There is an uncanny characteristic that stems naturally from a small-town songwriter armed with an acoustic guitar. South Carolina native Jim Ashley has a knack for speaking the truth behind the limelight pulpits at the dive bar, the coffee shop or even a living room. Ranging from the Bob Dylan and Neil Young-ridden corridors of folk, to blues and traditional style country, Ashley writes lyrics that every American old enough to enter a nightclub can relate to. He will play a set at Fermental this Saturday, January 3.
“[People] say my songs are ‘culturally relevant,’” Ashley explains. “I think I can agree with that; I hope it is true. People say I write ‘political songs.’ I’m not sure I agree with that. I don’t think any of my songs tell you who to vote for or against. I think—if my songs are about anything, if there is a common thread that runs through them all—they are about trying to stay human in a world that seems to want to turn us into part of a machine. Or something like that. I don’t think I’m trying to appeal to a particular demographic, except maybe people who like the truth.”
One might say Ashley’s material emanates an Emersonian (of or pertaining to Ralph Waldo Emerson) quality: It requires its listener to be observant, introspective and self-reliant. That makes sense, considering the troubadour comes from the South’s low country, with its rural charm, small towns, swamps, farms, and pine forests.
Hailing from the swampy mires and moss of Fairfax, South Carolina, Ashley became a Wilmington resident in 2004, all based on a feeling. “The first time I visited Wilmington, I just felt like I belonged here,” he comments “It is just a great place for artists and musicians, but it’s also close enough to where I came from that I still feel at home.”
Since his arrival, he has been playing local venues. This affords the solo artist the opportunity to play with a band without the hassle typically associated with a troupe. He frequents Goat and Compass, which has open mic nights every Tuesday hosted by Eric Miller (of L Shape Lot fame) and Dennis Brinson, another local singer-songwriter. “It gives me a chance to hang out with my musician friends, hear their new songs, and play my new songs for them,” he says.
Ashley’s prowess for live performance knows no bounds. He’s the kind of person who would gladly take a rock and throw it into a pond just to see it splash, and that’s not a negative thing. He just wants to make an impression. Citing influences like Arlo Guthrie, Mike Cross and Todd Snider, he known for making live performances interactive. He goes beyond the brief commentary a solo artist usually gives the audience during a set.
“I often tell stories about the songs,” he states, “about how I came up with a song. I try to make the stories humorous.”
His music traverses a wide range of tones and themes. “The Oprah Winfrey Show Blues,” off of Ashley’s only album “Out On A Limb” (2012), certainly caters to Ashley’s conduct on (and off) the stage. Composed in a 4/4 blues format, the song has a comical approach that makes a general statement about the significant role of media in American society.
Conversely, songs like “This American Dream” have a more sobering effect. It touches on heated topics like the economy, politics and the feeling of not belonging to a system that demands a specific mold.
Although some of his songs harp on the bitter realities of life, Ashley also exposes a calmer side. Subtle finger-picking guitar textures, such as those found in the brief instrumental track “October” or “A Bucket in the Attic,” demonstrate Ashley’s versatility and devotion to his instrument.
“I enjoy playing live,” Ashley tells, “recording, jamming with others, even practicing, but mainly I consider myself a songwriter. One of my goals is to have others play my songs. I guess the most ambitious goal I have for my music [is for it] to live on after I am gone. That’s not too much to ask is it? Immortality.”
His continuous performances on the local circuit keeps Ashley quite busy on the songwriting end, too. “Even though I have not been playing many solo shows over the last couple of months, I’ve still been staying pretty busy; I’ve been recording some new songs, and writing some new songs,” he says. “I hope to have something ready to release in early 2015.”
Ashley also just released his very first instructional guitar video, entitled “Basic Fingerpicking Patterns.” It is available for free on YouTube. He will play Fermental this weekend.
7250 Market Street
Sat., January 3, 8 p.m.