The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

A peek into Asheville’s Grateful Dead community

Elliot Jackson
James Madden, 58, plays his Guitar Hero guitar alongside his dog, Daisy, at the Grateful Family Band’s show at One World Brewing on Jan. 30.

No matter where you stood, the face of Jerry Garcia was visible, displayed on both the front and back of his tie dye T-shirt.

“My first show was when I was 12 years old. New Years Eve, 1978. By 15, I was on tour,” said James Madden, 58, on the back deck at One World Brewing in West Asheville on Jan. 30. 

Madden, who goes by the nickname “J.J.” stood, plastic tip cigar in one hand and Guitar Hero guitar in the other, which he used to “play” alongside the Grateful Family Band, one of six Grateful Dead cover bands in Asheville. Born in Oakland, CA and raised in Berkley, he moved to San Francisco, the birthplace of the Grateful Dead, as soon as he was old enough. Standing nearby, on the opposite side of the deck, a man smoked a pipe. 

“I’d run away from my grandmother’s and stay three doors down with my best friend. His mother was going to New Year’s Eve and didn’t want to leave two 12 year old boys alone at home, so she took us. I got there, I drank something I wasn’t supposed to and that got me. That was my first trip,” Madden said, pointing to his tongue. “I didn’t say that, you can’t prove it!”

According to Madden, he has seen the Grateful Dead 633 times and has seen the Jerry Garcia Band nearly 400 times. Favorite band? The Grateful Dead. His hat displayed a cartoon drawing of “Dire Wolf,” the name of a Dead song released on the 1970 album, “Workingman’s Dead.” His favorite Grateful Dead song, he says, is “Sugaree,” released in ‘71.  

“Because of the lyrics, ‘shake it up now, sugaree. I’ll meet you at that jubilee. If that jubilee don’t come, maybe I’ll meet you on the run.’ That’s been my life,” Madden said. “Their music is everything. They do soul, they do rock, they do jazz. You can just get lost in it. You can go somewhere else and that’s what I like to do.” 

Madden has lived in Asheville for the last 16 years, but the majority of his life was spent on the road following the Grateful Dead. He lives with his wife, who works at Tops For Shoes on N Lexington Ave, and a dog named Daisy. He used to be a Raiders fan. He collects action figures, which occasionally fall on him from the shelf located directly above his bed, where they are proudly displayed. He says he loves the ending of Tim Burton’s “Wednesday” and has a deep appreciation for Bobby Flay cooking programs. 

“That’s been my life. I’ve been on the road, following music. I see Dead cover bands at least twice a week, then we go see a reggae band on Sunday usually. I’ll go out every night if possible. That’s my thing. Music. I’m also a TV Junkie,” Madden said. “Right now, I’m a ‘house husband.’ I take care of my better half. I clean, I make sure she gets everything she needs.” 

Inside, the Grateful Family Band played away. Soft red lighting glowed on beer mugs, positioned at the feet of a couple musicians on stage, directly behind speakers held up by milk crates. Middle-aged persons swayed back and forth. Several had dreadlocks and many gave hugs. A couple missed teeth. Not all. 

Psychedelic art spatially lined the walls and blue barstools sat atop hardwood floors. Above the doors to the back deck was a wooden sign with a quote from Canadian philosopher, Marshall McLuhan which read: “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth, we are all crew.” 

“Anything can happen. They leave room for magic. When their first album came out, I was there at the record store,” said Bill Evans, 72, one of two guitarists in the Grateful Family Band.  

According to Evans, a New York native, it all began 20 years ago, when he and fellow musicians created “Phuncle Sam,” Asheville’s original Grateful Dead tribute band. Back then, he says, the Grateful Dead’s popularity in Asheville was nowhere near what it is today. 

“It took a while. There’s a whole resurgence now, but 20 years ago when we started, it was hard to get shows downtown because the Grateful Dead wasn’t the thing. It’s hard to believe in Asheville. We worked really hard and played on the outskirts,” Evans said. “You have to build some kind of crowd, because no matter how good you are, you want to see your fellow people out at the show. It’s social. You have to know you want to go back and see people.” 

While he played, Evans’ white hair fell down to his shoulders, accompanied by a thick, white beard. While on stage, he wore sunglasses, invoking Garcia’s image. Evans says he has seen the Grateful Dead nearly 100 hundred times. 

“All of them have touched on pretty much every form of American music. Jerry, in particular. His music is really American,” Evans said.

As the band took a quick intermission and beer mugs were filled, Madden introduced a friend, “Blue Billy,” named after the Grateful Dead song sharing its name. Blue Billy is a worn and tattered My Pet Monster doll bought from a Spencer’s in Hampton, Virginia. Blue Billy wears a Grateful Dead Winterland T-shirt from the ‘70s, fettered with holes and has traveled with Madden to nearly every show. He now travels everywhere with Madden, for he has found a home in the back of Madden’s car. 

“Each show was unique in its own way. I always had a great fucking time,” Madden said. 

In downtown, three miles away, on Feb. 1 stands Mandy, an Atlanta native and Asheville resident of over two decades. Mandy works at Indo Apparel & Gifts, a retail store that began in a Volkswagen, selling items in the parking lots of Grateful Dead tours. Today, the store sets up booths at festivals in addition to owning its own physical location. 

Mandy used to work as a children’s therapist. Her son is named after Utah Phillips, a prominent ‘60s folk singer and labor organizer. Sprouting from Mandy’s head are long, prominent and brown dreadlocks. On her left arm is a tattoo of a bird, accompanied by lyrics from the Grateful Dead song, “Bird Song,” released in 1981. 

“I’ve listened to them my whole life. My mom loved them. I’ve seen them a bunch of times from the time I was a little kid on through all the different iterations of the Dead since Jerry died. The music will continue as long as you can go to the show and get that kind of feeling,” Mandy said. “They were the pioneers of what we call jam band music. The only thing that it can be compared to is jazz. It’s a fully unique experience every time. If you want an authentic experience, definitely go to a Dark Star show. If you can swing the money to go to the Jubilee, maybe do that.”

Lining the shop’s walls are an assortment of hippie apparel. There are psychedelic tapestries, anti-war bumper stickers, dreamcatchers, sandals, tie dye, crystal jewelry and baja jackets informally referred to as “drug rugs.” A healthy collage of Grateful Dead-themed skulls, bears and turtles watch as you peruse the store. The Grateful Dead, Mandy says, originated as part of San Francisco’s counterculture movement, in the same period of Jack Kerouac, the Merry Pranksters and Neal Cassady, beginning in 1965. According to Cliffs Notes, the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco and New York’s East Village are identified as hotspots of the counterculture, from ‘65 to ‘67.

“At the epicenter of San Francisco, all these huge names are converging in this one space. Not only were they experimenting with their minds and what LSD can do, they’re experimenting with music styles, clothing, political ideas and cultures. A lot of the founding members were part of the acid tests. It was just a big experiment. It’s awesome,” Mandy said. 

According to Mandy, she moved to Asheville because of its music scene, which features a vibrant, welcoming Grateful Dead community. Many make generalizations about the Grateful Dead scene and its participants, however. Deadheads are not monolithic, she says. 

“We all know each other. It’s great to have sort of an extended family around you all the time. A lot of people don’t live in places that don’t have a local Dead cover band you just go to see one night of the week, every week,” Mandy said. “So many people think we don’t bathe or live regular lifestyles. Lots of us are pretty regular day to day. We are doctors, lawyers, dentists and chefs. We want to be kind and respect each other, because we all like the same music.”

Although Asheville’s unique landscape attracted Mandy, it also solidifies Asheville’s status as a tourist town, which contributes to gentrification, she says. Many of Indo Apparel & Gifts’ neighbors have been priced out, and much of what initially attracted many to Asheville is, ironically, diminished by an increasing presence of people. 

“In the years we’ve been in this location, literally every single neighbor with the exception of Barley’s has changed. The whole street, both sides, everybody has been priced out. A lot of our little local spots that I miss so badly have been priced out of downtown. To me, Asheville is this funky, little gem and if you get rid of all the people and the places that make it funky and unique, then it’s just every town in the U.S. with mountains,” Mandy said. “Asheville has definitely changed a lot in the time I’ve been here. It used to be more of what you might call hippie versus hipster. We’ve gone full blown gentrification.” 

According to Mandy, the Grateful Dead scene itself has been altered by an increase in fans. As the fanbase grew, with the introduction of Dead & Company, as an example she says, more people began listening, some of whom’s presence opposed the original values and traditions shared in the band’s original iteration. While it’s good more people are listening, she says, its counterculture status is destroyed and simultaneously, it becomes more mainstream.  

“What you are experiencing is not the same as what the people that came before you experienced. The way people treated each other at Dead shows was one thing when I was growing up. Now, it’s a whole different kind of thing. It’s a lot more capitalist. People literally gave away tickets, drugs and food. Whatever they had, whereas now there’s a lot of people there to just make a buck or take advantage of other people,” Mandy said. “People have different reasons they go, but if you’re not there to enjoy the music, I don’t feel like you should go. Dead & Company shows feel a lot different. Dead & Company is my least favorite. The tempo doesn’t do it for me. I want to dance.” 

In regards to appropriation, she says she does not believe appropriation applies to her dreadlocks. According to Mandy, people assume she doesn’t wash them, but she says this is completely untrue, as she cleans them at least once a week. They will always draw attention, she says. 

“I’ve never ever had a person of color tell me I’m appropriating their culture.This is pre-dreadlocks, but I was told this by a black lady who was messing with my hair, but I have what’s called 3C hair. It’s very thick and it’s very curly. Mine aren’t really a fashion statement. I don’t really have to do anything to them. People are going to think something about you, regardless of where you go. It doesn’t matter,” Mandy said. “I literally grew up in Atlanta and went to majority black schools. They always come up and say, ‘hey your hair looks good. Your locs look good.’”

While she herself proudly wears the hairstyle, Mandy says it is not a prerequisite to acquiring deadhead position. The only requirement is to have a good time. Illicit substances are not required, but LSD may or may not be the best drug to consume at a Grateful Dead show, according to Mandy. She wouldn’t know though, if asked. 

“Just come for the show. Enjoy the music, be kind and be open-minded. Be accepting. You do your thing, let everybody else enjoy the show whatever way they want to do it,” Mandy said. 

Madden shared a similar sentiment alongside a personal anecdote.

“It’s just a bunch of people who really like music from great musicians,” Madden said. “I’m actually clean and sober. I haven’t drank since I was like 15-years-old, except for once in a blue moon, I’ll do tequila. This is my bad habit.” Madden gestured towards his hand. “Smoking cigars.” 

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