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Rock Out in North Carolina's Queer-Friendly Musical Mecca

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Music has the power to bring people together. It can also attract folks from all over the country — to places like Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, and even Asheville, N.C. 

Asheville is a blue gem in an otherwise red state, and has long been a hub for quality sound and radical thought. Live music is found at any number of bars, concert halls, and restaurants every night of the week. On quieter days, there’s always the chance of running into a busker around town — in fact, there’s even an Asheville Buskers Collective

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Add to that a sea of Pride flags hanging outside homes and shops, and store window signs welcoming queer folks, immigrants, refugees, and beyond. You’ll quickly pick up on why so many folks in the community dub Asheville the “San Francisco of the East.” Well, many locals did prior to the passing of the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (or House Bill 2 for short). 

As one of the most anti-LGBTQ bills ever passed into law, HB 2 hurt the trans community — and the state’s tourism business (when it prompted boycotts of the state). The progressive-leaning Asheville is one place in North Carolina that didn’t experience the economic blow (for example, it was able to continue with the NCAA Southern Conference in 2017 despite the boycott) and that is due to the city’s long-held reputation as being LGBTQ-friendly. 

HB 2 has since been repealed and replaced by HB 142, which eliminated the statewide policy restricting transgender people's restroom access but still prevents local jurisdictions from adopting LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws until December 2020. Once again, Asheville remains an island of queer safety in a sea of red. It’s understandable to feel unsure about visiting a state whose laws won’t protect you. But visiting Asheville because of its LGBTQ-friendliness supports those who support us and is a reminder to the rest of the state that pro-LGBTQ laws pay dividends that anti-queer laws do not.

When visiting Asheville, pick lodgings within the highly walkable downtown area. The pet-friendly Aloft Hotel features its own mini music venue, the XYZ Lounge, perfect for catching up-and-coming stars, and puts on the annual Project Aloft Star music competition. 

Aloft Courtesy

Asheville offers much to see and do no matter what your musical taste. If you’re a fan of electronic music, you can’t pass up a chance to visit the Moog Music Factory. Dr. Robert Moog, creator of the Moog synthesizer (used by artists ranging from Radiohead to Pharrell Williams), lived in Asheville from the late 1970s until his death in 2005. He left behind Moog headquarters — which now includes a museum with a daily factory tour for visiting synth-lovers. They’ll even let you fiddle around with the instruments!

You’ll find plenty of spots to pick up new or used instruments. Heyday Musical Instruments and Repair is home to an impressive collection of used guitars, amps, and pedals. Musician’s Workshop boasts all the goodies you’d want, from bass guitars and drum kits to mikes. Skinny Beats Drum Shop’s offerings include djembes, African kora harps, Native American flutes, and other less-common instruments. Plus you can get classes to learn how to use them all. 

Skinny Beats Drum Class

Unleash your inner musical beast in a Skinny Beats drum class.

Music lovers flock to Asheville’s record stores. Try Voltage Records for hunting down vintage LPs and 45s, or cool band tees. Static Age Records is a much-beloved spot for vinyl, heavy on punk, hardcore, and metal, and features a bar and a bare-bones live music venue in the back that reminds me of my days in the Florida punk scene. You’ll also find some solid selections at Harvest Records, an award-winning shop in West Asheville with plenty of vinyl, CDs, and cassettes, and a small stage for the occasional live show.

The number of live music venues Asheville boasts is truly impressive. The Orange Peel is undoubtedly the crown jewel of Asheville’s music scene. It’s hosted big-name acts like the Flaming Lips, Ani DiFranco, and the Descendents. Asheville Music Hall is a mid-size venue featuring bluegrass brunches on Sundays, DJs on Turntable Tuesdays, and shows for lovers of funk, hip-hop, and everything else. 

Wedge Brewing Company Courtesy

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For music, theater, and dance, you have to hit the Diana Wortham Theatre. There’s also Isis Music Hall in West Asheville. The River Arts District’s Grey Eagle Music Hall is an excellent choice to end a day of gallery hopping. The Mothlight has at least three live shows a week, and the Sly Grog Lounge delivers open mikes and jam nights galore. You get the point. 

Even the bars and breweries get in on the music action. UpCountry Brewing hosts shows plus a weekly Music Bingo night. Highland Brewing Company puts on free shows every Friday and Saturday night. Enjoy fiddlers at Jack of the Wood, live jazz at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria, and Latin dance, reggae, and blues at One World Brewing

Other highlights of Asheville’s vibrant brewery include New Belgium Brewery; Wicked Weed Brewing, which has a first-rate beer and food menu; and Wedge Brewing Company, offering lawn games and food trucks.

A few more wonderful things about Asheville are the delightful farm-to-table, Southern-style cooking of Early Girl Eatery; the splendor of driving through the Blue Ridge Parkway and hiking along the way; the joy of complimentary wine tastings at the majestic Biltmore Estate — which is also a concert venue; and the queer-friendly handcrafted goodies and feminist exhibits at the Asheville Emporium

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