PETER FINCH: Asheville

taken from Roots, Peter Finch’s current work in progress, a rock and roll trip to the mountains and beyond. Roots will be published by Seren next year.


The car is full of rising sun. There’s western swing on the radio and the great open spaces of America are rolling past the car windows. I’m travelling like you just can’t travel anywhere else. Who am I? Hugo Williams looking for Chuck Berry in No Particular Place to Go. Duncan McLean searching for Bob Wills in Lone Star Swing. Burroughs seeking satori in Tangier. Kerouac looking for Cody Pomeroy. Everyone heading for Denver, for San Francisco, for Mexico, for New Orleans. The road always moving. The fluid, shifting, American state of mind.

The radio is WKSF, Asheville’s Kiss Country, broadcasting from Mount Pisgah, an almost 6000 feet eminence in the Blue Ridge Mountains and one I’ve actually been up, in another life, in an earlier time. I’m at the edge of WKSF’s reach and the signal comes and goes with that fuzzy Doppler that makes it sound like Radio Luxembourg once did. The dj is playing a contemporary band called the Hot Club of Cowtown. Through the reception’s crackle and fade, they sound just like Bob Wills.

Wills is the man who made dance music in that place where cowboys polka and gypsy jazz turns into mariachi el Mexicano. He added Stetsons and steel guitar and made it big in Texas. There was a time in America’s pre-War years (and they had more of those than we did) when out west this up-tempo fiddle-driven house was pretty much all you heard. Duncan McLean, who I’ve already name-checked, spent a whole season in the nineties hunting across Texas. He was looking for traces of his hero, the long-dead purveyor of marimba blues with a western beat, Bob Wills.

The king of Western Swing died in 1975 but some of his band members and former associates still hung on. Decrepit, aged beyond belief, battered by the sun and the past in equal measure they met with McLean. Reluctantly, eagerly, Alzheimer’s leaking from their hands. They dragged out their battered fiddle cases, found their peddle steels, cleared the ornaments off the pianos in their front rooms and gave our man a taste of how it once sounded, creaky old music with dust in its grooves. Swing swung. Like New Orleans jazz sounded to my ears when I heard it first. That on my pensioner neighbour’s 78-spinning wind-up gramophone when I was 8. He was keen to spark an interest in a boy who thought Rosemary Clooney singing Mambo Italiano on the radio was how it rocked, daddy-o.

The 40 crosses Douglas Lake and pushes on towards Newport. A port, up here where the Pigeon River and the French Broad have their headwaters? It seems just so. In the nineteenth century flat boats would ply their dangerous ways downstream and negotiate the Tennessee River (into which the Pigeon and the French Broad both empty) all the way to New Orleans. Newport, as small towns go, lacks the wide streets of middle America. But it does have the telegraph poles with cable everywhere. There’s a railtrack running right up East Main Street with a depot that has no platforms. At Dollar General there’s plenty of root beer, shucked corn and cheese in spray-on cans. But no alcohol. Not even a can of lager. Sorry, son, we’re a dry county. That one again.

Further on the land rises and the road narrows, even this one, the superfast interstate. It’s the US A470 really, bending and turning its way through hillsides of rock and mile after mile of standing trees. The Cowtown Hot Club have gone to be replaced by Wills himself. Between messages from the sponsor, a dentist with an Asheville practise offering painless root canal, porcelain veneers and wisdom tooth extraction without fear, Wills does The Waltz You Saved Me For with soaring steel like this were Hawaii. I want him to yodel, to sound like Slim Whitman but he doesn’t. Actually Wills doesn’t sing either. He’s old fashioned, he leads his band like Ted Heath did. With added yelps and ah-has. The singer is Tommy Duncan, Wills’ employee. They put this record out as a single in 1947, year of my birth, unplayed by the BBC, why would they?

Western Swing never had a UK high spot. Relegated to background parts in the occasional black and white western showing at City Road’s Gaiety we were rarely exposed to this music’s charms. It began in the hands of fiddle player Bob Wills and vocalist Milton Brown. Both were band leaders in the thirties. They took the Texas sounds of the singing cowboy and mixed them with hot jazz, southern blues and rocking Cajun. Dance drove the music. Jive, lindy hop, bop, jump. At times it can sound surprisingly like Benny Goodman[i] or one of the other kings of big band swing. At others it resembles Stephan Grappelli, Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de Paris. Western swing had drums and horns, electric rhythm, steel guitars and clarinets. But up front were always the fiddles. Brown, who died young, might have rivalled Wills as the king but his absence left the founder of the Texas Playboys to wear the crown. And he did. This was good time music, easy to listen to, with plenty of finger snapping, foot tapping and throwing your partner around and around.

When the Texas Playboys tackle the tradition, on Corrine, Corrina, for example, what you get is swing beat rather than soulful blues. Their version is as far from Bob Dylan’s folk recreation as you can possibly go. They did it first, of course. Except when you delve you find they didn’t. Bo Carter recorded the song in 1928, the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930. And they both would have heard it someplace before. By the time Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies took it on in 1934 the lyrics had changed but the melody, its tempo boosted, lingered. Wills revamped it again in 1940. Twenty years later Bob Dylan returned the song to its folk origins, mashing it up with other blues and, as Dylan is (want) wont to, changing parts of the melody and slowing it right down. But it was still basically the same song. Corrina hasn’t yet the four hundred year reach of the Knoxville Girl but it’s on the right track.

 Asheville is billed as a city but its population is actually only half that of Swindon. If you live there you know this is North Carolina and the capital of the mountains. But if you don’t you mix it with Nashville, a place that is certainly not the same. Asheville is an hour on or an hour back from where we’ve been. We crossed the timeline somewhere. A kink in the continuum. I recall seeing a sign but can’t remember just where and in a place this vast it hardly matters when.

The town is clean and clear. The glaring swelter of the Tennessee plains have vanished to be replaced with dapple and soft glow. Asheville, the downtown of which isn’t really that much larger than Pontypridd, has a reputation as a sort of American Glastonbury. A hippie high place in the east where the head shop flourishes and the zodiac still commands. Walking down Lexington Avenue I translate this place to Camden High Street circa 1970. Second hand stores, antique shops, bookstores, record dumps where unwanted vinyl is stacked in slithery gloss-sleeved bunds. There could be a Compendium bookstore here where I’d go in and Nick would buy from me by the dozen the latest second aeon, the edge pushing literary journal I once edited. Outside reggae would leak from doorways and rastas would drift on dope’s magic smoke. End walls would light with murals. Sun rises, psychedelically swirled. The Buddha emblazoned. International Times’ doe-eyed girl, bandana holding back her locks, shining like gold.

In cheese cloth shirts and worn to thread jeans new millennium passers recall what once was, and up here clearly still is. Asheville holds on to the other way of seeing things, of alternatives, joss stick knick-knackery, pyramid future telling, I-Ching decisions, thonged leather, dark glasses against capitalism’s secret glow. Two guys with battered guitars (and here I mean battered – banged to hell and then emblazoned with marijuana-leaf stickers surrounded by right on man slogans in bright primary colours) strum on a street corner. Incredible String Band? Nope. Bluegrass, old tyme mountain music, what else?

We’re staying at a B&B. But unlike those establishments in, say, south Devon, where there’s never any sauce to go with your bacon, and you’ve got to be out on the street by 9.30 am and not return until 5.00 the American equivalent is of a different order. Joe and LaDonna welcome us to their grand colonial revival mansion on East Chestnut Street with a swirl of chocolate. Chocolate drives. It’s everywhere. There’s not a bowl, a surface, a bed pillow, a chair arm nor shelf that is not replete with packed and wrapped choco delights, all strewn in abundance for b&b guests.

We get the Wall Street Room which has a four poster bed plus canopy. Plastic flowers wind up the corner pillars. Velvet drapes and hanging curtains soften every edge. Downstairs LaDonna, wearing the sort of expensive high fashion that only women of a certain age ever manage, serves breakfast. This is advertised as a Candle Light Gourmet Southern Breakfast and is accompanied by southern piano muzak drifting in from speakers out there hidden behind piles of chocolate. We get three-cheese frittatas, pumpkin waffles with orange walnut butter and French toast doused with apricots. The guy opposite me sitting with his overlarge wife says he’s a marine, here for a break. He repairs Harriers. “You Brits certainly invented a real good one there”.

I’m asked what I do. If I say I’m a writer then they’ll all want to know what it is I’m currently working on. Dangerous territory. Never talk about the present project for fear of infection. Talk it up and you’ll never get it down. Writing is full of quarks. They go quietly about their business but ask them what they are up to and they get resentful and change. I could tell the assembled company that I’m a poet. This usually silences people. On the other hand some simply draw breath and start talking about Dylan Thomas and say they, too, knew a Thomas someplace but that person never wrote a thing. “I’m in books” confuses listeners who then think I’m probably an accountant. I end up saying that I’m in publishing. As usual this diverts the conversation into a discussion about e-books and how easy it is to read great literature these days without paying a thing. Not paying. How the middle class get on.

Out on the street I discover that Asheville could pretty easily make claim to be the second hand record capital of the western world. I’d always thought that our surplus vinyl twelve inchers had all been shipped to reclamation dumps in the third world. There have to be abandoned millions of these vinyl dinner plates now that the CD has replaced them and, indeed, has itself been replaced by various sorts of digital download approximation. I imagined, in fact I’m pretty sure I didn’t imagine I actually read, that there are villages in Nigeria consisting almost entirely of vinyl. LP sleeve walls, vinyl roofs, albums burned on stoves for cooking, men searching through the stacks outside, hunting for the picture disc rarity that might turn them a naira on eBay.

Instead they are here. Filling the entire basement of a store back of Main Street, unopened crates by the hundred, topped with boxes with their ends ripped and removed. These reveal the massed black plastic music inside. I scrabble a bit, struck in awe by the sheer size of the operation. I feel like I felt when I first entered the Hermitage in St Petersburg (then Leningrad, god that was so long ago). There was so much on offer, so many wonders, that I couldn’t cope. Instead I blanked. Stopped. Turned round and went back outside where I could at least breathe. I feel like that now. Touch a box, see inside pretty much everything from your musical life in twelve inch slices. Lonnie Donegan, Rolling Stones, John Cage, Dion, Terry Riley, Lou Reed, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons, The Mothers of Invention, Commander Cody, Tiny Tim, Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger, Mario Lanza sings. And sings.   And sings. There’s one assistant drinking coffee. He’s sitting behind what looks like an unfolded wallpaper pasting table with a cash box and a newspaper. There’s no background music playing. I’m the only customer.

I can’t cope with this. If I gathered wonders to me what would I do with them? Lug them round north America for the rest of the trip then pay extra air weight to get them home? I was never ever single-minded enough to be a real collector, one who’d go after complete runs of a single artist or seek out specific rare items – gold label, special edition sleeve, misnumbered advance copy – things like that. The Beatles White Album on white vinyl with “Whil My Guitar gently Weeps” misprinted; Frank Ballard’s R&B Party on Phillips International; a first pressing of Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder bootleg, with no stamp on the label. These things were here, no doubt, but I’d never find them because I wouldn’t care enough to remember what it was I was looking for.

Instead I buy a single item, souvenir of the occasion, something to get me back out on the street without losing face. I choose Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band . This is an album I once owned back in the early psychedelic boogie-driven seventies but have long lost. Root Boy was actually Foster McKenzie III, born here in Asheville and a permanent thorn in the side of whatever system he happened to be engaged with at the time – scholarship, employment, friendship, the market for dope. He made a clutch of heavyish psychedelic rock albums during the seventies, including this classic, and then died of overdose at the age of 47.   His success, even in the land of his birth, was highly limited. He’s buried in Fletcher, just south of Asheville on the 26.

Down the road a piece, Root Boy under my arm, I find more. Record stores on corners offering bluegrass and hillbilly roots, Ricky Skaggs, Doc Watson, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Creek Dippers, Blue Highway. Asheville might be the Height Ashbery of the Appalachians but it certainly hasn’t bought into the tie-dye love of swirling psychedelia. In fact the town seems to dislike the new – even the old new – preferring music you make like you did decades before. String driven, pick and strum.

At Jack Of The Wood, a self-styled Celtic Pub that, with no irony whatsoever, offers a full range of English ales, Hillbilly and Irish music mix pretty much as they do right across Appalachia. We get Mrs Doyle from Macon County sitting in a circle with her accompanists offering old tyme done on double bass, banjo, guitar and harmonica.  She’s followed by Timberwinds, a local bluegrass outfit who up the tempo but still don’t offer drums. Round me in the large rustic bar people who most of the time never drink beer at all have great pints of the stuff in front of them. It’s what you do when you are on holiday. This is a visitors’ town.

Asheville is known for its music festivals. Belle Chere. Shindig on the Green. The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Long weekends of roots music that fill the mountain air. But not while I’m here. Story of my unplanned life.

On the street again I check if there’s anyone famous I’ve missed. Doc Watson’s accompanist David Holt is a resident.   Robert Moog who invented the world changing synthesiser was born here. But Asheville’s most famous son is the novelist Thomas Wolfe. The first one. He’s more or less the inventor of autobiographical fiction and one of the towering giants of American twentieth century lit. He was brought up in a rambling wooden house owned by his parents on Spruce Street. There he wrote Look Homeward Angel. In this work he styled Asheville as Altamont and the house itself as Dixieland. The book sprawled its way through 40 chapters.   Look Homeward Angel inspired, among many, the young Jack Kerouac. He used its impetus and lightly shrouded fictional style as a basis for his own early prose works, The Sea Is My Brother and The Town and the City. Little wonder that Kerouac, master of speed (user of speed), the man who wrote his best known novel on a single roll of teletype paper, could never be described as brief. Even his haiku, the three line Japanese form, were rolled out in great sequences that seemed never to end[ii].

The Wolfe house, the Old Kentucky Home, where Wolfe lived among the boarders his mother took in to pay their way is now a museum. It was one third burned down in 1998 with 15% of the contents lost. Arson. Someone threw a fire bomb through a window and the ensuing conflagration managed to damage every single room. 15 years on and still no one has been caught. There’s a significant reward (is) held in escrow for information leading to a conviction. Thomas Wolfe hater, how can that be?

But (they’re) they’ve done the restoration. The men in white coats moved in and did the walls with Zissner Bullseye, an odour-blocking primer paint, and wiped every surface with deodorising cloth. New timbers, new linens. Raised the cash by selling Thomas Wolfe souvenirs. I buy a yo-yo with his name on it. Check the programme to see upcoming readings and talks in profusion. A house of literature. The Boat House without the writing shed.

Wolfe’s main productive period largely co-incided with the great depression. In a short career he wrote four novels and dozens of short stories, novellas, and plays. His problem was always length. He over-wrote and his first editor, Maxwell Perkins, at Scribner worked hard to cut the him down to manageable size. So hard, in fact, that Wolfe switched publishers in 1936 resenting the way his work had been, to his mind, inappropriately reduced. The submitted script for his first book was 1100 pages. The published version was half that. Despite this his new editor at Harper Brothers, Bernard DeVoto, received a million word manuscript from an unrepentant author in 1938. This was just before Wolfe headed west on a tour of the national parks. He never returned. While visiting Seattle he was diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis of the brain. Unfixable. He died a few months before his 38th birthday. He’s buried in Asheville, up the road from Root Boy Slim.

Back at LaDonna’s I try out the yo-yo. It has a picture of the writer on one side and the address of the house on the other. I used to be able to make these things spin out sideways, shoot up above me and then roll, walking the dog, across the floor. Learned as a kid. The Wolfe model unwinds slowly towards the carpet and then falls and disappears under the bed. I’m left holding a piece of string. Luckily I’ve also bought Look Homeward, Angel as a large format paperback. Only edition they had. I read instead. Later I stuff it in the back of my case where it takes up the space of at least 14 albums. It’s what we do for great lit.


[i] Check out Bob Wills’ version of Big Beaver an instrumental recorded in 1940 with vigorous rhythm guitar and beefy swing trumpet led choruses. Big Beaver was a dance hall where the band played in Oklahoma.

[ii] Check Kerouac, Jack, Book of Haikus, Enitharmon, 2004, to see.


Peter Finch is a poet and psychogeographer born in Cardiff where he still lives.  He is currently working on From The Bay To The Delta, a book which traces the roots of rock from Cardiff to Mississippi and back. 


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