Fifteen miles from Asheville, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies the town of Black Mountain. It’s a musical place, fiddle and banjo, mandolin and guitar country. The town’s official website has the logo “the little town that rocks” superimposed over a picture of a rocking chair in the clouds. But the laid-back image belies the area’s multicultural adventures in music through the last two and a half decades with the LEAF Festival (Lake Eden Arts Festival), featuring a smorgasbord of local, regional, national and world music artists from all genres.
Growing up in Black Mountain, twin brothers, Kyle and Eric Travers, absorbed the sounds of their surroundings, but eventually it was the sound of an amplified instrument that drew them into the music.
“I enjoyed the bluegrass music, but there’s just a certain appeal for me being a 12-year-old kid, an electric guitar is something you wanna play ‘cause it’s loud. I liked how it sounded,” Kyle said last week by phone from the road. “My dad was a guitar player, and he would play Stevie Ray Vaughan in the car and B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, so I guess I’m a product of my environment, and my environment had a lot of electric guitar in it.”
Billing himself as Hurricane Bob, the Travers’ dad played blues/rock with his namesake band and swing as the leader of the Magdaddys. He gave Kyle about five lessons, then told him he was on his own, but could come to him if he was really frustrated in learning a lick or had a certain chord he couldn’t figure out.
“He wanted me to teach myself, because that’s how he learned primarily,” Kyle says. “It teaches your ear as much as your hands that way. He got me started, then he’d say ‘Go figure it out yourself. If I can listen to the tape and figure it out, you can.’”
By 2012, the brothers had figured out enough stuff to start their own seven piece band, the Travis Brothership. The group incorporated almost everything they heard into their sound, mixing up Muscle Shoals style, horn-drenched R&B with funk, jazz, blues and rock.
The three-piece brass section known as the Brothership Horns is gone now, after appearing on the group’s first two releases.
“Maybe down the line, I could get back into it, but we really just let the music take the wheel,” Kyle says of the band’s latest, “Let the World Decide,” featuring more three-part harmony from the band. “I find you gotta leave room. Space is just as important as notes. Without the horns providing a texture, you can listen to back-up vocals a little more, the little slide parts.”
The band also went keyboard heavy on this one, with Kyle contributing keys along with Brothership keyboardist/songwriter/percussionist Ian McIsaac.
“I think in the studio, you have to maintain a balance of your voice and who you are, but you also have to create a new kind of spark or you can regurgitate the same old stuff,” Kyle says.
There’s plenty of new sparks on their latest. “Mama Don’t” sounds like it might have been lit off by a Leon Russell ember.
“Oh yeah, man, we played tons of Leon in the bar,” Kyle says, referring to their home base of sorts, Pisgah Brewing Company. Kyle lists him as a major influence, but was unable to attend Leon’s show when he played the Pisgah.” I had a gig, but my brother, he had a white Stetson he got signed.”
But Leon’s sound doesn’t define the album. The record is all over the place, genre-wise. “Hit By Hit” sounds like a funkier, jazzier version of Oliver Wood’s (Wood Brothers) previous incarnation as King Johnson. That one was created by Eric, and Kyle says he’s not sure of his brother’s prime motivation, but he was always a funk enthusiast. But once again, that doesn’t dominate either. “As of late, one of our latest obsessions as a unit is the kinda more progressive, prog rock kind of jazz as well, that kind of Jeff Beck, “Blow By Blow” kinda stuff.”
Once more, that concept gets pushed aside with “Sweet Anna Lee,” a rocky bluegrass tune accented by Steep Canyon Rangers’ Nicky Sanders on fiddle.
To maintain that kind of creative autonomy, the band has done virtually everything themselves.
“We’ve made it this far without being ripped off,” Kyle says. “And I’ll keep it that way as long as I have to, but as we get busier and more successful, you just have to expand your team. I could see a manager in our near future.”
They do have a booking agent, but still funded their last album themselves just from touring, averaging around 200 dates a year.
“I don’t know what direction we’re gonna go in next,” Kyle says. “We’re heavily considering a live album — just kinda decided that last week.”
Kyle hopes that his work ethic and business model set an example for some younger players.
“You don’t have to sell out by any means to make a living doing this kinda thing,” he says. “I hope I can inspire some players out there to play kinda like I did, play by ear more and with your heart and a little less technical.”