One of the things that separates Cullowhee from other college towns is a lack of active involvement by students in the local arts scene. We complain that there’s nothing to do here, that Western lacks the personality of bigger college towns such as Athens or Chapel Hill. To some degree, this complaint is true, though the explanation for it is one you may not want to hear: as students at this university, we are the ones to blame.
The Cullowhee/ Sylva area is home to a diverse live music scene. A prevailing stereotype seems to hold that Jackson County music offers country, bluegrass and little else. In truth, local venues also regularly host bands whose genres include rock, punk, funk, reggae, hip-hop, electronica and everything in between. Whatever your taste in music, there’s likely a band playing in the area that you will like, and you’re missing out on it.
With the exception of a few industry-made pop groups, most of the bands you listen to started by playing in small venues, often in small towns or college towns. Nirvana started in Aberdeen, WA, population 16,000. R.E.M. rose to fame thanks in large part to the college-supported music scene of Athens. The Talking Heads, The Ramones, Wilco, Fugazi, The Pixies, Green Day, Black Flag and X are just a few examples of bands that sprung from a devoted local music scene. More than likely, the way your favorite band became your favorite band was by attracting local support that led to national attention that led to your attention and that CD or mp3 you love so much. In short, these bands succeeded because people showed up and listened. Music is dependent on people like you giving a damn.
“Students should care about local music because if they want to have a ‘scene’ they have to make it themselves,” said WCU student Adam Bigelow, bass player for several local bands including Cooking with Quanta and Triggerfish. “It not only takes cool bands, of which we have plenty around here, and in all different styles too, but it takes people coming out for the shows.”
In the past, bands such as Summertime Whiskey Band and C.I.A. have enjoyed great support from WCU students. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm once shown to local artists seems to be dying out, and the turnout for shows is getting smaller and smaller. The Cullowhee/Sylva music scene is struggling. Local and visiting bands are playing to increasingly smaller crowds and occasionally empty venues. Some local venues are scaling back or cutting their live music shows altogether. Part of this is undoubtedly attributable to the recession, but more than anything, what is killing local music is apathy.
“Sylva is interesting because it doesn’t get that much support from the university,” said Isaac Sturgill, WCU alumnus and drummer for Sylva-based group The Shiner Miners and Asheville-based rockers Electric Manx. “I mean, there are thousands and thousands of kids going to school at Western. If they all appreciated live, original, local music, the whole town would blow up.”
This is not to say that local music is receiving no support from WCU students, as Sturgill points out that the students who do turn out for shows are generally excited and supportive of the bands.
“Sylva’s local music scene as compared to Asheville, per say, seems to be smaller and more appreciative,” Sturgill said. “We have bands that come back time and time again just because they felt appreciated and like they really connected with the audience.”
Apart from providing “something to do, ” local music can provide a boost to the local economy by increasing patronage to smaller venues, such as Guadalupe Café, O’Malley’s, Big Rick’s and The Rusty Lizard, during tough economic times. The perk for students is that these smaller venues provide live music at a fraction of the cost charged for admission to larger venues such as The Orange Peel in Asheville or corporate venues such as the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Charlotte, even though many bands that have played Sylva venues have also appeared at large, prominent gigs. Take for example Sleepy Horses, an Athens-based group that has appeared at both Guadalupe Café and South by Southwest, or Sylva-native Matt Stillwell, who got his start in local gigs and now tours nationally and appears on CMT.
Charges for most Sylva and Asheville shows are generally limited to a $3-$5 cover, most, if not all, of which goes directly to the bands. Very few local musicians are able to support themselves entirely from performing. Most work other jobs, and many, especially in Cullowhee, are students. Many venues that charge covers do so as a way to provide supplemental income for the bands. “Don’t flip out if [the bands] are charging a $5 cover,” Sturgill commented. “They have to eat and you have no idea how long it takes to work up a set list.” The easiest way for WCU students to support local music is simply to become interested.
“Make friends with the bands!” said Sturgill. “Be a fan. If you feel the music, let them know. You might realize that you are in love with a band that you can actually hang out with and influence.”
Bigelow echoed this sentiment. “If you don’t like the music then I say start your own band! But really, it is a lot of fun to go out and get down with a bunch of your friends to the music that another bunch of your friends are making. And that is what a local music scene is all about. Fun and dancing.”
You can stay informed about local music performances by reading local publications, such as The Western Carolinian, The Smoky Mountain News, or the Mountain Xpress, browsing through MySpace or simply by talking to the staff at local venues or the musicians themselves.