It’s early Saturday evening and contemporary bluesman Cedric Burnside — the grandson of the great R.L. Burnside — is sitting on a large rock along the banks of the French Broad River. A hot mid-summer sun falls behind the Blue Ridge Mountains cradling his current location in Asheville, North Carolina.
“It’s something I grew up with — grew up playing and grew up living,” Burnside tells Rolling Stone of his blues lineage. “R.L. Burnside opened the door for our family and other great musicians who love the Hill Country blues — the younger generation is now starting to play it and it’s going to keep going.”
The Grammy winner plucks a few chords on his guitar while readying himself for a performance at the Salvage Station just over the riverbank. The appearance is part of the inaugural AVLfest — a largescale gathering with a core focus on the bustling local music scene in the small Southern Appalachian city, a town that Rolling Stone once called “the new must-visit Music City.”
“I love the fact so many local bands get to play music in their hometown and the spotlight is on them,” Burnside says. “It’s about getting out there and letting people see what you’re all about.”
Over four days last weekend, 232 artists played the 25 stages and 16 venues that made up AVLFest. For a city hovering around 100,000 residents, the showcase helped solidify Asheville’s reputation as a music scene of vibrancy and depth typically found in major metropolitan areas.
To note, Asheville is also home to the cherished annual “Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam” and has been ground zero for Billy Strings’ Halloween runs in recent years, all amid a slew of other residencies from names like Tame Impala, The String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Greensky Bluegrass, and Umphrey’s McGee.
“There was a lot of blind faith involved in putting [AVLfest] on, a lot of hope and expectations, and whether or not those expectations would turn into a reality,” says AVLfest co-founder Jeff Whitworth of Worthwhile Sounds, a regional booking/production agency. “And we’re seeing it all manifest this weekend into the grand vision that was laid out.”
While the vast majority of the acts were homegrown talent from Asheville and greater Western North Carolina, AVLfest also presented several marquee names from around the country, including Burnside, Kurt Vile & The Violators, Watchhouse, Nikki Lane, Sarah Shook & The Disarmers and Scott McMicken (of Dr. Dog). Many of them shared how the supportive Asheville scene helped their respective careers.
“I remember when I had maybe one little CD out and I was brought down here by Harvest Records [in West Asheville] to play the Grey Eagle,” Vile says backstage at the Orange Peel. “It’s a music town. I go way back with [this city]. It’s just vibey down here — it’s a good concoction.”
Here’s a snapshot of the best things we saw at AVLfest.
Dylan LeBlanc evokes the atmospherics (and buzz) of the War on Drugs.
Arguably the biggest breakthrough artist of AVLfest, Alabama-based indie-rock phenom LeBlanc weaved through an hour-long blitzkrieg of his mesmerizing ethereal sonic landscape — a tone whispered in the same caliber and category as The War on Drugs or Ray LaMontagne. “The beauty of a festival like this is that you’re hearing things you’ve never heard before and might not have crossed paths with otherwise,” LeBlanc says. “And for us onstage, to have that opportunity to be in front of a whole new audience, you better bring your best game and play your best game — you never know who’s out there watching.”
Skynyrd’s onetime drummer keeps the faith.
Legendary drummer and Western North Carolina resident Artimus Pyle — the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame former percussionist for Lynyrd Skynyrd — jumped behind his kit with PyleTribe, a family-band featuring his son, Chris, that’s filled with original tunes and odes to the Southern rock glory of Skynyrd (“Gimme Back My Bullets”). “AVLfest is an attempt to come back and showcase the real people and showcase the local bands as well as the national acts,” says Pyle, an Asheville local. “This is a return to having a truly local festival.”
Three bands rep hard for AVL.
With a back-to-back-to-back block of some of the notable ensembles emerging from the Asheville market, Americana/indie unit Brothers Gillespie, psychedelic/indie-rockers Pink Beds, and soul/R&B-powerhouse Abby Bryant & The Echoes bulldozed through powerful sets at the Grey Eagle in the River Arts District.
“AVLfest feels like the culmination of everything that makes this place such a special corner of the world,” Bryant says. “This is a unique, wonderful place that’s full of extraordinary talent among artists who genuinely uplift and celebrate each other.”
“Having a local festival of this magnitude is huge for our area and community,” adds Aaron Gillespie, guitarist for Brothers Gillespie. “Asheville is at this nexus of the Southeast where all points in the region converge, [where] there’s a certain draw that brings some heavy talent.”
Nikki Lane reminds fans she’s a highway queen.
One of the most-anticipated appearances during the weekend, Lane strapped on her guitar and roared out of the gate with a soul-stirring “yippie-ki-yay” howl reverberating out of the Peel and onto Biltmore Avenue.
“Trying to come up on the East Coast, you’re running up and down those same roads. And so, Asheville’s been part of my growth as an artist,” Lane says of how the city became a must-stop while on tour. “As a young fan coming out to shows, this was where I sought out a lot of the music I liked.”
Willi Carlisle raises the dead at Burial Beer’s taproom.
Tucked away on a backstreet in the Biltmore Village district of South Asheville, perpetual rambler and Arkansas troubadour Willi Carlisle stood behind the microphone at the Burial Beer Forestry Camp taproom and restaurant and captivated an afternoon crowd.
“As a folk singer and songwriter, I want to foster connection and emotion, to massage the blocked-up parts of the spirit,” Carlisle says. “It’s not just that we’re addicted to the slot machines of media, marketing and commentary, it’s that we’re losing our togetherness, our third-spaces, our churches, our families, our wildness.”
Kevin Fuller leans into an Asheville tradition: busting genres.
Plugging his Gibson Les Paul Gold Top into a hot tube amp, West Asheville singer-songwriter Kevin Fuller blasted through an hour of tears-in-your-beer numbers and razor-sharp alt-country selections. “Asheville is not a genre-specific town,” he says. “There’s jam bands and hip-hop artists, country groups and jazz collectives. You can go out on a Tuesday night, the slowest night of the week, and find any particular genre you want to listen to.”
The Greenliners nod to Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe.
AVLfest organizer Richard Barrett held double-duty throughout the course of the weekend — not only as a member of the production team, but also as a performer. Barrett’s bluegrass band the Greenliners opened for Watchhouse and also played the Wortham Center stage for an intimate duo gig with pedal steel player Jackson Dulaney.
Rodgers and Monroe each left footprints in Asheville. In the heyday of the Asheville Citizen Times building (now vinyl-pressing plant Citizen Vinyl), radio station WWNC broadcast from the third floor. Rodgers appeared at the station in 1927, followed by Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” who hosted a residency there in early 1939. The exact studio in which Monroe stood and performed is now a preserved recording space at the heart of Citizen Vinyl.
“This town is built on our love for music, and it goes all the way back to the 1920s with Jimmie Rodgers and the 1930s with Bill Monroe,” Barrett says. “With AVLfest, we’re just connecting all of the dots that were already here, and have been here for decades.”