Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden
At the heart of this phenomenon called music is melody, harmony, and beats that can be traced back to the sound of the human heart pulsating in rhythm in our chest.
Songs can also be found in nature, with the calls of birds being a perfect example of notes created by animals in the trees, fields, waterways, and living spaces that surround us. Musicologists say that most of the songs created in the animal kingdom are in a certain key, mostly D-Flat. Why? It is a part of the mystery that is music.
Art Gets a Reality Check
When it comes to the human race, music has evolved over the years, and the business side of the art form has evolved with it. To be a professional musician means you want and need to get paid, especially if it is your only craft. In these modern times, every band is a small business. Every music venue is a business as well, as is every recording studio, booking agency, and music management company.
There are those who want to separate art from business, as they feel the creative process should stand on its own, with beautiful new sounds brought into the universe being the goal instead of the work of chasing dollars. On the crasser end of the artform, of course, there are big and small record companies seeking to enhance their financial side of the equation, so they encourage musicians to purposely create hit songs that will make money. The problem with that approach is the great music that people want to hear and purchase still has to be creative and unique.
Few business models have changed over the years as much as the music business. Digital technology and file sharing has curtailed much of the money made from selling albums and singles, except in the case of the world’s most popular artists, and while streaming music has steadily grown in popularity, the income generated does not come close to replacing the shortfall caused by the decline of physical media sales. Because of that reality, live music has become the way that most musicians create revenue.
A big part of the economy of Western North Carolina is based on the live music business. There are hubs of live music scattered throughout the mountains, from Black Mountain to Shelby to Brevard to Ashe County. The two towns considered the biggest hubs of live music in this region, however, are Asheville and Boone.
Asheville has blown up in recent years, emerging from a period when the downtown area was considered downtrodden not long ago. Now, the problem is too much growth, or at least growth that needs to be managed in the right way. People come from all over the world to Asheville to experience its live music scene, yet the rise in the cost of living in the growing city has impacted the ability of the musicians to find affordable housing, causing more and more to move farther and farther outside of town. Nashville has experienced the same problem—pricing out the folks who made the town interesting to begin with yet now have to move.
Boone, on the other hand, is much smaller than Asheville, yet the music scene is also impressive, fueled by Appalachian State University and a tourist economy based on the fact that Boone is at least 1,000 feet higher in elevation than Asheville, creating cool summer experiences with temperatures that never reach 90. And, in the colder months, the three ski resorts make the surrounding High Country region a wonderful hub for winter sports.
There was a legendary time for the music scene in Boone that lasted from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2000s. Then, as Asheville’s music scene began to coalesce into the powerhouse that it is today, many musicians in Boone subsequently made the move southwest.
Musician, music promoter, festival organizer, and adjunct music professor Dave Brewer, known as the hardest working man in show business in Boone these days, was also intent on moving to Asheville in the late 1990s. After growing up in Winston-Salem, he was called to the mountains.
“I moved to Boone with my old band, Six Foot Groove,” remembers Brewer. “We all moved here together. I was trying to move to Asheville, but one of the guys in the band had a girlfriend who was in school here at Appalachian State. I was just trying to go back to school. I had been going to Western Carolina University for what I refer to as my ‘first freshman year’ around 1998. But, I didn’t do so well there because I didn’t give a darn about school at that time.”
Brewer was determined to give higher education another go, even though the notion of playing music was always in his front pocket. Meanwhile, though, bills and the rent still had to be paid.
“I was always trying to go back to school, so I spent a year working at various jobs,” he continues. “I was a cameraman and production assistant at a Winston-Salem TV station, working the morning show. I worked from 5AM to 9AM, which is a bizarre time to work. We were the Bad News Bears of the local market, and it was laughably bad at times, but it was a job. I also painted arrows on the streets that summer for the city. It was at intersections for the straight right or left turns, leaning off the side of a truck with cans of spray paint. It sure was interesting.”
Brewer eventually enrolled in the journalism program at Appalachian State University, though his musical sensibilities continued to beckon him.
Taking the Long View
Indeed, a decade and a half later, Brewer plays with multiple bands here in Boone. They include Soul Benefactor, Possum Jenkins, the Worthless Son-In-Laws, Dead of Winter, the Foscoe Four, the King Bees, the Carolina Ramble Review, and more (not to mentioned acclaimed Asheville band Tellico, with whom he also works as a booking agent). On Sundays in Boone, he is also the drummer for the 100-year old Boone Mennonite Brethren Church’s Worship Band, backing up the world-renown Junaluska Gospel Choir. It is one of the longest continuously-attended African American churches in North Carolina.
Due to his success at booking the acts at the Boone Saloon restaurant and music venue, located on King Street in Boone, Brewer recently created the Carolina Ramble Productions booking agency with partner Ashley Wright, a wonderful singer and songwriter who performs under the name Earliene.
“It is hard to say what would have happened had I stayed in Asheville,” says Brewer. “It was a different time back then, and it wasn’t as full of a music scene as it is now. And, then as it still is now, the path between Boone and Asheville is a little beaten down as far as musicians are concerned. Plus, once people graduate here in Boone, it can be hard to make a living in the mountains. Looking back now, however, no, I did not want to move to Asheville. Back then, however, it was a little bit of a letdown as I thought it would be cool to live there.”
Now, with a family formed here and a local reputation firmly established when it comes to the Boone music scene, Brewer is able to make good things happen with direct involvement in all facets of the High Country arts community.
“I would like to think that I am bringing together the sensibilities of each discipline,” he notes, “as in, being a musician wanting to get paid and being a booker who pays other musicians. One of the first things I did when I took over booking bands for the Boone Saloon was to give the artist five more percent. I just think it is the right thing to do. Bringing higher profile acts into Boone Saloon has let the music world know that we are serious about being a music venue. When you are taking bigger risks and hoping for bigger rewards, it helps to raise your profile. When you bring in really good acts, other really good acts get in touch with you.”
Ever the multi-tasker, Brewer released a new album with his compatriots in the Worthless Son-in-Laws band last year titled Resplendent Verge, and while he’s quick to agree that recording new music is always artistically worthwhile, as he puts it, “If you think you are going to make your money back with it, you should maybe try investing in penny stocks or something!” Laughing, he adds, “I love the idea of recording a whole album as much as I ever did, as there is nothing that replaces the album experience. However, I fully understand the utility of the current trend of stringing out singles to maintain a high profile in this digital age. I think maybe the smart thing to do is to record a whole album’s worth of material and trickle it out, one single at a time, but there are many ways of looking at it. But, I think all of the bands I am in right now are good, and all are worthwhile projects.”
Boone has been the home to many groups that have realized success. For a spell early in their career, Old Crow Medicine Show—these days, based in Nashville—lived in a farmhouse just outside the town. The amazing Melissa Reaves is based there, The Nude Party is rising up on festival posters these days, and the legendary band Acoustic Syndicate was formed there years ago. Because of the vibrant music department at Appalachian State University, new musical blood is steadily introduced into the Boone scene as other musicians move on to different locales. And there is a fervent underground scene going on in Boone right now where harder-edged bands perform at house concerts, basements, and unofficial raves.
Observes Brewer, “I think the thing that has driven me a little crazy about the music scene here in the High Country is that while there are absolutely many things percolating on several different levels, there is almost never any connective tissue between the various scenes. That may have something to do with us being a college town, as some bands go bonkers putting on house shows and then they move. That totally informs what I do as well. I’ve been in Boone doing it longer than a lot of people, so I have a longer view of things.”
Giving Back to the Community
This fall, Brewer began yet another new endeavor as he is now an adjunct professor in the music department at Appalachian State University. The irony of the position is that he is teaching in the same department that turned him down three times as a student almost two decades ago.
“I tried to be a music industry studies student at App State, but I could not gain entrance into the department because I could not read music tablature very well,” says Brewer. “I play the guitar pretty good, but I can’t read music good enough to help me. If you are a music industry major, you are basically doing a double minor in music and business. I started the program, trying to learn how to read music on the side. I had been playing the guitar for a long time by that point, but I couldn’t really put the self-taught jack back in the box. I sat there and tried out for the program three times by trying to play the sheet music that they gave to me in that room, but I was denied three times.
“Now, all of these years later, I have been hired to help to reform the Split Rail Record Label program run by App State and be an adjunct professor in the same music program I could not get into back in the day! The main thing is I am teaching young people the ins and outs of the industry.”
The name of the class that Brewer is currently teaching is Record Company Administration. That is where the aforementioned Split Rail Records label—which has recently released albums by Electric Jelly Funk, Barefoot Modern, Arson Daily—comes into the mix. Essentially a working record company run by the Appalachian State University students, it was created in 2005 as a part of the Hayes School of Music and it mirrors the Legends night club, also located at the university and, significantly, the only student-run music venue in the country.
Brewer is also the brainchild behind the unique, hugely popular Carolina Ramble and Reunion music festival, which took place this past September in Vilas, North Carolina, just a few miles northwest of Boone. The annual event is meant to be a true music festival that can be attended by adults in their twenties, thirties, and forties who want to bring their kids and families to the show. The festival is for music lovers of all stripes and all are welcome. But, along with the two-day lineup of awesome bands that are showcased, there are other good old-fashioned fun activities offered that include apple bobbing contests, cake walks, sack races, and three-legged races.
“We have definitely evolved as a festival,” he explains. “We certainly try to analyze our actions every year and avoid the same pitfalls the next year. Over the last few festivals, we have continued to gain a great understanding of how to throw a great party in an incredibly beautiful place. I always say that the Brayshaw Farm is the star of the show because it is so beautiful out there. Ultimately, I am also a believer in a slow and steady growth of the festival itself. Our attendance hasn’t gotten out of hand because it builds on itself little by little, which is exactly what we want to happen. The Ramble is not meant to be the biggest party—it is meant to be the best little Americana music festival that takes place anywhere around Boone.”
Now in its sixth year, the Carolina Ramble and Reunion is slowly growing in a positive way.
“At its core, the Ramble is built around quality live music. As the Ramble carries on from year to year, people take ownership of the event. They form their own campsites and make these lasting friendships and bonds with people. I am extremely proud to be able to facilitate that. The Ramble is definitely an exercise in community, and we live in a great community, so that translates out at the Brayshaw Farm. Hopefully, people will come on out and dig it.”
Brewer also takes time to give back to the music scene in Boone and the surrounding area. It is the nature of the community in Boone, which is not only unique but respectful, open-minded, and benevolent. To that end, twice a year, Brewer hosts his A.M.E.N. Corner benefit concerts that raise money for artists who could use a hand. The A.M.E.N. Corner acronym stands for Area Musicians Experiencing Need, and the benefit concerts happen in the form of the High Country Holiday Throwdown in the wintertime, and Brewer’s Birthday Bash in the summer. As for the money raised, 100% goes to musicians that are elderly, sick, or just need a bill or two paid.
“The A.M.E.N. Corner is like an envelope in my desk and nobody takes a nickel from it, I don’t take a nickel from it, and I give the raised money, cash-in-hand, to those in need, every dollar,” says Brewer. “One of the best things about playing with so many ensembles locally, and the beauty of it, is that the need finds me with relative ease. There are known musicians here locally that have experienced health problems, yet at the same time are the last people on earth to ask people for money. Sometimes I will hear about their plight and show up at their house and help them out, and they are humbled and appreciative, and they vow to pay it forward the best they can. They are always incredibly appreciative.
“Musicians tend to be at the mercy of whatever social safety net that exists or doesn’t exist, and there is certainly no musician’s union around in these parts. My goal is not to elicit an emotional response, but to simply let them know that the Boone music community cares for one another, and we are here to support one another, both musically and financially.”
The wintertime A.M.E.N. Corner benefit concert, billed as the aforementioned High Country Holiday Throwdown, usually takes place in December. For anyone wanting to sponsor or contribute to the charity, you can contact Brewer at carolinarambleproductons.com.
While the business side of music is always in the mix, a successful night for Brewer and all musicians who follow their muse is participating in a performance that connects with an audience. Magic does not always happen when it comes to live shows, of course. But lightning can strike when the crowd is tuned into the band and the artists onstage are clicking and having a great performance. Live music can elicit many emotions, from happiness and dancing, to tears that flow from being truly moved by a heartfelt performance. Brewer notes this happens as well for him as he watches the fruits of his labor, which hopefully means a club full of people connecting with a talented band that is on a roll. (Incidentally, for upcoming performances by Brewer, his Dead of Winter band will be recreating the music of the Grateful Dead replete with a psychedelic light show at The Cardinal in Boone this Halloween, while Soul Benefactor performs at the Boone Saloon on November 9.)
In the greater scheme of things, the art and music scene of a town, city, or region is a big part of the quality of life in that area, and that affects the ability of companies and headhunters to bring in the best talent. Highly sought-after employees tend not to want to relocate to a dead zone, and that also goes for entrepreneurs who want to set up shop in an uplifting and livable part of the world.
To happily exist in our mountains, one has to be able to make a living as well. That is certainly true for the creatives among us. Western North Carolina has a rich history of live music, going back a century or more, and the artform continues to thrive in these modern times. Brewer and many other true believers here continue to try and create those magical musical moments that make the lifestyle of this region so special.
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…