveling to minuscule mountain communities, learning the finer points of traditional mountain music.

He’ll bring his old-time banjo skills to the stage, where he’ll perform with young acoustic musician Josh Goforth. Goforth is no novice — he’s already garnered a Grammy nomination — and he’s been playing in the Smokies since his childhood in East Tennessee.

In addition to Holt and Goforth, singer-and-storyteller Michael Reno Harrell will give two performances. The Hominy Valley Boys and The Hill Country Band will provide the lively bluegrass background for three local clogging groups.

For those seeking to get in a few rounds on the dance floor themselves, former North Carolina Senator Joe Sam Queen will call a square dance in the afternoon that is open to all ages.

For readers, there will be local authors, traditional storytellers and readers’ theater spinning tales of Appalachia, old and new.

The celebration, said Phillips, has been long in the making and she’s hopeful it will become a regular feature on Waynesville’s downtown summer calendar.

“We talked about this probably at least three years ago, and this is the first year that we’ve been able to pull it off,” said Phillips. “There’s a lot of history and our culture deserving of our interest in this area.”



Main stage (Miller Street)

• 9:45-10:45 — Hominy Valley Boys

• 11-11:45 — David Holt

• Noon-1:15   Hominy Valley Boys (Southern Appalachian Cloggers at 12:30 p.m.)

• 1:30-2:15 — David Holt

• 2:30-3:40 — Michael Reno Harrell

• 3:45-5 — Hominy Valley Boys (Fines Creek Flatfooters Cloggers at 4 p.m. and Smoky Mountain Stompers Cloggers at 4:30 pm.)

Courthouse stage

• 9:45-10:30 — The Ross Brothers

• 10:30-11:15 — Ginny McAfee

• 11:15-12:30 — Michael Reno Harrell

• 12:30-2:30 — Hill Country Band (Southern Appalachian Cloggers at 1:15 p.m. and Flatfooters Cloggers at 2 p.m.)

• 2:30-3 p.m. — McKenzie Wilson

• 3-4 p.m. — Hill Country Band (Smoky Mountain Stoppers Cloggers at 3:30 pm.)

• 4-5 p.m. — The Ross Brothers

Southend area

• 11:30-12:15 — McKenzie Wilson

• 12:30-12:50 — HART Readers Theater

• 1-2 — Ginny McAfee

• 2:15-2:35 — HART Readers Theater

• 2:45-3:30 — Ann Lough

Concerts on the Creek: Sylva’s summer tradition returns to Bridge Park Pavilion

You know it’s summer in Sylva when Concerts on the Creek gets going, bringing local and regional music and family fun to Bridge Park Pavilion every Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

This year, local favorites the Rye Holler Boys will get the season going with a performance on May 27.

They’ll be followed on the outdoor stage in the coming weeks by other popular local bands such as the Freight Hoppers, the Elderly Brothers and Balsam Range, as well as regional talent Big House Radio. Big House walked away with the top prize at WNC Magazine’s Last Band Standing battle of the bands style competition, and they’ll stop off in Sylva in mid-August.

Concerts on the Creek got its start in 2009, so concertgoers will be welcomed back to the park for the third year of free music this summer.

“We started Concerts on the Creek three years ago through an Appalachian Regional Commission Grant,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. It was the chamber who started the concerts, but when they proved popular with the public, the series started to grow from there.

“It was very well received and the locals as well as visitors really enjoyed it so we thought we’d expand on that and invite three other partners to help us produce the concert series,” said Spiro

These days, the chamber teams up with Jackson County Parks and Recreation and the Town of Sylva to produce the programs.

But, said Spiro, the free music is just the impetus to get people out and about. It’s the music along with the restaurants and shops in downtown Sylva that really create a festive, summer atmosphere.

“We hope both locals and visitors will stimulate the economy by shopping and dining out before the free concerts,” said Spiro. Part of the central idea behind the series is to give people a venue for getting out on the town, a gift to both natives and tourists and a chance to kick back with talented artists and support local businesses, all at once.

Marne Harris is a Sylva resident who frequents the concerts every summer, and she appreciates them as a piece of fun and relaxation that showcases the town’s mountain charm.

“They are a time for the community to reconnect, catch up with friends and to celebrate our awesome, beautiful town tucked in the mountains, all the while getting to enjoy some great local music and dancing,” said Harris.

One of her favorite aspects of the events, she said, is watching the hodgepodge of otherwise-unconnected music lovers come together. Harris and her husband have young children who, she said, take full advantage of the park’s open space, but they’re surrounded by older folks, students, young music aficionados and, of course, other families.

Of course, Sylva is well known in the region for its vibrant music scene, which mixes the traditional bluegrass acts that find their roots in these mountains, with more contemporary and underground acts that make the circuit of local venues in town. There’s even a metal band from Cherokee the jaunts over to play every now and again. So in Sylva, it’s not hard to find a range of listeners for the talent the series has to offer.

This summer, the town will be treated to 15 weeks of beautiful music against an equally stunning mountain backdrop, and all you need is a lawn chair and a listening ear.


2011 Schedule

May 27: Rye Holler Boys

June 3: John Luke Carter

June 10: Buchanan Boys

June 17: Mountain Faith

June 24: Johnny Floor

& the Wrong Crowd

July 1: The Elderly Brothers

July 8: Sundown

July 15: The Wild Hog Band

July 22: Josh Fields Band

July 29: The Freight Hoppers

Aug. 5: Balsam Range

Aug.12: Big House Radio

Aug. 19: Johnny Webb Band

Aug. 26: Hurricane Creek

Sept. 2: Mountain Faith Youth Jam

Late Bloomer: Local bassist in full flower

“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

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.”

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