Asheville has come full circle: fashionable at one time, and then a forgotten, disillusioned city, it has returned to glory, and now it is one of the most desirable locations in the US again. We took a trip there, to find out what’s going on in the city on everybody’s lips.
Words and photos: Jonas Henningsson
Andrea Asprelli takes a deep breath and adjusts her fiddle before taking the lead and directing the flow of the music. Banjo picker Doug Goldstein is up next, almost sneaking into the tune before his instrument takes its turn as lead. Dave Speranza leans into his upright and fills in the blanks, his big ruffle of hair like a ball of fire in the colorful lights, bobbing around back there, behind the bass. Guitarist Ross Martin leans into the neck of his guitar, and lays out a soft arpeggio with his hands before looking over to Andrea, who decides that it’s time for her to sing; she slides her fiddle down her hand and lays the bow to rest for a moment.
“I’ve been higher than the High Sierra,
Lower than Death Valley must be”
The song, which was written by Harley Allen, and which has been recorded in beautiful interpretations by people like Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, fills the room.
Brooklyn-based bluegrass band Cricket Tell the Tale are performing their urban, updated brand of bluegrass on stage at the Isis Kitchen and Music Hall in West Asheville. Asheville is staking its claim as a genuine contender for the title of number one music town in the area, looking to topple nearby Nashville from the spot. Downtown, or here in West Asheville, bands are playing in every single little pub, almost every night. The bands’ fearless interpretation and update of this traditional style of music to bring it into a more contemporary context also happens to be characteristic of so much in this country, and so much in this little city in particular. Somewhere along the winding path it has taken through the 20th century, Asheville has also managed to keep up with the times. Few cities feel this relevant now that a respectable number of years of the 21st century have passed. And nothing shows this better than the beer scene. No other city in the beer-crazed US has as many breweries per capita, and I manage to sample a local trio during the show. Gateway Kolsch from French Broad Brewing with my starter, and Pisgah Pale Ale with my main. I round it all off with a Foothills Barrel Aged Peoples Porter from Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem, just a short drive from here, up and through the Blue Ridge Mountains that literally cut right through town.
The milky-white Art Deco building that houses the Isis would have been worth a visit on its own, with its characteristic corrugated concrete facade pointing up towards the sky, and the painstaking renovations that have been carried out on the interior. The Isis Theater, a single screen movie theater in the heart of West Asheville, was built in 1937. The Isis was one of the finest single screens in town; it was the kind of place people would dress up to go out to, to catch the latest movies on cool evenings or chilly winter’s days.
The fact that the Isis Theater was built in the Art Deco style is no coincidence; in fact, there are few other places in America where you can see as many beautiful buildings in this architectural style as you can in downtown Asheville.
“I’ve been cussed and I’ve been praised
And I’ve been nothing these days
But I’ll come back, time will see”
Andrea Asprelli continues to guide us through this song, and my thoughts wander to the city outside. Just like in Allen’s song, Asheville has been higher than the High Sierra, and lower than Death Valley. Once, flourishing and euphoria gave way to darkness and despair.
The First Golden Age
Asheville’s first golden age lasted from 1880 to 1930, when the great depression struck at a time of unprecedented growth for the city, when everything seemed to be possible. Economic growth had been spurred on by the arrival of the railway, which also brought the world to Asheville. Travelers brought stories of the world beyond the mountains, and Asheville lapped them all up. One of the first to capitalize on the arrival of the railway was Colonel Frank Cox. He built the original Battery Park Hotel in 1886. It was a state-of-the-art facility at the time, with electric lights in the rooms and an elevator. Asheville attracted wealthy visitors, and one of the guests who stayed at the Battery Park was New York aristocrat George W. Vanderbilt. He looked west from his hotel room window, and saw the site where he would one day build his dream property Biltmore, which remains the largest private residence in America with its 255 rooms. The name is a compound of the Dutch ‘Bildt’, which was where Vanderbildt’s ancestors came from, and the English word ‘moor’, for uncultivated hill land. The building project was undertaken from 1890 to 1895, and won the city global fame. Asheville also had an electric streetcar system before San Francisco did. Some years later, Edwin Wiley Grove was also hungry to make a statement, and built the lavish Grove Park, which is still the finest hotel in the city today.
Asheville was hit hard by the depression, but some new initiatives organized by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration saved the city, and laid the foundations for the success it’s currently enjoying. These include the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In the 20s and 30s, many Art Deco buildings were built there, such as the Flatiron Building, the Jackson Building, the S & W Cafeteria. And the Isis. The popularity of Art Deco coincided with the introduction of sound film, and the movie theaters that were built reflected the new, modern styles.
The last movie at the Isis was shown one evening in 1957, when Asheville was already in what would turn out to be a 50-year state of slumber. Or rather, a 50-year state of despair. Downtown became a near abandoned ghost town where nobody wanted to live. Prostitutes and vagrants flocked on street corners, there was always tension in the air, and crime was rampant. Asheville was a dead-end town, slowly consuming itself. All of this seems hard for me to believe in the morning, when I wander up and down the hills of this little downtown area. Most of the buildings have been renovated and given a facelift. Asheville is neat and tidy.
It’s brimming with shiny confidence again. The reasons for this unusual concentration of Art Deco buildings are actually both crass and pragmatic. The residents of Asheville were stubbornly determined to repay every penny of their loans after the great depression. So, until 1977, no funds were spent on new buildings, and no downtown development project of the kind so common in the 60s was ever undertaken. This also means that the city’s Art Deco treasure was preserved. Now, they have become some of the most desirable addresses in the city.
The second golden age of Asheville is underway. Tucked away as it is in the Blue Mountains of North Carolina, the city promises most of the characteristics of a US city people would want to live in: A rich arts and culture scene, a strong culinary scene, the greatest concentration of breweries per capita in the beer-crazed US, and a city layout optimized for humans rather than for cars all make it the perfect place to raise a family, with several prestigious educational institutions. And the wilderness is always present, just around the next Art Deco corner.
At Lexington Glassworks, the jazz band kicks off another set, and the noise of the crowd dies down just a little. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and it’s still only three o’clock, but the atmosphere in here feels more like Friday night celebrations in full stride. In front of the large furnace, two men in protective eyewear twirl their long blow pipes, forming the glass by spinning it around and around.
– “Hand-blown glass and craft beer are both things we like, it’s as simple as that,” Geoff Koslow explains while he and co-owner Billy Guilford continue their careful work.
Geoff moved here from another creative town, Austin, Texas, to get to work on his two greatest passions. Geoff claims that the curious, tolerant, and open atmosphere of Asheville reminds him of Austin.
– “But when it comes to crafts, any kind of crafts really, there’s just no beating Asheville. I don’t think people realize how amazing the crafts scene here is, how much great work is being done here, and how well we cooperate between the various disciplines; I can collaborate with a variety of different craftsmen, including wood carvers and silversmiths, and they’re all just around the corner, right here in the city.”
Geoff and Billy carry on working in front of their guests. When I break out in a sweat from standing up close to watch them work the hot molten glass into imaginative creations, I walk over to the bar to explore their beer selection instead. The jazz band is still shuffling along over in the far corner, they’re playing their second set for the afternoon, and the tempo of their tunes seems to be gradually increasing.
– Asheville is a day drinking town; the bars are at their best between 3 and 8pm, don’t ask me why that is. I suppose it’s just that we have such a lot of great beer that we want to enjoy it in the daytime as well, Andy laughs at the bar while we sample a Highland Pilsner from Highland Brewing, which is located in the mountains just outside the city.
There are several reasons for the transformation of the city. Asheville is right next door to some rather amazing nature. The Blue Ridge Mountains offer a wealth of treasures to anybody who’s into hiking, biking, fishing, climbing, rafting, canoeing, or skiing. This isolated location also makes it perfect for anybody who’s looking to change their lifestyle, or for creative people who need space to think and make stuff. And to be able to afford their lifestyle. So, artists and musicians flocked here, and settled in houses nobody wanted to take care of, and then they spread the word all across America, that this was a pretty great place to live.
Asheville has always had a reputation for being a kind of bohemian’s paradise, a place that’s off the radar, somewhere where you can just relax and do your creative work. Artists, musicians, and writers have all been drawn here. The city is a little off the beaten track, squeezed in as it is between the mountains of North Carolina’s westernmost region, near the borders to Tennessee and Kentucky to the North. If you go South, you’re headed for Georgia. This place used to be hard to get to, and the deep forests and the hilly terrain served as natural fortifications. The geography of this little mountain city remains important to this day. Because of the way it makes it the perfect place to build a miniature world of your own, people move here from all over the USA, and from other parts of the world. People do their thing here, without worrying about how people do them somewhere else. Norwegian artist Brit J. Öie came here twenty years ago. She soon fell in love with the city, and her own Mr. Right, and ended up never leaving.
– “Asheville has changed a lot since the 90s, but it’s all been for the better. The wonderful atmosphere that I first fell in love with is still here,” she tells us when we meet at the local taqueria: White Duck Taco in the River Arts District. This is the city’s artist’s neighborhood, where abandoned warehouses that had been left vacant are suddenly buzzing with passion and invention. With our fish tacos, we drink a Bohemian Pilsner from the Colorado brewery New Belgium, which recently opened a tasting room called the Liquid Center, down by the French Broad River. Brit insists that one of the reasons for the city’s good fortunes of late is that the politicians left buildings and warehouses standing, and let artists and brewers move into these unused facilities for reasonable rents.
–“You can see that it worked out really well, and all we’re hoping for now is that the rents won’t get raised too much. We’re seeing some signs of that,” she tells us as we wander around the warehouse that she shares with a few other artists.
As the weekend approaches, one of the city’s many beer festivals starts, and I end up at Asheville Brewing along with hundreds of other enthusiastic visitors. Asheville Brewing is a welcoming place, and they work hard to be equally inviting to everybody, from families and less knowledgeable beer lovers to beer experts. All ages are represented here, and that’s liberating to see. Lyn May tells us about the city’s beer scene.
– “It just keeps getting better and better every month,” she says, and underlines her point by gesturing at the many visitors. She tells us about her favorites, places we mustn’t miss: Thirsty Monk, Wicked Weed, The Walk, and The Yacht Club. More names to cross off the list.
Cliff Mori is one of all the people who have migrated to Asheville. He left Orlando in Florida, and works as a guide now, giving tours of the city with an emphasis on the beer scene.
– “Did you know we’ve had three presidents who brewed beer in their homes, ” he asks us when we’ve set up camp at the cozy Twin Leaf Brewery’s tap room. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Barack Obama all brewed beer. They seem to have all been into brewing porter. Obama is probably the only one who did any brewing in the White House. A flight follows this history lesson, and Cliff explains how important the beer culture is to the city, and frames the brewing industry in a wider context. He takes us beyond flavors, and different kinds of hops.
“I’ve been cussed and I’ve been praised
And I’ve been nothing these days
But I’ll come back, time will see”
After beer festivals and beer walks, I find that the music of this city is luring me in again. Behind an unlit storefront, and a door that looks like it’s locked, I find my way inside the member’s club and speakeasy The Crow & Quill. The Jazz band that’s wailing its tunes into gear is standing among the visitors, who are all smiles despite how crowded the place is. Beer and drinks are flowing, and the audience is roaring out its appreciation. Asheville is most certainly back to its old form, and has even reached a new high point in its history. Perhaps, it’s higher than the High Sierra again.
Check out our guide to Asheville:
American Trails Jukebox for Asheville
Curated by: Donivan Berube, American Trails music editor.
“Asheville is a small mountain town, so it’s hard to find 10 artists who are actually from there. Angel Olsen moved there last year, Roberta Flack was born there, and Coma Cinema and Elvis Depressedly are from there. For the rest of the list, I compiled local musicians from nearby areas.”
Angel Olsen – Unfucktheworld
Elvis Depressedly – Weird Honey
Sylvan Esso – Coffee
Coma Cinema – Caroline, Please Kill Me
Bowerbirds – Northern Lights
Hiss Golden Messenger – Caledonia, My Love
Julien Baker – Appointments
Gillian Welch – The Way It Goes
Roberta Flack – The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face
Fleet Foxes – Blue Ridge Mountains
Facts: the Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Mountains are the easternmost range of the Appalachians. They reach through the states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. In the last two states, the mountains are called the Kittatinnies and the Shawagunks, respectively.
Leaving Asheville–Blue Ridge Parkway
When you’re ready to explore the surrounding area, make sure not to miss the Blue Ridge Parkway! Densely forested hills with just enough room between them for a small road to be carved out. Follow that road! Thick bands of fog roll down the hillside in the mornings, and when it clears, the views are amazing.
If you head south, stop off at:
Pisgah Inn (Milepost 408)–great views and hiking trails to Mt. Pisgah.
Skinny Dip Falls (Milepost 417)–a refreshing swimming hole and soaking spot with cascades and pools.
Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8)–Beautiful, large waterfalls near the road, and another just an easy hike away.
Black Balsam (Milepost 420.2)–a relatively short hike to a great view.
Devil’s Courthouse (Milepost 422)–hike just one mile each way for awesome panoramic mountain views.
Richland Balsam Overlook (Milepost 431.2)–the highest point on the Parkway.
Or, if you’re heading north:
Craggy Gardens–just a .7-mile hike to the Pinnacle, which is a great spot to see rhododendron in mid-June.
Mt Mitchell (Milepost 355.4)–the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.