The State of Touring: an Asheville Perspective, Part 1 of 2

Asheville serves as the base of operation for numerous touring music artists; when they’re not on the road, quite a few solo artists and band members call Western North Carolina home. But in March 2020, day-to-day life changed nearly overnight for nearly all of them. Sidelined by across-the-board cancellations – shuttered venues and canceled tours – they found themselves at home for an extended period.

By late 2022, concert venues across the globe were once again opening their doors, and many touring musicians once again took to the road. What they’ve found, and how they approach the entire subject of touring, is in many ways just as it was before the pandemic. But not everything is the same, and some of the changes might end up being long-lasting or even permanent. Mountain Xpress spoke with three Asheville-based groups to get a sense of what touring means to them in 2023 and beyond.

Band in a bubble
“In some ways, touring now is not different at all” from before, says Alex McWalters of River Whyless. The Asheville-based folk-rock quartet featuring drummer McWalters along with Halli Anderson (violin), Ryan O’Keefe (guitar) and Daniel Shearin (bass) has been together more than a decade, and much of that time has been spent on the road. Starting with 2012’s A Stone, a Leaf, an Unfound Door, the group has toured widely in support of its four albums. Recorded and released during the pandemic, 2022’s Monoflora is the latest from River Whyless.

McWalters explains how touring is largely unchanged. “In a practical sense, so much of a tour is spent in your ‘bubble,’” he says. “The van, and one motel room usually that we share. Being close together in that way is treacherous now, but it is what it is.” He says that the realities of touring for a band like his are pretty straightforward. “You’re crammed into a van together, and you’re vying for space and air and privacy.” But at the same time, things are different somehow. “Now, there’s a little bit more anxiety surrounding all those things,” he says. “All that closeness might be more than just bonding time: It might be infection time.”

Beyond transportation and lodging, though, McWalters observes that things really are different on tour. “It’s all become a lot more unstable and unpredictable,” he says, ‘in a business that was already unstable and unpredictable.”

Before the pandemic, McWalters says that River Whyless could make fairly accurate predictions about concert attendance in a given city based on how well-attended the night before had been. That’s no longer the case. “One night’s really good,” he says, and the next night, it’s like, ‘What happened?’”

McWalters has his own ideas as to why concert attendance is more erratic than it once was. “I think the pandemic has had an effect on live music in two ways,” he says. “One, there’s still fear of the virus: ‘I’m not comfortable with the risk; I don’t want to be in a room with a bunch of people.’” That mindset keeps some people away, but it’s reasonable to predict that as time goes on, that mix of fear and caution will become less of a factor.

The other possible reason McWalters suggests – a possible cultural shift – may pose more of a threat to the long-term viability of concert touring. He detects the early hints of “a shift in the ways in which we ingest our entertainment or art. I think the pandemic created habits, for better or for worse. People got used to staying home, staying within [their] little bubble.” He’s hopeful that over time, society will “re-initiate the whole machine of getting out in the world again.”

Even when they do go out, people seem a bit less spontaneous, more deliberate, McWalters says. Anecdotally, he has noticed that while advance ticket sales for concerts are even more robust than before the pandemic, day-of-show sales are often more modest than before.

As River Whyless gears up for a run of summer tour dates, the group is resigned to the unpredictability inherent in touring. McWalters recalls the group’s most recent run of dates of last fall. “It was three days before the end of the tour. We had been as careful as we could be,” he says. “Nobody had gotten sick for two whole tours.” The group was in a restaurant in New Mexico, and – after noting that he didn’t believe in jinxes – Shearin remarked on their good luck up to that point. “Literally the next day,” McWalters laughs, “he had [Covid-19] symptoms!” McWalters says. “It was hilarious and ironic.”

To be continued…