When I was a kid in Candler, N.C., a small suburb on the west side of Asheville, my only exposure to music came from my parents’ collections of classic rock cassettes and the few country and modern rock FM stations that poured from their minivan’s stereo. By the time I was 15 and started venturing into Asheville to loiter at record stores with my friends, the only “local” musicians I knew of were James Taylor and Randy Travis. As far as I knew, all of the records worth listening to were coming from San Francisco’s Fat Wreck Chords and Los Angeles’ Epitaph.
When I started becoming aware of fast, loud music being made by bands such as Archers of Loaf, Pipe and Superchunkall coming from another small town in my home stateI was floored. My new goals in life became clear: Go to Chapel Hill, play in bands, be awesome. I moved into a dorm on the south side of UNC’s campus in the fall of 2003 and quickly realized that, contrary to what I had expected, college was much harder to coast through than high school. Eventually I had to make a choice between seeing shows and staying up late burning CDs from the library at WXYC or going to class. My decision seemed like the obvious one.
By the time I wormed my way into a job at Cat’s Cradle, I was certain that working at one of the oldest music venues in the South was the best job anyone could ever ask for. It was 2005 and I was a 20-year-old college dropout who had the entire world figured out. My first night on the job was mixing monitors for Dinosaur Jr. My perception of volume was permanently altered. Imagine being locked in a small closet adjoining a room where Boeing is testing out jet engines for two hours.
When I asked J Mascis after that show if he could hear himself from the monitors, he responded with a flatlined, “Ehh, I guess.” That was all I needed to know: I had done at least an OK job, and that was enough for me. I spent every available moment for the next three years up in that little loft next to the Cradle’s stage learning my trade. I still can’t play guitar very well, but whenever I get asked by someone who stumbles past my workspace if I “know what all those buttons do,” I can confidently respond: “Yes, mostly.”
I’m regularly asked about my favorite stories from working in clubs. Some people assume I have a treasure trove of personal experiences with international superstars participating in all kinds of debauchery. Honestly, I really don’t. More often than not, green rooms are used for sipping tea and Skyping with loved ones rather than drug use and groupie groping.
So my favorite stories are fairly innocent. One night in the Cradle’s green room, KRS-One asked me how I got the name Rusty. When I told him it was short for Russell, he responded with, “MAAaaAAAn, you too smooth for a name like RUSTY! I’m calling you Crisco from now on!” Then there was the time Ghostface Killah threatened to “Whip that fool’s ass!” and motioned at me because he thought I was the cause of a piece of equipment failing mid-show. Afterward, he thanked me for doing all I could to help, and for being an effective scapegoat to keep people from throwing bottles at him during the show.
While I was working at the Cradle, I also had the chance to intern at Merge Records. I cannot overstate what a huge opportunity this was. Every few days for most of a year, I sat in the basement of their office in Durham and filled envelopes with records by Arcade Fire, Spoon, Superchunk, The Clientele, The Rosebuds, Shout Out Louds and many more amazing bands. I’d send them out to college DJs, promoters and music fans just like me all over the world. The staff there has always been driven toward sharing quality music and spreading their own excitement; it was beyond infectious.
In 2009, I was in that same crow’s nest next to the Cradle’s stage for almost every act of the label’s 20th anniversary party, twisting knobs and pushing faders. During Lambchop’s much-praised set, it was impossible not to smile and feel a part of something bigger than a place, bigger than a record label, bigger than a band. This was the apex of what live music could be, and I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to witness it.
Eventually I transitioned from being the guy in the loft next to the stage at the Cradle to being the guy in the cubby next to the men’s room at the Local 506. It’s at the 506 that I not only grew the most professionally but also met some of the best friends and co-workers I’ll probably ever know. The community around that place has always been an evolving clan of musicians, artists, bar rats and miscreants, and I’m proud to have spent so many years calling them all my family.
I also witnessed some of the most engaging live shows I’ve ever seen in that dark little corner of town. When the Low offshoot Retribution Gospel Choir played in 2010, I’d never seen anything so heavy. The presence of the songs hit you with the heft of a sack of bricks, and the way Alan Sparhawk contorted around his guitar to drag the notes from the instrument made it like watching a shaman blindly summon spirits. Later that same year, I watched Lightning Bolt peel paint from the walls during a blistering set of the most entertaining post-rock-meets-modern-jazz-meets-noise that I’ve ever seen. It was July and the show was packed; the heat and the music and the dancing made the club feel like a Midwestern preacher’s wife’s vision of hell. It was beautiful.
I’ve also had the opportunity to play most of the venues in the Triangle. As a soundman, I’ve seen a lot of extremely talented people play great sets to undersized or indifferent crowds, but as a musician, I’ve rarely felt underappreciated locally. It’s been a long time since playing has felt like my strong suit, but the friends and fans of the bands I’ve been in over the years have been so supportive and enthusiastic that it’s been hard to stay away from it. For that, I have to thank everyone who has ever come to a Rat Jackson, JKutchma & the Five Fifths or Some Army show over the years.
Since 2010, I’ve split my time between the Local 506 and touring with Lost in the Trees as their “sound fellow.” The first time I crawled into the van with them I was extremely green. I was (unjustly) confident in my abilities as an engineer, but I knew little about traveling, budgeting and adulthood in general. The first time I saw New York City was from the windows of that van. The same goes for the Pacific Ocean, the deserts of West Texas, the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest and so much more. I’ve met my counterpart in cities around the world. I’ve seen how some of the best and worst engineers operate, and that experience informs me every day. To see the world with some of the kindest, most generous and talented people you’ve ever met is a blessing I’ve lived with for some time now.
This week I’m moving to Asheville with my girlfriend, Theresa Stone, who I met at a show at Local 506. I’ve been trying to think about what brought me here in the first place, and what I hope to leave behind. When I moved here, I was driven by teenage excitement and the connection I felt to the energy and vibrancy of the music scene. There was so much going on in so many places by so many wonderful peopleI just had to be a part of that.
Ten years later I can honestly say that it’s only gotten better. Schoolkids Records’ Chapel Hill location, Reservoir and Go Studios may be gone, but now we have Bull City Records, All Day Records and The Pinhook keeping people energetic about music. There are three well-staffed college radio stations, as well as independent record labels including Merge, Trekky, Churchkey and Negative Fun.
When I first moved here, all I could think is, “These people are so lucky to have all of this.” Now my perspective has shifted toward regularly telling people that “we are so lucky.” Next week, when I move to a new area to start again, I’ll still feel lucky to have been a part of it here for so many years.
Now it’s time to look forward and start over in a new place. Though I grew up near Asheville, the city has changed. The community has grown quickly from essentially nothing when I left there a decade ago. My plan is to take all my experiences and lessons from the Triangle and hit the ground running in Ashevillewith hopes of learning more, growing more and meeting more amazing people.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Sounding off.”