Asheville-based bluegrass band Buncombe Turnpike would have been called the Biscuit Eaters if it weren’t for Tom Godleski’s interest in local history. “We had this list of names, and one of them was Biscuit Eaters or Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy, something like that. And you know, biscuits are really good, and important, but I was thinking, ‘Do we really want to be called that?'” So instead, Godleski took the name Buncombe Turnpike, after the 19th century road that ran from Tennessee through Asheville and ended in Greenville, S.C. It was a major trade route for craftspeople and livestock farmers, who used it to drive their animals to different markets.
But aside from its pure utility, the Buncombe Turnpike played a big role in the social lives of mountain people who for most of the year lived a fairly isolated existence. Once the day’s travel was over, farmers, drovers, and artisans would gather together to share the news, tell stories, and sing the folk songs that would become traditional bluegrass.
Godleski founded Buncombe Turnpike 15 years ago, and over that time the band has gained and lost several members. In fact, Godleski is the only original member left — his current bandmates are Evan Swink (guitar and vocals), John Duncan (fiddle), and Seth Rhinehart (banjo). As one would expect, the band has a healthy repertoire of historical, traditional bluegrass tunes of the sort that would have been sung around Buncombe Turnpike campfires, but their real strong suit is original songs. “I’m real proud of that. I tell my bandmates, we’re the only band playing this song.” And even those are often based on historical figures, Godleski says. True stories are where he most often finds his inspiration. Godleski’s put out two solo CDs, Fresh Preserves and Forever It Will Be, and four with Buncombe Turnpike — the latest, Ditch Diggin’ Blues, was released in 2009.
In a bluegrass hotbed like Asheville, where pickers and fiddlers are practically coming out of the woodwork, that focus on original tunes has helped Buncombe Turnpike stand out over the years. Throughout that time, they’ve seen plenty of changes, from the type of bluegrass being played to the crowds who come to gigs. “The listening crowds are a lot younger than they used to be,” he says. “And they’re not listening to traditional bluegrass, even if they think they might be. There are a lot of bands that are called bluegrass, even though they’re not really … but all the different branches of bluegrass are helpful [to building an audience].”
Buncombe Turnpike has played everywhere from tiny bars to street festivals with thousands of attendees, but their favorite gigs are more intimate concerts like the one they’ll be performing at Gage Hall during Piccolo Spoleto. “It’s always nice to come to a gig where people are there on purpose,” he jokes. “We just love playing in Charleston, and especially during Piccolo Spoleto.”