This summer, Asheville-based, female-fronted country ensemble Deep River celebrates 30 years of making music together.
In 1991, Sharon Lewis was singing and playing drums in an all-woman group she had founded, Amethyst Country. She says that the group broke up the following year because “the other three women were willing to play in smoky bars, and I wasn’t.”
But Lewis already had another band concept in mind. “I decided to create a band featuring three woman vocalists: a soprano, first alto and second alto – for maximum vocal range,” she explains. But that wasn’t all. The group she envisioned would also feature three male instrumentalists, and Lewis would continue to supply the back beat. “Perfect yin-yang,” she says. “By early summer 1992, Deep River was born!”
A few months later, one of the original trio of vocalists left the group. After auditions for a replacement, Sandy Howard got the job. (Today Howard and Lewis are married partners in life, too.) The group settled in Nashville and sought a major-label record deal. But Lewis says that the band’s agent wasn’t encouraging, telling them they were “too old.” Lewis didn’t buy that explanation. “We knew by then that what he couldn’t bring himself to say was that we were ‘too gay,’” she says. “Needless to say, it was soul-crushing.”
Lewis and Howard moved their home and band to Asheville, a more eclectic and welcoming market. But that didn’t eliminate every challenge. “We’ve had to work hard to find venues for our ‘80s and ‘90s brand of country music,” Lewis says. “Because Asheville is simply not a country music town.”
But Deep River would persist, showcasing the group’s signature vocal harmonies with superb instrumental backing. And the entire enterprise is built on a no-nonsense, meticulously organized and businesslike foundation; Lewis runs a tight ship. “Every song has a chart and either an MP3 or video,” she says. “Every musician is expected to learn their parts before coming to rehearsal, every weekly rehearsal has an agenda, and in rehearsals and gigs alike we expect all members to pay attention to tempo, dynamics, starts and stops.”
In addition to “innumerable” private events, the group maintains a busy public concert schedule. Favorite Deep River venues include the Grove Park Inn, The Grey Eagle, the Feed & Seed in Fletcher, Isis Music Hall and the Purple Onion in Saluda.
All that hard work has earned Deep River a dedicated following. “We’ve enjoyed a lot of support from our local fan base, which tends to be Baby Boomers and GenX folks, and especially the LGBTQI community,” Lewis says.
Deep River celebrated 30 years of music with a July 9 concert at Isis. Photos and videos helped tell the band’s story while the music played. “We’re collaborating with local digital artist Nathan Ebanks to produce our first ever multimedia show,” Lewis says.