The drum circle's beat builds like a slow eruption.
First, the tepid rumble of handheld instruments swells into the coordinated pounding of larger, free-standing African drums, or djembes. Soon percussionists filter in from every direction, joining in with drums, cowbells, or their own feet. The music grows louder until the ground in downtown's Pritchard Park reverberates with life and sound. The crowd responds with hand claps and dancing, spinning, and jumping to the collective rhythm. They are as young as babies and as old as great-grandmothers, and the mood is open and free.
Now a 20-year-old tradition, Asheville’s weekly drum circle kicks off every Friday night, and all are welcome. The range of characters that gathers reflects the diverse musical tastes of this North Carolina city.
“We take pride in the fact that there is no [one] Asheville sound,” says Jessica Tomasin, studio manager of Echo Mountain Recording, housed in an old church in downtown Asheville.
“It’s such an eclectic scene,” says local trombone player J.P. Furnas, “We’ve got rock, blues, pop, classical, funk, jazz, hip-hop, electronic—we even have a metal band called Sex Knuckle—so you can’t pigeonhole us. Asheville is a melting pot.”
That musical stew traces back to the area’s first Scotch-Irish settlers, whose instruments and highland melodies evolved into what locals call “mountain music”—old-time folk songs played with fiddle, banjo, guitar, and zither.
“You can’t really say we’re having a resurgence of mountain music, because it never went away up here,” explains Julian Dreyer, a producer and engineer at Echo Mountain. The tradition of live music just for the sake of it continues every night at any of Asheville’s 70-odd venues. Places like the Isis Music Hall might host two or three acts per night, including a bluegrass musician plucking a guitar upstairs. Big-name tours play at the Orange Peel, while the Celtic-inspired Jack of the Wood offers an intimate setting for Appalachian music, hosting weekly jam sessions for local talent. The sheer number of music spots attracts a serious core of professional musicians, with overqualified buskers planted on nearly every corner downtown.
“In Los Angeles, you pay to play, but I’m actually making a living in Asheville as a working musician,” says funk pianist Lenny Pettinelli, member of local band Empire Strikes Brass.
An ardent fan base feeds the music scene, and participation is encouraged. For the boot-stompin’ spirit of Asheville, join in the contra dancing at the Grey Eagle (and try the very authentic Latin food). Old-time saloon Lex 18 features jazz, swing, and honky-tonk, all with a sly wink and a side of moonshine. The Mothlight leans toward southern folk, while the sound gets more bluesy at Asheville Guitar Bar, where the stage is open to any musician who wants to strum and sing.
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“If you play guitar and show up, they’ll work you into the roster,” says bar-goer Amy Malec. Singers and songwriters come to collaborate in this old cotton mill, where the chandeliers are cymbals and one rafter is a massive guitar neck. The vibe stays cool and relaxed, as if a neighborhood band were jamming in a friend’s living room, firing off jokes between sets.
But don’t get too comfortable—Asheville has a way of yanking casual listeners into some weird and wonderful corners of the musical universe. This city handcrafts Moog synthesizers and cultivates their groundbreaking electronic sound. In the same tradition, local company Make Noise Music now builds modular synthesizers that are used across the electronic music industry. When it comes to music, experimentation is celebrated and expected, so it’s no coincidence that Asheville is home base for psychedelic, genre-busting bands like Papadosio.
Drum circle, sound stage, music hall or corner bar—no matter the venue or size of the audience—Asheville’s artist and listener are on equal terms.