On a cool September night, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier is onstage at the Altamont Theatre playing for a packed house. By the time she’s through the first tune, the magic of the room has taken over. “This sounds beautiful,” she says, looking first at her accompanist and then the crowd. The audience is wrapped around her finger. When they speak, it’s in a whisper, and only to lean to the person sitting next to them, something along the lines of, “I love this.”
Indeed, Asheville boasts myriad bars and clubs that cater to an always-buzzing (and sometimes, just plain talking right through the show) music scene. But there’s something about this room that elicits rapt attention. Maybe it’s because it was originally designed for theater; or maybe it’s that owners Brian Lee and his wife Tiffany R. Hampton have an enthusiasm for art’s nuances, which has rubbed off on the place. Regardless, it’s hard to be in this room without feeling reverence for whatever is about to happen onstage.
Referring to Gauthier’s performance and the other shows Altamont put on, Lee is careful to note, “We’re not trying to compete as another club here in town. We’re a true listening room.”
In a sense, the story of this listening room began in a New York City dog park. Lee and Hampton had moved from the Raleigh area to Manhattan, so Hampton could pursue a career in musical theater. The park where they took their dogs was full of actors trading stories about venues around the country — which ones were performer-friendly, which ones you should avoid. Lee and Hampton started thinking. “It’s not hard to be respectful to artists,” Lee says.
A few years later, the couple visited Asheville for a family reunion and decided to leave the bustle of New York’s theater world, and Lee’s software business, to open a black box theater company in the mountains. They found an old brick building on Church Street downtown and got to work.
Marrying the tradition of the structure with green building standards (those hardwood floors are from 1895), they enlisted the skills of Glazer Architecture. They built a bar and green room in the basement, and designed a theater with impeccable acoustics and a near-eye-level stage for the performers. With chairs and tables down, it can hold about 120 people; standing-room only, the room welcomes an audience of 200. It’s not a giant space, but numbers aren’t what matters. Here, it’s all about the music.
“We have shows that sell extremely well and others that don’t — they’re new artists, but they’re really good,” Lee says. “That’s what matters.”
There’s a fire in his voice when he speaks of his creation, a passion for the music that belies the fact he’s not an artist himself. Since shifting the venue’s focus to music back in January, he’s discovered his taste sits solidly in the realm of Americana — a style of music teeming with artists and fans hungry for great listening rooms, who usually settle for bars.
“A good example is the Deep Dark Woods,” Lee says. “They played here and then we saw they were nominated at the Americana Music Awards for Best Emerging Artist. They didn’t have a huge crowd when they were here this last time, but … we thought they were good.”
Hampton adds, “They have stories to tell. We built this place with theater in mind and the elements are the same. What we wanted to do was [to focus on] lesser-known shows by well-known composers, about the heart of what the characters on stage were saying. Stories set to music. That’s the same thing that goes on with musicians — from every walk of life, every genre — they’re just here to say what they have to say, to tell their stories.”
The shift has been effective. Rick Wood is a local music fan who’s become accustomed to attending weekly shows at the Altamont. “We come for Tuesday jazz jams because it’s a nice place to actually hear the music,” Wood says. “The musicians always say it sounds really good.”
Indeed, Gauthier’s declaration that the room sounds beautiful has been echoed by other artists who have appeared here. Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids — an Americana duo from California — came through a week earlier. Still happy with their Altamont show, even after their tour moved on to the Northeast, Ryan explains the owners have created a room which “takes its place among a small group of elite listening rooms across the country… simply by making it clear that the performance on stage is the sole purpose for its existence,” Ryan says.
Lee agrees this is exactly what sparks the fire for him. “Our goal — and we share this with the artists — is to get the best possible show.”
Kim Ruehl is a freelance writer living in Asheville. Follow her on Twitter: @kimruehl.