Listening for the Echo
What a quiet year it’s been. Musicians have soldiered on, gamely offering live streams and pre-recorded concerts, but the dearth of real, in-person shows has been palpable. I’ve felt that absence while settling into my new home in Durham. (Normally, I’d get to know the area and its venues by peppering my nights and weekends with shows.) But it also cropped up during the only mini-trip I took this year, when I decided to break up a lengthy two-week holiday stretch by escaping west to go hiking in Asheville.
I figured it was a trip I could do safely—driving over by myself, staying in a contactless rental, ordering takeout, and spending my time outdoors in the mountains. But I’d never been to Asheville before, and knowing its growing reputation as a music city, it felt bizarre to prepare a visit without booking a concert or two. Or five.
That realization grew as I neared the mountain town. All the music we’ve lost this year—the living, breathing experience of it—panged even louder.
Absent any shows, I went looking for music in other ways. Field Report says it best in his aching song “Michelle” (off 2014’s Marigolden): “I went looking for the river, but I only made it to the railroad bend.” In this Wild Year of Our Lord, I took what I could get. I trekked over to Echo Mountain, the former church-turned-studio, where numerous artists—Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, Moses Sumney—have recorded, drawn by the room’s reverent sound.
The morning I set out to see where so many gorgeous songs have been captured, my map instructed me to walk toward French Broad St. But I misread it as French Bread St, and spent the better part of 10 minutes beaming at the name. Knowing I wanted to write about this excursion, I began plotting out how I could use the street’s name as my entryway into the topic. Foiled again! (But, really, who gives a hoot about French ladies when there are loaves to celebrate?)
Situated downtown, at one of the neighborhood’s higher points, Echo Mountain offers a clear vantage of the surrounding peaks, which makes its name all the more pertinent. In Greek mythology, the story of the mountain nymph Echo is a twisted one, but voice and song sit at its center. As the story goes, Echo angered Hera, who’d come to spy on her rapey husband Zeus during one of his cavorting trips, by talking too much and distracting her. Hera’s payback—directed at the wrong person, as always—included stripping Echo of her agency, forcing her to repeat the last words other people said. But although she no longer had autonomy over her own voice, Echo remained a powerful figure, giving substance and form to others’ words and reminding them of their existence.
This year feels as though it’s taken so much from each of us in different ways—some large, some small. Here’s the part where I say something profound, something to add meaning to a moment that feels bereft of any understanding. But, alas, words fail me. I don’t have anything to offer by way of retrospective.
I’ll take a page from Echo, then, and leave you with someone else’s words—Sumney’s song “Lonely World,” which first appeared on his 2016 EP Lamentations. Throughout the track, Sumney repeats the word “lonely” until it becomes an incantation that builds into a thunderous crescendo near the end. That in and of itself encapsulates this year, but beneath the song’s lament, there’s a kernel of hope bound up in the power of creativity: “And the void speaks to you/ In ways nobody speaks to you/ And that voice fills the air/ Fog in the morning going nowhere.”
The song still hangs around Asheville, resounding and resplendent, and I look forward to hearing it on my next trip—echoes of all the music we didn’t get to hear this year and new melodies yet to come.