Asheville’s Fireside Collective to Play Winston-Salem
Some bands benefit from being a highly mobile, portable operation, able to take the show on the road whenever they want.
I spoke by phone last week to Tommy Maher of Asheville-based bluegrass outfit Fireside Collective while they had an afternoon off near Charleston, South Carolina. Maher said the band was getting ready to go practice. Being an acoustic band, they can pretty much pull their instruments out of the band and rehearse wherever they want.
“If we wanted to practice on the frickin’ beach we could walk over there and do it,” Maher said. As it was, they had the run of a house that one of their fans had let them use nearby. And that was going to serve as a pretty sweet rehearsal spot for the afternoon, before the group made its way to Augusta, Georgia. Fireside Collective play the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Feb. 10.
“We’ve played enough places over the last four years that we’ve either made or found friends or hosts in a lot of the city’s that we come back to,” Maher said.
That mix of rambling, picking and connecting is what fires the cylinders of Fireside Collective. Being in motion, on the road, in transit, rootless, taking the stage at a new club every night, highway miles blurring in between — it all informs the quintet’s music.
The band’s most recent record, 2017’s Life Between the Lines, is a road album. The songs are about travel and that strange thrill of being dislocated by touring. “Movin’ on Down that Line,” the album’s opener, begins with deft flourishes from dobro and fiddle to accentuate the motion of the song, with lines like “When everyplace you’ve roamed feels just like home, tell me how can you get lost?” Other songs, like “Cabin Song,” present the idea of staying still out in the woods as a romantic fantasy.
Lots of bands want to tour. Running dates in an expanding radius around one’s home turf can be a gratifying way of broadening a fan base. Fireside Collective has taken that spirit to at least one place that a lot of bluegrass bands don’t get to. Through the goodwill and creative energies of Doug Beatty, a club-owner and experienced traveler in Virginia, in November 2017, the band was able to play in a kind of cross-cultural exchange near the communities that ring Lake Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan in Mexico.
Beatty proposed the trip to the group one night after a show. Thinking it might be big talk, they didn’t exactly expect any plans to take shape, but Beatty did a lot of organizing and got plugged into some grant money from the Mexican government, and before long Fireside Collective had to get their passports in order and gear up for a musical odyssey.
“We stayed with a host family there. Basically every day we would go and practice with this local folk music group,” Maher said. “We would rehearse with these bands and then go play in these little villages around the lake where we were at. We had nothing but love come our way.”
The sonic similarities between some of the indigenous folk music of Michoacan and bluegrass seemed to make the exchange fairly natural for musicians and audiences alike. And now the hope is to eventually bring local musicians from Michoacan up to North Carolina and Virginia for a series of shows highlighting the fruitful collaboration and interplay the folk music of Mexico and the United States.
Bluegrass has kept Fireside Collective moving. It was bluegrass that drew Maher and band founder, songwriter and mandolin player Jesse Iaquinto to the mountains after graduating from Eastern Carolina State University. The music scene in Asheville helped the players sharpen their chops. Recruiting some students of bluegrass and old-time music from nearby Johnson City, in eastern Tennessee, Fireside Collective took shape in 2014. The mix of tradition and a sense of the music’s built-in progressive aesthetic has inspired Iaquinto, Maher and the band — which includes Carson White on bass, Joe Cicero on guitar, and Alex Genova on banjo — to push ahead with their own original material rather than simply pulling from the deep well of classic repertoire.
“Not growing up raised on this music, and coming at it through bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Old & In the Way, we had already seen other people’s interpretations of bluegrass,” Maher said.
Knowing that bluegrass was a strong enough tradition to withstand creative tinkering, that gave the band the feeling that elements of pop, folk, country, blues or jazz could be folded in without danger to the music’s durable foundation.
“What [original bluegrass creators like] Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe were doing was super innovative at the time,” said Maher of the fleet music that blended elements of old-time and country with the dexterity and rhythmic drive of jazz. “Yeah, you’re honoring the past, but you’re honoring dudes who were super ahead of the curve at the time.”
Acoustic music continues to cross-pollinate with the pop sounds on the radio and elsewhere. A new generation had experienced the artistic trickle-down of another iteration of the folk revivals that started rippling through America back in 1952 when Harry Smith assembled his hugely influential Anthology of American Folk Music. Bands such as the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Lumineers have all drawn listeners back to older sounds, and to the charms of numerous voices harmonized organically.
Part of the reason pop and rock music continue to resonate so profoundly with listeners is surely that the volume of big speakers and sound systems creates a powerful feeling in our bones. The airwaves have a force that’s almost independent of the music itself. But acoustic music has some other appeal that’s equally archetypal.
“The human ear has heard unamplified music for thousands of years longer than it has heard it through an amplifier,” Maher said. He believes the challenge of capturing that essence in a club setting, where one usually does plug into to some amplification, is a key hurdle for many acoustic bands.
Maher suspects that acoustic music taps into “some primal wavelength in the body, something deep within us that goes beyond popular music.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.