Interview: Asheville Women at Merlefest
Ashley Heath knows how to make an entrance.
While fellow Asheville singer-songwriters Anya Hinkle, Alexa Rose, and Hannah Kaminer catch each other up on recent doings while sitting around a table at the Village Wayside Bar & Grille in Biltmore Village, Heath walks in, greets her two friends, meets Hinkle for the first time, then gets down to business.
“Look at these cool purple chairs!” Heath says. “You know if you come here for your birthday, they’ll give you a wrapped up present? They wrap up these crazy presents and one time I got this awesome purple glitter skull from here. It was, like, this big.”
“A what?” Kaminer asks as Heath holds an invisible object nearly the size of an adult human skull in her hands.
“A glitter skull,” Heath says.
“Ooh,” Kaminer says, genuinely impressed.
“It was so cool,” Heath says.
“You’re the rocker at the table,” Kaminer says with a laugh. “I love it.”
“It was amazing, and then I went back to the house and was walking in the driveway and was, like, ‘This skull is so cool,’ and I hit my arm on Emily’s bike rack and it fell to the ground and it shattered to pieces,” Heath says.
“No! Nooo!” Rose bemoans. “That would happen.”
“I had it for, like, 30 minutes,” Heath says. “I was like, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever…’ *ker-perrr* And then it died.”
“That’s so sad,” says Hinkle, wondering if her birthday the day before is close enough to qualify for such a gift. “My 7-year-old would love a glitter skull.”
Hard evidence aside, the four women haven’t gathered for lunch to discuss shiny trinkets — at least not officially — but Merlefest, where all four will be playing in the 2019 edition. Heath, winner of the 2018 MerleFest Band Contest with her band The Heathens, is back to play a pair of sets, while the other three are finalists in the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition.
Hinkle has her “Ballad of Zona Abston” in the Bluegrass category, while Kaminer placed her “Don’t Open Your Heart” in Country, and Rose’s “Medicine for Living” is in the General classification. At the Austin Stage on Friday, April 26, at 2 p.m., the three will perform before a judging panel composed of The Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies, and Texas-troubadour Radney Foster. Jim Lauderdale will host the competition, Mark Bumgarner will emcee, and first place winners of each category will perform their song on the Cabin Stage at 6:45 p.m. that night.
Hinkle previously played Merlefest in 2010 with her band Dehlia Low and was supposed to play again in 2012, but was pregnant and having difficulty singing.
“I couldn’t breathe, and then my baby was born two months early and I was in the hospital in the NICU and was like, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do that.’ So I cancelled it. I cancelled Merlefest,” Hinkle says. “But they kindly invited me to come back the next year. And [my daughter] was teething, so she was feverish and grouchy and I was trying to deal with Merlefest and nursing. It was ridiculous.”
Hinkle returned with her current band Tellico in 2016, and for this year’s Songwriting Contest, she entered two songs from the band’s new album Woven Waters, which was released in January. Her “Ballad of Zona Abston” arose from her work with a Middle Tennessee mining community, a project organized by Jack Stoddart aka Hippie Jack, whose Crawford, Tenn. festival she’s played for a decade. In the struggling mining town, Hinkle got to know the titular woman and turned her story into a ballad. For Merlefest, Hinkle plans to have accompaniment, hopefully guitarist John Doyle, who produced Woven Waters.
“It’s a bluegrass song, so you need picking,” Hinkle says. “It’ll be nice to have a friend up there.”
Rose went to school at Appalachian State University and remembers Merlefest being a big deal for her and fellow students. The one time she attended as a fan, she camped out and fondly recalls seeing Tift Merritt perform. During the performance, Merritt had an equipment malfunction during “Love Soldiers On,” and wound up performing it unplugged. Her raw, honest performance brought Rose to tears. Then in 2017, Rose’s “Borrow Your Heart” took second place in the General division of the songwriting contest by a panel that included Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds, whose music she greatly admires.
“They go by each category. Everyone goes up and plays their song, then you go offstage. Nobody says anything to you — you just do it,” Rose says. “There were a lot of people there. It’s a pretty heavily supported event because everything that goes on at Merlefest is heavily supported by the diehard Merlefest fans. It’s cool. And there was a Q&A afterward and every [contestant anonymously] wrote down a question and [the judges] answered them one by one. Everybody had such developed questions in the music industry — questions about publishing and marketing. And mine was something like, ‘How do you stay true to your art?’ And they were just like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
Now Rose is back with “Medicine For Living,” the title track of her forthcoming album, currently slated for an October release. She submitted the song the night the contest closed — thanks to a reminder by a friend — and plans to play it solo in the competition, but might change her mind.
“I wrote that song when I lived out in Linville, North Carolina,” Rose says. “It’s kind of about a record that I listened to. There’s a line in it, ‘Waiting on the end of a real good song,’ so it actually goes along with songwriting in a way.”
Kaminer had heard of Merlefest her entire life and set a goal for herself to earn her way there as a participant before going as an attendee. Prodded by her manager Danielle Dror, Kaminer entered three diverse songs from her 2018 album Heavy Magnolias in the competition to improve her chances of being selected.
“The one that’s a finalist is in the Country category. People keep asking me, ‘Are you a country artist?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ But it’s called ‘Don’t Open Your Heart’ and it’s really funny because the other songs in my category are about alcohol,” Kaminer says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, dear. This is going to be great.’ I should just get a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Hi, my name is Hannah and I’m overly sincere.’ But that does have a place in country music.”
As for the rocker at the table, Rose was living with Heath at the time and recalls that her housemate didn’t have her regular band with her for last year’s contest. Kent Spillman played drums and it was then 20-year-old electric guitarist Dennis Brumback’s first festival — a detail of which Heath was unaware. She was also advised by outside parties to change her sound if she wanted to win.
“I was like, ‘We’re not going to win this because we have no bluegrass tones to us whatsoever. We don’t even have a mandolin player. We don’t even have a banjo. Some 5-year-old fiddle player is going to get up and kick our ass because that’s how it is. They shred!” Heath says. “So, with the lineup going last-minute, they were like, ‘If Casey [Cramer]’s not going to play guitar, you should get [someone else].’ And I was like, ‘You know what? We’re not getting [someone else] because we’re going to play the songs the way that they actually sound and we’re not going to change the sound just to fit this festival. And we’re not going to enter the songs just to appease.’”
She continues, “And that was really hard for me to do because I was like, ‘I want to win this, and in order for me to win it, maybe we need someone that could add more of a folky tone.’ And they kept telling me to do it. I was like, ‘We’re not doing that.’ So, that was very validating. But then I didn’t realize, like, [annual Merlefest player] Jim Lauderdale, he’s super rock. So, being true to yourself and not changing — being true to your style. I feel that all the time with shows. ‘Should I just play this cover song because maybe my song might not be good enough.’ You should always do your thing.”
In her return to Merlefest, a year after she and Jerry Douglas waved at each other as their artist golf carts passed in opposite directions, Heath and Her Heathens play the Cabin Stage on Thursday, April 25, 8-8:45 p.m., just before Wynonna Judd and her band The Big Noise take to the Watson Stage.
Though Heath wanted to cover a Judds song, her bandmates nixed the idea. Instead, they’ll play a combination of her albums A Different Stream and Where Hope Never Dies, plus some new songs to share her recent flurry of writing. They’ll also take to the Americana Stage on Friday, April 26, 1:30-2:15 p.m., which means that unless she can hustle over to the Austin Stage, she’ll likely miss her friends in the songwriting contest.
As lunch winds down, Hinkle tells her colleagues about a recent study of women’s role in country music, including how many hit songs are written by women and the average age of a Billboard-charting female artist versus a male one.
“The data sucks. Basically, country music does not value — they want to hear a whiskey song or something that speaks to the male experience. Something that a woman would write maybe isn’t judged to be market-worthy,” Hinkle says. “The average age of a woman is 29 and the average age of a man is 42. So that just tells you music needs women voices. You have a whole table full of us representing at Merlefest this year and from Asheville and it’s fantastic. Part of it is we need to support each other and create our own market for it, because if Nashville isn’t getting into the market, we’ll make our market and they’ll listen eventually.”
On that note, Rose sees progress in the form of Margo Price and Brandi Carlile, artists with national attention who are writing what she calls “gutting songs about their lives and experience.” She also references a friend who used to work at a Nashville publishing house telling of a rule in the office that no song should be written above a third grade reading level.
“I think that’s something people don’t understand about what they’re commonly being fed through the radio. It’s not the entire scope of what songwriting is,” Rose says. “I think it’s insulting to the public at large and the listeners, that the people in charge are saying to dumb it down.”
Hinkle notes the power available through streaming and the personal control to capture one’s desired audience. Kaminer concurs: “I think it’s one of the better times to be an artist, in terms of finding your audience. It might be really hard still, but making the art that you want to make and finding your audience [is possible].”
While the checks are delivered and final pep talks are given, it’s Hinkle, the industry veteran of the group, who sums up the personal significance of the Merlefest contests and what they may mean or come to signify for her peers.
“I used to race bikes. When you cross the finish line first, you know you’ve won. But in any kind of creative thing, there’s always the question, ‘What does it mean?’ What does it mean if your song is chosen? What does it mean if it wasn’t chosen?” she says. “The answer is it doesn’t really mean anything, but I think if your song is chosen — the way I felt about it was it was incredibly validating to me personally. I’m at a point in my career where I need to have those things that help the outside world understand that I’ve dedicated more than a decade of my life to this career, that I’m really pushing it forward, and it’s those little things that help the public understand something about your accomplishments.”
She continues, “Because, let’s face it, you have to build your brand, you have to build your sense of worth and communicate that so you get the opportunities that you need to grow as an artist and make enough money to feed your kids — all that stuff. So for me, I was feeling like I was at a point in my career where I needed to have some of those resumé builder kind of things, especially behind the new album. It was on a label — I felt that would help, also, the label validate themselves. There’s a lot of reasons that it’s really awesome to have these competitions because I think what they really mean is your craft is of a certain caliber, and that’s not to say there aren’t other songs that aren’t of that caliber, but they’ll win eventually. They’ll get in there eventually. And when you’re sitting at home beating your head against the wall, those validations are helpful.”
In response, Heath says, “I think all of y’all are rock stars.”
“You’re actually the only one,” Kaminer says, cracking everyone up.
“All of your styles and songs are beautiful,” Heath says, undeterred.
“Right back atcha,” Rose says.
(Photos, clockwise from top left: Hannah Kaminer, by Eliza Bell Photography; Anya Hinkle by Tony Preston; Alexa Rose by Bill Reynolds; and Ashley Heath and Her Heathens by Libby Gamble)