Asheville gets too much of a good thing with Bele Chere

by Jordan Green

Asheville, our smaller and more glamorous mountain cousin, hosts the best free street music festival on our roster.

The festival was launched in 1979 to help revive the city’s then-moribund downtown, explains Sandra Travis, event coordinator for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Bele Chere is now touted as the biggest free outdoor music festival in the Southeast.

If you’ve visited Asheville in the last decade or so, you might know that the city’s downtown is no longer struggling. Its decorous architecture and pedestrian-friendly streets teem with art galleries, saloons, bookstores and cafes. Life can be so agreeable that I once came to the conclusion with some friends that the city’s main downside was that it lulled us into complacency.

They like to keep things small and homegrown in Asheville.

After soliciting input from citizens, the Asheville City Council voted to give the festival more of a local focus. Last year’s outing was distinctly heavier on national acts, although the most prominent name may have been Asheville’s own Gov’t Mule. But you could’ve also caught the Drive-By Truckers, Susan Tedeschi, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, the Derek Trucks Band, John Hiatt and the North Mississippi Allstars.

“There was a community forum that was held at the end of January,” Travis said. “The thing that we heard pretty loud and clear is that they wanted to go back to locals music acts and local arts and crafts exhibitors.”

The city has plenty of local talent to showcase, so expect to see Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, SeePeoples, Stephanie’s Id and Afromotive on the various downtown stages.

The pared-down national lineup this year features a strange and wonderful cast of sojourners, including Bio Ritmo, a Richmond, Va. band that specializes in hard-edged, seventies-era New York City salsa; northern Florida swamp-rocker JJ Grey and his band Mofro; and the eccentric Col. Bruce and the Quark Alliance.

The biggest names could be considered nostalgia acts, but true originals nonetheless.

Marty Stuart may have the best hair in country music. It’s a gloriously teased mullet – part Elvis, party Twiggy and part Porter Wagoner. All the music superstars have great hair, don’t they?

The Mississippi-born renaissance man, like his mentor Johnny Cash, has balanced the scales between battling personal demons and praising the Lord through most of his career. He swept onto the Nashville scene with his 1989 album Hillbilly Rock in 1989, but he was a working musician in bluegrass giant Lester Flatt’s band before he turned 15.

A member of the Grand Ole Opry, Stuart is a creative compatriot of Travis Tritt and Steve Earle. He’s a poet of threadbare, murky visions of lost America and an impressionistic photographer praised by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton. He’s even been the subject of a Marvel comic book called “Marty Party In Space.”

Stuart’s 2005 gospel album Souls’ Chapel is an exquisite piece of Delta country soul that features a duet with Mavis Staples. As for ties to North Carolina, Stuart has also collaborated with the legendary Doc Watson and the upstart Old Crow Medicine Show.

He’ll be sharing the stage with the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Gin Blossoms.

The original Lovin’ Spoonful disbanded in 1969, but the band recorded at least two great songs that have left an indelible stamp on American music. “Do You Believe in Magic” is an exquisite pop construction. “Summer In the City” is the best soundtrack to a riot ever committed to wax. Lovin’ Spoonful is also cool because they incorporated twang in their sound long before country-rock.

The Gin Blossoms surfaced in Arizona in the late 1980s. Two of their songs, “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You,” are ’90s radio staples, but those rewards were hard won. According to the band’s official biography, guitarist Doug Hopkins departed before the first full-length major label album was recorded – a casualty of depression and alcoholism.

New Miserable Experience was released in 1992, and Hopkins committed suicide the following year. The Gin Blossoms broke up in 1997, but gradually returned to playing live at the beginning of the millennium.

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