It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night in Boone, North Carolina, and a hush falls over the East Boone Listening Room.

“We spent many years trying to find a space like this in town,” says artist and songwriter Sarah DeShields. 

Boone, which is home to Appalachian State University, has plenty of small to mid-sized venues, but they tend to cater to the college crowd or tourists. Because these hot spots are designed more for drinking and socializing, the performers often end up getting drowned out by the noise. 

What DeShields says Boone was missing was a space for singer-songwriters to showcase their songs to an audience intent to listen. 

“So, we decided to just make it ourselves!” DeShields laughs.

All the chairs in the East Boone Listening Room are taken, and I’m not surprised. Every time I come to these listening events, the place is packed wall to wall. So, I find a little spot on the floor and settle in to listen to the other songwriters before it’s time to play my own set of three songs.

The listening room hosts concerts on the second Friday of each month and is housed in the Boone Studio Collective – a space typically used by photographers and other artistic professionals. On listening nights, the studio is transformed into a small, cozy venue. The events are free, but attendees are encouraged to donate directly to the artists via Venmo or PayPal.

“I think it’s actually a need. People need connection,” says Meris Gantt, another songwriter and creative consultant who helps curate the evenings along with DeShields and fellow artists Will Willis and Simon and Sydney Everett. 

After the pandemic, Gantt felt people were hungry for that human connection they couldn’t get online. In a way, the Listening Room has become a place where people can heal from both the vitriol and the isolation of the pandemic. It’s a space for an artist to share their deepest emotions free of judgment and free of noise.

When I think about the greatest challenge to my own artistic work, it is indeed noise, and I don’t just mean singing over the racket of a crowded bar – though I’ve done that more times than I care to count. Artists are increasingly competing with the noise of a global music marketplace. 

Online streaming platforms, while they have their advantages, have saturated the market with endless content. It’s hard for a songwriter to cut through the noise, much less get paid a fair wage for their creative labor.

But that’s another beautiful thing about the Listening Room. Songwriters from all over have played here, but for the most part, “we try to make it hyper-local,” Gantt says, thereby instilling the value of not only an in-person, embodied musical experience but also a local one.

Becoming “hyperlocal” is a concept that’s increasingly appealing to me, especially in a world that every day becomes more and more oriented towards the compelling but somewhat artificial connections and consumption that the internet provides. These days, I – and I believe many others – are less interested in what’s cutting edge globally and more interested in what my own community has to offer me.

The East Boone Listening Room. Photo: Sydney Everett/
The East Boone Listening Room. Photo: Sydney Everett/

This is what I’ve found at the East Boone Listening Room. I’ve found Appalachian folks singing songs about what it means to live and love and work and grow here in Boone, in Appalachia. 

I’ve heard songs about what it means for your religious beliefs to change when you live in a highly religious context. 

I’ve heard songs that wrestle with being a descendant of settlers on a land that once belonged to the Cherokee. 

I’ve heard songs about watching people die of addiction and about the experience of incarceration. 

I’ve heard songs about local floods and mountaineer ghosts who haunt the hills.

These are deeply Appalachian songs about deeply Appalachian struggles. But the genre is not limited to what people typically think of when they imagine Appalachian music. Certainly, some artists incorporate traditional Old Time musical instruments like a banjo or mandolin. But the diversity of sound is something the curators of the East Boone Listening Room take great pride in. If a tourist from “off the mountain” were to wander into the East Boone Listening Room in hopes of simply experiencing a stereotypical “down home” sound, they’d have to go elsewhere to get their hillbilly trope fix.

DeShields, who sometimes plays ambient electric guitar and sometimes plays a folksier acoustic guitar, writes music that is indeed genre-bending. She was born in Scotland and her songs are often inspired by her connection to the land, both in Scotland and her new home in North Carolina. These songs of Scottish migration evoke the rich and decidedly Appalachian tradition of mourning and celebrating the exchange of one unique topography for other. 

About her performance at the East Boone Listening Room, DeShields says, “People are still talking to me about what happened in them when they were listening to me sing. It felt very sacred to me. I felt known and seen in my community in a new way.”

When my time to play arrives, I approach the microphone feeling a bit intimidated. The room is absolutely quiet. All heads are up, no one is looking down at their phones. While you may see a few folks take quick photos of the performers, for the most part, devices are put away and people are fully present.

But as much as I feel unnerved, I feel emboldened, buoyed by the earnest attentiveness and eager reception of the listeners. Like DeShields, I too feel seen. There are my people. This is my community. It is a place where I can express my most complex thoughts and feelings and be understood. I can present myself rather than a perfect performance without having to shout over the noise or cut through the excesses of our modern-day world.

“We just want people to be humans here,” says Gantt. 

And be human is exactly what I am able to do at the East Boone Listening Room.

Amanda Held Opelt is a singer-songwriter and the author of A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing and the forthcoming Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness, and the Myth of the Blessed Life. She writes about faith, grief, rituals and life in Southern Appalachia. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Boone, North Carolina.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.