On May 19, 2020 Trax founder Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and Trax Research Assistant Sarah Griffin had the pleasure of chatting with the two Asheville-based musicians who organized Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern!, a concert to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. The February 26th event, held at the Asheville Music Hall, featured The Paper Crowns, Mike Martinez, Eleanor Underhill & Friends, Lyric, and Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats. What motivates musicians such as Andrew Scotchie and Andrew Fletcher to momentarily set aside their instruments and coordinate a large-scale event? What unique qualities do artists bring to the table when lending their support to a presidential candidate? Read on to find out!
Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: It’s great to have you both here. So, we’re just curious about how you two met and why you decided to organize a Bernie Sanders fundraiser?
Andrew Scotchie: When did we meet, Fletcher? Was that like probably about ten years ago?
Andrew Fletcher: Probably about ten years ago, man. You were a whippersnapper.
AS: Yeah, I was a wee boy. Your hair looks good, by the way.
AF: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Low maintenance.
AS: Yeah, I think I met Andrew during a show he did with Firecracker Jazz Band. I was actually in a band with his bandmate’s son, Jerome Widenhouse. I think Andrew [Fletcher] and I saw each other at venues and different events. You did a lot of busking, you know. You took your piano around the streets of downtown Asheville and still do that!
AF: Yeah, and that was like seven, eight years ago. The beginning of my career.
AS: Yeah. So, I think it was just really the nature of Asheville, maybe. Not a lot of degrees of separation.
DGM: Awesome. So, what made you guys decide to organize the event?
AF: Well, for me it was sort of identifying that crossroads of need, network, and personal ability/capability. I remember seeing a Facebook post that Scotchie—I’m going to use last names to make this clear [laughing].
DGM: That’s fine [laughing].
AF: I remember seeing a Facebook post that Scotchie had made after going to a smaller event [Barnstorm], a music event that he had said was packed. There was like 100 people or something. A few days later, I ran into a friend of mine [Justin Nemon] who was the third leg of the event, and he had just returned from being a paid staffer in Iowa on the Sanders campaign. We caught up, and then he said, “Okay, so I’m the new Sanders campaign liaison here. I’m a coordinator in Asheville. I need things.” And I was like, “Okay, what do you need? I’ve got a pretty good network here. I’ll see what I can do. No problem.” He said he needed office space and a couple other things, and volunteers and maybe an event around volunteers. I said, “[What about] a musicians for Bernie kind of thing? You know, we could put together a rally. I think we could do that.” And then I remembered Scotchie’s post from the other day and I was like, “Well, I wouldn’t want to do this alone. Let me hit [Scotchie] up and then I’ll see where it goes.” And nine days after that, we had the event [laughing].
DGM: That’s what blows my mind about this whole thing—that you guys really put it together in that amount of time.
AF: Yeah, it blew my mind too. I mean, once it started, it was like, “Woah, hold on, because everyone is saying ‘yes.’”
AS: [We] didn’t have enough room for everybody [all musicians interested in participating]. I mean, there were some times where we were talking about musicians that we wanted, and we were like, “Oh yeah, let’s get that person up here,” but we had to really be careful because so much of the city wanted to be part of it.
I just wanted to add to what Andrew was saying about the event that I attended. It was called Barnstorm, and it was something that they sent Bernie followers if you had the app or if your phone or email address was in their system. They sent something out like 24 hours in advance, or like not even. The place was packed, so that was a big factor being like, “Well, if we can promote [an event] for at least a couple of days, then it can be more successful than that.” I remember Andrew [Fletcher] messaged me. I thought that he was talking about doing an event like weeks from then [laughing], and then he was like, “No, like next week.” Asheville is an amazing place where you have a lot of resources and people that want to work hard for something that’s going to benefit the community and help get a good message out there.
DGM: Wow. Were you two the ones that booked the venue, set up somebody to manage sound and lighting and all that? In other words, were you orchestrating all of the behind-the-scenes stuff as well as recruiting the musicians?
AS: So, I reached out to the Asheville Music Hall. I think we [considered] a couple different venues. I can’t [remember] which ones, but we felt the Music Hall would be a really good location because its downtown. I had just done a show at the Asheville Music Hall for my birthday, so I already [had] good rapport with them. We reached out to them and they were really quick to get right back to us. We talked about the date and made sure that we could do it, and a few things had to be shuffled around a little bit as far as the time, but as far as the sound, lights, everything, that all came [from] the venue. All we had to do was get the musicians there. And we had to make a schedule, of course. Andrew was really good about keeping the schedule, and how many minutes did we fall behind? Like a couple minutes, maybe?
Sarah Griffin: What ways do you feel music has influenced the 2020 presidential campaign?
AS: I personally think it’s united and divided in some ways, meaning the people who are really adamant about equality—candidates that are really adamant about equality and moral ethics—they get bands like that. I hate to say it, but like any band I’ve seen support Trump has kind of been not so progressive, I would say [laughing].
DGM: That was tactful [laughing].
AS: I don’t want to name any bands. I don’t know if that’s necessarily cool or anything like that [laughing], but I think it says a lot about the candidate. There was a band that played the Bernie rally in New York about a month before we did the [Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern! event] in Asheville, and it was a band called Sunflower Bean. It brought out young fans and everything, and I think it kind of reflects their followers and their ethics, because what band you decide to have as your soundtrack and what message you’re putting out, has got to be in line with who you are as a candidate.
DGM: Yeah, you’re right about that.
AF: Yeah, campaign music is a really tricky thing. I mean, for the campaigns and for the musicians. I think I’m old enough to remember the Dixie Chicks [now The Chicks] and what happened to them when they got political, and I feel like that sort of created an unspoken rule that if you’re in a band, you don’t get political. And I think that we’re coming out of that now. Asheville is a really progressive town, and a lot of the musicians are kind of progressive as well. I had only one person say, “I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for in the primary, so I don’t feel comfortable doing it [performing at the event].” But that person ended up coming to the show and then saying to me afterwards something like, “I really should have done it. This was awesome. I’m sorry I didn’t say yes.” Every other person I talked to said, “Absolutely, I’m voting for Bernie anyway.” You know, they were already there, so no proselytizing was required. I was not trying to convince people to represent something that they don’t feel represents them.
I did detect some hesitation with people sometimes. They would take that moment and think about it: “Do I want to be associated with a political candidate? Not all of my fans associate with this political candidate.” Do you know Abby the Spoon Lady?
DGM: I don’t think so. Have you Sarah?
SG: I don’t think so, no.
AF: She’s a good friend of mine, and we both were active in the busking scene here and busking activists. Her music has a really broad appeal, and her supporters are like 50/50 [regarding party leaning], just like the rest of the country, and she made a calculated risk. She didn’t perform with us. I would have had her on stage, but she was on tour at the time. She eventually decided to just like lay it out there, be like, “This is who I am, and that’s that.” Even now on Twitter, she’s been talking about wearing masks and things like that which are very unpopular with part of her fanbase, but she’s made the choice to do that, and I think that’s interesting. For a lot of the bands that we had [perform at the event] and a lot of the artists here, I think that consideration wasn’t as great because their fanbases tend to be [in] Asheville and progressive.
DGM: I’m glad you brought up The Chicks, and I think you make a really sound point about the risks that come along with political engagement for artists. If you’re an artist who has a “50/50” fanbase, there is perhaps more of a risk than if you’re already a group that has an almost exclusively progressive following. Most female country artists before The Chicks weren’t outwardly political—well, I mean, some of them were political, but they didn’t stand on a stage in London and say, “I’m embarrassed that [then president] George Bush is from the state of Texas” [laughing].
AS: I’ve got something to add really quick.
AS: The way that we advertised the event and the way that the musicians supported this candidate, it was all about the way they communicated and the way they advocated. No one was saying, “This is right. This person’s wrong. This person did that.” No one was pointing fingers and spreading hatred or casting shade on the other party. It was, “Let’s meet up and have a conversation. Let’s talk about the things that affect everybody.” This was indeed the first political event that my band [Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats] has ever supported, and Bernie is the first candidate that we’ve ever supported. We have super conservative fans, and I actually saw a few of them, whenever this was getting publicized, hit the little laugh button on Facebook. They were like laughing at us for doing something like that, and I remember telling myself that I had to be okay with that because I knew that it was right, and I knew that so many more people would feel unified from this. [Musicians] have to kind of walk that line of talking about the issues but not telling people what to do or what to believe. Talk about the issues that you feel are wrong or you know, talk about the things you feel are right, but don’t tell other people how to feel because no one really responds well to that, especially nowadays.
SG: What role do you feel musicians should play in the scheme of politics on the local, state, and national levels?
AF: Well, sort of, I go back to what Nina Simone said about how “It’s the duty of an artist,” I’m going to butcher this quote, but “It’s the duty of an artist to reflect the times.”[i]
I think that music is so often entertainment that we forget that we’re artists. I think that there is a duty to reflect the times as best as you can with your music. [As for] me personally, I’m not really much of a recording artist. I’m much more solidly in the entertainment part of music, so I don’t get a lot of opportunities to make political music. I did recently [release] an album. A bandmate wrote a song about objectification, locally triggered but much more expansive than what it was talking about, and I was really pleased to do that.
AS: If we don’t reflect the times in music, our future generations, you know, our grandkids and their grandkids, aren’t going to have adequate documentation, and that’s really what good music is, a snapshot of the times. Before we started the interview, I mentioned a song that the band [Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats] is going to put out called “Fear Mongers,” and it features “The Great Dictator Speech” by Charlie Chaplin in The Dictator (1940), which come to find out, was actually improvised. I didn’t know that until today, which I thought was amazing. Anyway, it’s a really phenomenal speech, and I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as political, but we ended up using it because it’s still relevant [to the times], meaning we know that in like two years, whenever people hear this speech, or they still hear the music and the message of the music that they’re going to look back and think about the issues. And you know, hopefully we’re all learning as we go.
DGM: So, I think you [Andrew Scotchie] answered part of this. Was “Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern!” your first foray into advocacy through your music?
AS: Actually, no. We’ve done two jams against racism at the AB-Tech Community College. The early college hit us up and asked us to do that. [It] was super fun and refreshing to see such a young generation putting on the event like that. And then we’ve also done things for mental health, and that really hits home for me. I have two brothers with mental illnesses. We also have a lot of homelessness in this town, and I’ve done events for something called “Harmonies for Homes,” which took place last October, and that was to get assistance to people that were living on the streets. But yeah, it was definitely the first time that I got behind a candidate.
SG: With Blue Ridge Public Radio, Andrew [Fletcher], you describe your experiences busking in Asheville. How did your experiences of street performing push or ignite your interest in politics? [In 2017, Andrew Fletcher ran for City Council in Asheville.]
AF: So, I kind of knew some of those folks, but I wasn’t really active. It was sort of leaked from the police department that they were looking at some new rules for the busking community, and I was at that time a very active member of the busking community. And you know, buskers are such a diverse group of people. They’re all kind of go-it-alone types. They’re already like bucking the system and not having a boss. You know, they’re going out and making money on their own terms in public. They are a difficult-to-organize group, but man, having a common enemy really will really bring people together. I was like, “Woah, these people need a spokesperson, and I know how to do that.” So, I sort of assumed that role, because whatever is broken inside me makes me good at speaking in public. And nobody else was like <in a mighty voice> “I want to go to city hall and speak.”
But I did that. And so that got me a lot of attention, and ultimately our efforts were successful. And I just got the thirst for it, and that got me the attention of some folks, and they started sort of like handing me volunteer roles which I was too dumb to say no to, and I just kept on doing all this volunteer stuff, going in and out of city hall and working as a citizen volunteer on multiple boards and commissions and local causes.
DGM: Awesome. One last thing we wanted to ask you. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. It’s clear that both of you have strong backgrounds in political engagement and advocacy for various causes and issues. How do you see these roles that you’re playing changing over the next year in the wake of the pandemic?
AS: Well, first and foremost, we can’t have gatherings like we had at [the Bernie] event. I think the live streams are going to be the way for a while, whether it just be artists trying to support themselves and their music or talking about an issue. I think a lot of good songs are going to be written if they haven’t already been written right now. Not only just talking about social distancing, but how people are reacting to it, how politics are involved, money, greed. I mean, they’re all topics that are going to probably birth a lot of amazing songs for generations to enjoy. We’re going to have music come out of this for a long time, whether it is political or not.
AF: Personally, I look at my music career. Last year I played about 200 gigs. This year, from now until the end of the year, I have two on the books—one or both of which probably will be canceled because of the nature of the type of gigs they are. [I’m] not a songwriter and not a singer. I’m a sideman. That’s what I do. If you’ve ever ignored a piano player in a hotel lobby, that might have been me.
I don’t think my career is going to come back in any way that I can recognize or that it is going to sustain me, so I reapplied to UNC-Asheville. I’m going back to school. I will continue to play gigs, and I will continue to be an advocate. Wherever the two can intersect, I will be happy to be there, but I am completely unprepared to prognosticate on what that is going to be like because it’s just completely up in the air right now. This is going to sound pessimistic, but I would not be surprised if you met me in twenty years and I said, “Oh yeah, I used to be a professional musician before.” Numbers released recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that 54% of people in my industry are unemployed.
AS: Musicians [are] having a really hard time right now.
DGM: So true. I wrote my dissertation on music in American presidential campaigns, and I really didn’t do much ethnographic research, but one of the case studies that I did was on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. I don’t know if you guys knew this, but he used a lot of Southern rock artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wet Willie, and the Allman Brothers. Until I did the project, it was sort of a footnote in history that, you know, that these [fundraising] concerts did take place. Carter’s campaign really was on a shoestring budget; truly in every sense of the word a “grassroots” campaign. Without this series of concerts, it would have been very difficult for the campaign to remain afloat financially. There was the money raised, but the concerts also gave Carter [a relative unknown on the national stage] much needed exposure. I actually was able to find the names of some of the people who organized the concerts. They were Tom Beard, Alexander Cooley, and Peter Conlon. (Phil Walden Jr., whose father was the founder of Capricorn Records and a Carter supporter, also joined the meeting.) Back in 1976 they were all just 20-somethings working on a campaign, but now, I mean, Conlon is a very well-known music producer. Beard and Cooley are businessmen in Atlanta. They got their start doing something similar to what you guys are doing right now, and throughout their lives they’ve been, you know, super involved in different music ventures and advocacy and fundraising in various ways. I’m glad that we got a chance to connect with you both because now we can follow you, and hopefully I’ll still be around thirty years from now [laughing] to see where you go because this is all really exciting stuff. I appreciate how insightful you both are about the industry and your roles within it. It’s very fascinating to us, and I think the people that read this are really going to be fascinated as well, not just by the nuts and bolts of your venture, but also by the very thoughtful, profound insights that you shared.
AS: Thanks, Dana. Thank you for asking us to do this, really.
AF: Yeah, thank you.
*Andrew Fletcher, Andrew Scotchie, Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, and Sarah Griffin
As this interview attests, musicians like Andrew Scotchie and Andrew Fletcher, and others who rely on the gig economy, have been hit hard by COVID. Please consider lending them your support.
[i] “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”