Since relocating to Western North Carolina to become the arts and entertainment writer for The Smoky Mountain News, I find myself constantly amazed at the unique people, places and things I cross paths within this incredible area, particularly the artists, musicians and handcrafters who are quick to extend a welcoming handshake and friendly smile.
Amid this embracing camaraderie, I keep my ear to the ground, eager to hear the slightest rumblings of whatever it is I should be aware of and why the newspaper should cover it. Lately, that rumbling has been coming from Sylva, a place where there has been a vast convergence of creativity and melodic discovery. This boom is due in part to the storied musical tradition of Southern Appalachia and the constant flow of musicians and curious audiences spilling out of nearby Western Carolina University.
So, last Friday, I ventured into the heart of Sylva, where a wild, vibrant music scene awaited.
7:09 p.m. — City Lights Bookstore
Entering the shop, I could hear laughter radiating from the backroom. Local singer/songwriter Eric Hendrix was in the midst of a rousing story behind one of his melodies, which he was performing as part of a release party for his latest album, Would You Dance With Me?.
A decidedly older crowd, filled with graying hair and a sophisticated sense of taste, the 30 or so attendees were all ears while Hendrix spun his web of words and guitar notes. Living in Sylva since the early 1980s, he’s seen the music blossom around the community. It’s an eclectic mix of genres and talents, one that local business owners are willing to let flourish, whether at their own respective stores or sponsoring events throughout the year.
“It’s a healthy combination of styles and genres, more progressive than one would expect. College, alternative bands mixed with acoustic, jazz, blues and Americana,” he said.
Hendrix said Sylva has a rare “openness and genuine support for local musicians” — to its own credit.
“Art, in any form, but in this case, music, is essential to a community’s ongoing development and wellbeing,” he said.
Hendrix glides through each selection, accompanied by his wife Norma (flute/vocals) and guitarist Dave Magill. Feet are tapping, while heads bob to the soothing feel of original acoustic numbers, each able to stand on its own.
“Storeowners watch out for one another, promote each other and share ideas,” Hendrix said. “The influx of WCU students, staff and faculty, along with the local community, provides a unique, warm and friendly environment in which to develop professional and personal relationships.”
8:34 p.m. — City Lights Café
Downstairs from the bookstore, acoustic duo Liz and A.J. Nance are tucked in the back of the café, which is bustling with college students, young families and baby boomers. Some have microbrews in-hand, while others go for a subtle glass of wine to tie a bow on a cozy evening. It’s cold outside, with crisp air coating the town. Windows are foggy from the outside, as warm souls inhabit within.
“It’s very laid back here — the people relax, listen and are respectful of the musicians,” Liz said. “I’m always surprised by how diverse the music is in Sylva. There’s something for everybody. You can hop around pretty easily and catch other shows in town.”
Liz straps her guitar back on, sliding into the second set. A few tables down, Sylva resident Gary Montanari is enjoying an evening out with his wife, who’s celebrating her birthday. Guitar notes waft through the room, ricocheting around and falling into receptive ears.
“Music is one of the things that make you want to live in these mountains,” he said. “I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality of this small town. You almost don’t want to tell too many people about it, so it won’t get too crowded.”
9:51 p.m. — Soul Infusion
Pulling into the large dirt parking lot, not a spot could be located, except for a couple prime spaces on the front lawn. Inside the large residential home (turned bistro), rock-fusion instrumental trio Diatomic is headlong into their performance. The ensemble fills one side of the “living room” while patrons pack into the numerous corners of the establishment.
Behind the counter, bar manager Martin Adams is slinging drinks. The band is cranking, and he’s pleased to once again see the surrounding community come out and support live music.
“As long as I’ve been here, the local music is as good as it has ever been,” he said. “There’s a lot of great, original music. With the revolving door of musicians and students at WCU, it’s the most interesting collective of people I’ve ever known.”
During their set break, guitarist Chris Cooper takes a breather and chats with a few nearby friends. A resident of Sylva and accomplished musician, he’s deeply proud of both of those things.
“People tend to imagine this as a sleepy mountain town with just bluegrass,” he said. “But, it’s not. Most styles of music are represented here.”
Down the bar counter, Chris Blaylock, banjoist for Bonham and the Bastards, is in town for the evening to checkout the scene. Based out of Murphy, Blaylock looks forward to when his group performs in Sylva, which is seemingly becoming a routine endeavor.
“People here are really into music,” he said. “It seems they appreciate it more and that [in turn] makes the musicians focus more, where it then flows and sounds better.”
Not the only out-of-town musician sniffing around, Asheville resident Dusty Greer, percussionist for roots rock outfit Circus Mutt, is taking it all in. He heard about Sylva, and the group decided to stop in on their way home from an out-of-town gig to checkout a few possible venues to book. That decision was made several hours ago, and Greer is enjoying every minute of his time immersed in the small mountain town.
“This place is great, there’s a lot of music around,” he said. “[Soul Infusion] is like a house party with a great bar.”
11:17 p.m. — Signature Brew Coffee Company
Back in downtown Sylva, the Jamunkatrons, a WCU trio, are heating up the inside of the Main Street corner coffee shop. Drummer Brett Wilson is a senior at the school. He described the local music scene as one that offers plenty of spots to perform, where you could play a venue one night and a college party the next. The options are available, and expanding, to his delight.
“First of all, it’s something to do,” he said. “If you don’t have anything to do around here, people will pick up an instrument and play with anybody. I’d like to see [the scene] grow as big as it can.”
During their set, rapper Logik jumps into the mix. The lyricist weaves his intricate words into the raucous sound of the band. A group of students collect around him. They cheer him on, shouting for more of what he has to say. Soon, as quickly as he arrived, Logik hands the microphone back over to the Jamunkatrons and heads for the door.
“There’s always someone to jam with here,” he said. “I like that there’s so many different people who want to play. It’s great.”
Overseeing the youthful exuberance, shop owner John Bubacz notes that though venues and stores come and go, the musicians remain and, if anything, multiply as the years go on.
“There’s no shortage of excellent players and places that will have people come play in,” he said. “My interest is less as a business owner and more as a community member. You need to keep this town interesting; you need to keep the people healthy with live music.”
12:40 a.m. — No Name Sports Pub
Coasting into the wee hours of Saturday morning, the pub showed no signs of slowing up. Filled to the rafters with college students, local residents and seemingly every nighthawk in Jackson County, the location was buzzing over WCU student Dylan Riddle, a country crooner/guitarist with a voice as deep as a backwoods holler.
“The music is blowing up around here,” he said. “I think there really hasn’t been a lot of bands around for awhile, and now there are, and everyone is eating it up.”
Riddle said it’s great that such a small mountain college town gets the proper reputation it deserves, one of big things coming in small packages. It’s not about taking a town at face value but looking a little bit closer, a little bit further into what exactly makes this special place tick.
Sitting next to Riddle is Kevin Washam, his accompanying guitarist and friend who goes to Appalachian State University. Coming from Boone, a renowned music town in its own right, Washam is in awe at how crazy Sylva is when the mood and sound is just right.
“The crowd got so big we had to move to the back room,” he chuckled. “They probably knocked our microphone over like 20 times.”
Bartender at No Name, Mary Harper is a key facilitator in the scene. Besides continually letting others know about what’s happening in town on the weekends, Harper emphatically seeks out new and different music to book into the venue. It’s a passion she’s happy to share with her customers and the community at large.
“With a college cult following usually found in much larger towns, it’s blooming,” she said. “The roots, character and diversity of the music and its creators here is the richest in the area. To find a business here that doesn’t offer live music on the weekends would not be an easy task.”
Heading back to the stage to bring the audience into last call, Riddle is greeted by a jovial roar from the crowd. It’s almost 1 a.m., but these listeners know damn well there’s another hour left to play music, and they want to hear every last minute of it.
“[Sylva] may be a tiny dot on the map, and people might not think there’s much going on, but the music is; it really is,” he said.