Arts Performing Arts

WNC Musicians Take On Pandemic with New Releases

(From left) Aaron Burdett. Photo by Sandlin Gaither; Zoe & Cloyd. Photo by Sandlin Gaither; Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats

By Gina Malone

With indoor venues still shuttered, social distancing being practiced and many choosing the safe option of staying home, musicians have never had it so hard. “We were the first industry to get cancelled and will probably be the last to return,” says Phil Barker, mandolinist and vocalist for Town Mountain, “so we have been dealing with feeling pretty ‘unessential’ in the world at the moment.”

Most of us would agree, however, that music is an essential part of our lives and, further, that we are counting on our musicians, visual artists, poets, writers, dancers and actors—all of those who contextualize life for us creatively—to help make sense of these times. Fortunately, musicians, like the rest, are finding ways to do just that. Since April, at least 11 of our local favorites have released singles or albums, mostly ones that were already in the works by early March when the virus began to spread and shutdowns were put in place.

Town Mountain’s latest single, “You Can’t Win Em All,” was recorded last fall, but needed more layers, Barker says. “We basically had the bluegrass band instruments down, but wanted some vintage country flavor to match the song’s vibe. And with so many musicians having more time around their home studios, it seemed like the perfect time for some virtual collaboration.”

Andrew Scotchie of Andrew Scotchie & The River Rats was grateful that the band’s album, Everyone Everywhere, was ready to be released before the shutdowns. “Releasing an album in all of this madness and having that around-the-clock creative process to keep me occupied has been inspiring, educating and really therapeutic,” he says. He has been surprised at how music on this album “speaks about the times we are all experiencing right now, considering that half of it was recorded in 2019 and the second half was captured right before the virus hit.”

That same prescience shows in “Stand Like an Oak,” Rising Appalachia’s newest single. “It’s a song for these times,” says Chloe Smith, “although, strangely, it was written months before the lockdowns.” For her, she adds, this has been a time of “learning how to sit still, how to write/develop/curate music from the perch of our home, leaning into the quiet spaces, letting go of the hustle”—all practices that fit in with the Slow Music Movement she and sister Leah, the other half of the duo, began five years ago.

Other musicians are split on whether a global pandemic has been good for creativity, or if artists should be pushing themselves to create. “Initially, I’ll be honest, I was pretty depressed and thus not creatively motivated in the least,” says Warren Givens, who tours with Steep Canyon Rangers and has just released an album of his own, Rattle the Cages, that pairs acoustic and rock-and-roll versions of songs. Once past that initial shock, he says, he began working again. “I think there’s all this pressure to be creative or learn a new skill/language, etcetera, but I don’t think that’s very healthy,” he adds. “This is a traumatic experience for everyone, and there’s no reason to make ourselves feel any worse than we already do by adding more pressure into the mix.”

Jon Stickley, guitarist with the Jon Stickley Trio, says the pressure is definitely there, but creativity doesn’t necessarily follow. “I’ve been using music as an escape and therapy, more than conscious art,” he says. Still, the group released Scripting the Flip in April. It being their first new record in three years, they had planned an exciting album release tour that had to be cancelled. “Every time I wonder if we should have delayed the release, someone sends me a message telling me how much they enjoy it,” Stickley says.

(Left) Balsam Range; (Right) Warren Givens. Photo by West Givens

Audie McGinnis, guitarist and vocalist for Unspoken Tradition, has had a similar experience. “We definitely embarked on this journey with the intention to write, create, really woodshed some tunes and just focus on being even better players when we emerged from this,” he says. “Like everything about this year, it just wasn’t that simple.” There have been times of inspiration, he says, but times also that he calls “droughts, where nothing sounded good.” He and the other band members had been working on songs for a new album early in the year and recently released the single “At the Bottom Again,” with more new music on the way later this year, says bassist and vocalist Sav Sankaran.

Anya Hinkle, vocalist and guitarist, is among those who had plans to tour far and wide, and has had to see those plans dissolve for now. “There is a pause button on our careers in the traditional sense, but also new opportunities to reach people that I otherwise would not have thought of,” she says. Her latest single, a collaboration with Asheville ceramic artist, banjoist and composer Akira Satake, is titled “Hills of Swannanoa,” and tells of the Great Flood of 1916 that devastated areas of Asheville.

Like Hinkle, most musicians, in order to reach fans, promote their music and stay in touch with each other, have embraced technology: social media, including blogging and regularly scheduled Facebook Live performances; recordings and long-distance collaboration using iPhone Voice Memos and Acapella apps; Patreon, an online platform allowing creators to get paid for their art; and long-distance collaborative videos and livestreaming from venues without audiences. “We have always recognized the importance of an online presence and streaming platforms,” says Sankaran, “so it was a natural fit for us to use this opportunity to lean on those avenues to help get the word out about our newest releases.” Some musicians have also been able to hold socially distanced concerts, including porch shows and drive-in concerts.

Darren Nicholson, mandolinist and vocalist for Balsam Range, calls the Acapella app a “hidden gem” because it “allows for long-distance collaborations while in isolation.” In early May, Balsam Range released a single, “Richest Man,” that topped Bluegrass Today charts for weeks. “It’s hard to cut an album socially distanced, but we’ve been doing it,” says bassist and vocalist Tim Surrett. “We’re trying to record songs that will be ready when we go back out on the road, and it’s imperative right now to get music to streaming platforms and radio because that’s all there is.”

(From left) Unspoken Tradition. Photo by Sandlin Gaither; Rising Appalachia; Town Mountain. Photo by Rob Laughter

Natalya Zoe Weinstein and John Cloyd Miller, the married duo Zoe & Cloyd, had tours planned in the UK and the US. The two teach as well and don’t rely solely on performing. “We’ve been sharing to social media, of course,” Miller says, “but we definitely miss the interaction and energy—not to mention the added visibility—from performing live.” They recently appeared on a docu-series titled Pandemic Arts, taped for Season Five of David Holt’s State of Music and released two singles: “Where Do You Stand” and “Hoffman’s Hora/David’s Frailach.”

Songwriter, vocalist and fiddler Carley Arrowood had begun a solo career and signed a record deal just before the pandemic hit the US. She calls the hiatus “an inspired, forced time off” that she is using to write music. She has been able to teach the fiddle via Zoom, recently switching back to in-person lessons, and has released two singles: “The Ballad of Calvary” and “Goin’ Home, Comin’ On.”

Aaron Burdett, featured in The Laurel’s August issue, has set up his own live Facebook concerts every Saturday night. “That’s keeping my chops up and feels like the best way to stay connected with fans right now,” he says. His latest singles are “Echoes” and “Dirt Poor.”

As venues remain closed with virus cases still high, the musicians seem determined to find ways to reconnect with fans. “It’ll be interesting to see the different ways people dream up to get out in front of a crowd again,” Givens says. Scotchie thinks the industry will come out stronger than ever when the pandemic is over. “It’s definitely a time where your love and dedication to a career is put to the test, but I’ve never wanted to do anything else in my life but be a performer, so I have no choice but to learn and adapt.”

If we have to remain apart from loved ones, if we have to forego travel and social plans, if we have to stay home perhaps more than we would like, well, at least, let there be a soundtrack for this time to remind us that we’re not alone in dealing with the pandemic and to take our minds off worries. “We all need something to hold onto, and art is a mighty foundation,” says Smith.

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