Making the stage: Picking the Bele Chere bands

This weekend, a group of local music lovers will shut themselves in an Asheville hotel suite and spend three days listening to some 600 musical submissions for the 2011 Bele Chere Festival. The ritual takes place every year at the end of February and results in the entertainment lineup for the festival, held this year July 29-31.

Three groups will begin their day at 9 a.m., listening to three excerpts from each and every submission, scoring each and winding out the weekend with the list that will result in 37 musical slots on the festival’s four stages.

The three groups correspond with categories made up of musical sub genres: One focusses on styles like rock, americana and jam bands, another on blues, jazz, reggae and hip-hop, and still another for country, bluegrass and singer-songwriter.

“You have to commit to listening to everything that is in your category. It can make for an intense weekend,” says Cristin Corder Lee, Event Specialist with the Asheville Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts Department. The committees are provided snacks and meals and take occasional breaks, but otherwise they spend those hours listening to song submissions and reading band bios.

The process actually got rolling in December, when the call went out for musical submissions. Musical acts have the option of submitting online or mailing in CDs and information packets. This year, the submission deadline was extended to Feb. 18 to ensure the best selection possible.

The selection committee itself is also the result of an application process. Members are picked after a call for applications, and are typically selected based on their knowledge or enthusiasm for music.

“We’ve had people who have been involved in music production, in promotion, some who have been in bands or who write about music for local publications,” says Steve Busey, who has chaired Bele Chere Entertainment Committee for several years and now serves as the festivals’ chair.

Busey even points to a T.C. Roberson high-school student who was on the selection panel last year because of her love for country music. “And it was great to have a younger person in the group,” he says.

Though Corder Lee facilitates the selection process, neither she nor any other city staff actually participates in the voting process. “We want as much transparency as possible, and to give every one a chance to participate,” she says. She does, however, use the committee’s choices to put together the schedules for each stage, making sure each showcases different kinds of music. “We want to get as much diversity up there as possible,” she says. “We want to make sure there is something there for everyone.” She adds that six slots reserved for headlining acts are filled by an executive committee that makes picks based on factors like budget, band availability and genre of music.

A 2007 survey and a vote by Asheville City Council placed a higher emphasis on showcasing local music at the festival. Corder Lee says the festival’s recent lineups have easily exceeded the percentages mandated by that Council vote.

The complete entertainment lineup for the 2011 Bele Chere fest will be announced in June, though some performers may be announced as they are confirmed, and the festival lineup is always subject to change.

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