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Strength in numbers: Sylva music scene pushes forward

art frCovered in paint speckles, Drew Duncan walked into O’Malley’s Pub & Grill on a recent Thursday evening.

Finishing up work for the day, he wasn’t in search of the 50-cent wing special, nor was he heading to the bar for a beverage. Walking over to the patio stage, Duncan opened up his guitar case, adjusted his microphone stand and took a seat. Front man for Porch 40 (rock/jam), he was soon joined by Colby Dietz of Mangas Colorado (Americana/bluegrass) and Chris Pressley from The Buchanan Boys (rock/country).

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All three are lead singers of popular Sylva acts, each as unique and talented as their captivating original melodies and all-embracing live shows. Taking a moment away from their hectic touring schedules and everyday responsibilities, the trio saddled up at O’Malley’s for a “Songwriter Showcase.” Put on by Justin Roper, owner/agent at Speakeasy Artists (who manages the groups), the round robin pickin’ and grinnin’ session is yet another signal of a reawakening in the Sylva and greater Jackson County music scene. 

For a town of around 2,500 residents, it seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting a musician. It is a sentiment that can be attributed to the perfect storm of a vibrant Southern Appalachian music culture, a growing Western Carolina University right down the road and the mere creative inspiration found in the fruits of your labors amid a glorious mountain life. 

And for those folks who venture out and seek live music, there’s a lot of truth to “something in the air.” On any given night, one can witness a singer-songwriter at City Lights Café or jazz-fusion ensemble at Innovation Brewing, punk rock quartet at No Name Sports Pub or bluegrass jug band at Concerts on the Creek — all local, all pushing their scene onward and upward, with a keen mindset of camaraderie, collaboration and community at the forefront. 

It is an ethos of a mountain town tucked far away from the bright lights of Asheville or Atlanta, where if you want to spark something in your own backyard, you need to the be the one to light the fire, to attract those on the dark horizon ready and eager to see the signal. 

Smoky Mountain News: What do you see as the musical landscape of Sylva?

Drew Duncan: I see that it’s growing — the whole scene here is taking off with all these bands popping up. 

Colby Deitz: It’s great to finally be involved in it. For a long time, The Buchanan Boys were the entire music scene here, and now we have all these groups. 

Chris Pressley: It’s amazing how many talented bands are in this town. I’ve been around here for a while and it’s nice. I was at WCU in the mid-1990s, and there were eight bands on campus, but then it died off. I moved to Texas after that, then came back, started playing again, and now you have all these different groups.

SMN: Your bands come from completely different genres, and yet the common denominator is that all songs begin with an acoustic guitar. What’s your songwriting process?

DD: I’m still by myself, with my guitar, writing songs when they hit me. When I first started playing music, I had no inclination to do rock or pop like we have in Porch 40. I was heading toward Americana and indie music. But, then you get Carter McDevitt (drummer) and Mitchell Metz (violin) in our group, who are metal heads. We didn’t know what we were going to do — they like metal and I liked Americana, so the band just kind of met somewhere in the middle. If the band writes a song, then I’ll come up with the lyrics or I’ll bring something of my own to table lyrically and we’ll build the sound around it. 

CD: I don’t really try to force anything lyrically — whatever happens to me, happens to me. All three of us in Mangas Colorado have our own process. We feel that writing a song should be a very real and personal process. Songwriting is how we express ourselves as well as trying to understand the hardships and the blessings of life.

CP: I’ll get a guitar hook in my head, and I’ll work it, wrestle with it until I get it right to where I want it.

SMN: What can you say about the camaraderie of the Sylva scene?

DD: We’re in a small area, so there’s no reason to fight each other. I don’t understand how that happens in other places and scenes. At the end of the day, we’re all playing music, how great is that? We’re all in this together here. We all like playing together. I mean, Colby and I were in plays together at WCU. And with our bands, sure you need the support of the fans, but you also really need the support and respect from the other bands, too.

CD: Something I’ve realized most, in reading and watching documentaries about successful bands, is that the worst thing you can do is — locally, regionally or nationally — is tear down other bands or put yourself in your own personal bubble. 

DD: Yeah, and if you do that, nobody will want to play with you, and that doesn’t work when you have to piggy back with other bands to bring people to the shows.

SMN: And with that, y’all are each breaking through into new and different levels of your careers. Porch 40 just put out an album, did a recent tour with The Marshall Tucker Band, and will be performing with The Doobie Brothers and REO Speedwagon in September. Mangas Colorado is touring the Southeast with their new record, and The Buchanan Boys just finished a record at the legendary Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville. The shows are getting bigger and the dreams are becoming realities. 

DD: Things are moving fast. I’m in it to win it. I’ve been in it to win it. And with the management, where we’re finding the right shows, booking the right venues, getting paid correctly.

CD: I love watching Porch 40, I’m glad they’re doing well. I love just seeing my friends doing great things. I watch Drew very carefully when they play, and I see what it takes to get to that next level, and how to carry yourself professionally from how he is onstage. 

CP: If you don’t take it seriously, then what are you doing? You’ve got to stay a family. Sure, you might fight sometimes, but at the end of the day, it’s about being part of that family, pushing forward and getting to where you need to go.

DD: It’s all about finding the right guys.

CD: Find the right guys and making it work. And when you find the right guys, you’ll know it — it should feel effortless and comfortable. 

SMN: What is it about this town that makes it such a great incubator for live music?

CD: It’s unique because everyone here is so excited about everybody else. Your biggest problem here is figuring out what show to have — it’s a great problem to have. 

CP: Anywhere you play, you’ve got to bring people to that bar or venue, the more you bring in, the more times you’re brought back. We keep moving forward to where we’re getting paid for doing what we love.

DD: Sylva is a great place to start a band. People here love good music, and they love seeing it played live. It’s about pushing the limits and making something else that nobody’s heard before. We want to make the scene bigger, and when we play in town or on the road, we want to make Sylva proud.


For more information on tour dates, album purchases, music streaming and videos: 

• Porch 40 —

• Mangas Colorado —

• The Buchanan Boys —

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