Asheville occupies a unique niche in the regional subconscious, a sort of imperfect mecca of arts and scenery nestled in a gently concave Blue Ridge valley. With the onset of legitimately huge festivals like Moogfest and the similar-yet-legally-distinct Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, Asheville's musical profile seems to be both rising and evolving; yet to at least one local musician and mountain native, these changes could be the story of the town.
"I have witnessed such a crazy, yet not surprising, evolution of the music scene in Asheville over the years," says soul-folk (soulk?) songwriter Kellin Watson, who plays the Evening Muse on Jan. 10. "At the same time, depending on how you look at it, one could say that Asheville has always been home to an eclectic mix of music anyway, so who knows?"
Watson has lived in or near Asheville her whole life; currently, home is Black Mountain, a much-mythologized town at the eastern edge of the same county, but she's been performing in the area since she started dance classes at age 3.
Yet as Asheville has grown and changed, so has Watson — a process that's led her to fewer area shows and more songwriting sessions in Nashville. She's a career musician, after all, and she's had to find ways to monetize.
"I've made several trips to Nashville over the course of a year and a half, and each time I go, I develop a better sense of that town," Watson says.
For years she'd been wary of the Music City, considering its reputation as a factory for inane Top-40 hits. While this may be true at times, she says, there's a growing rock scene, leading to increased (and exciting) hybridization.
"Things are changing in Nashville," she says. "And I'm happy I'm able to see the other dimensions of that city now."
It was putting aside her misgivings and entering the world of co-writing that led to these revelations.
This was a weird world to enter, she admits, primarily because she'd be writing with strangers. Yet she compares the process to dating — with some writers, she clicks instantly and is able do satisfying work. If she and her partner don't gel, though, she just keeps it to one session and makes a note to herself not to work with him or her again.
Among the dozen-or-so Nashville writers she's partnered with, the most rewarding sessions have been with songwriter, engineer and session player Jason Gantt (with whom she wrote her Christmas download, "Kick"), though she's also paired with the scribes behind major Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks hits.
These songwriting trips — as well as several song placements on commercials and in Canadian teen dramas — help her remain above the occasionally tumultuous mountain city scene.
The number of career musicians in town has grown, she says, which has its pluses and minuses — among the latter is greater competition for shows.
Additionally, venue turnover can be pretty high in Asheville. Even in what she describes as the quieter, more introverted Black Mountain, music rooms aren't necessarily stable. The Town Pump had been a go-to for Americana forms, but changed with new ownership. Others either follow questionable business practices of charging artists a portion of merch sales, she says, or are simply too remote to be viable locations.
Yet playing out is no longer Watson's focus, and her overall stress level is lower for it; she's no longer negotiating with venues for — let's face it — ambitious $300-minimum full-band guarantees, and is spending more time in Nashville, one of precious few U.S. cities where music remains a lucrative field. And she's still playing select shows, making the Evening Muse engagement a rare deal.
And maybe her growth away from live music is as natural — if possibly counterintuitive — an evolution as the one taking place in Asheville. Yet Watson likes the vibe new residents have brought with them, and she feels there will remain room in the mountain town for both traditionally associated roots-driven music and envelope-pushing electronica — not to mention whatever's next down the pike.
"In short, growth means change, and change is always hard to accept at first, but it's the way of the world," Watson says. In this shifting landscape she sees welcome challenges and sources of artistic self-improvement. And she's ready.
"Progression is always good, in my opinion," she says.