By Cramer Lewis
Quick trivia: What do Doc Watson, Derek Trucks, Acoustic Syndicate, Ryan Adams, Leftover Salmon and Larry Keel all have in common?
Give up? They all played at the Klondike during the now legendary stretch of years between 1994-1998. The community established during those years welcomed all forms of music, as well as all sorts people, and is still mythically remembered by those who were there.
The recent coloring of leaves throughout the High Country signifies the agelessness of this place, where the memory of the Klondike will always linger, and the imminent return of alumni– the guardians of this memory– to their old stomping grounds.
With generations of former Appalachian State students set to converge on Boone for homecoming festivities this weekend, it seems an appropriate exercise of catharsis to revisit the enduring legacy and to celebrate the birth of a community so intricately netted in acceptance and a common goal of simply having a good time, that its effects and memory still echo today: this community which was woven together to form the legendary music scene of the Klondike in the ’90s.
Boone is an old town. For decades, it was just another small municipality, tucked between mountains, playing host to a similarly small, relatively unknown college focused primarily on teaching. The past 30 years have totally altered the face and attitude of this quaint mountain village as the university has grown to an unprecedented size and popularity.
This growth is often explained by three national championships won by the football program in the early 2000s, but various landmarks dot the progress towards what we now see. One of those landmarks, paving the way for the environment we know today, was the legalization of the sale and purchase of alcohol within the town in 1986.
When Boone went from dry to, well, not dry in 1986, a door was thrown open that led to the establishment of a still thriving musical community in the town. This community would grow out of a newly opened bar situated along the two-laned U.S. Highway 321 across from the baseball field (where the convocation center now stands) called “Klondike.”
Klondike opened along with Murphy’s, which sits on King Street, in 1986, as soon as legally possible. It remained open until last spring, when Its doors closed permanently. Younger Boone residents, myself included, usually have a much different view of the Klondike as a little college watering hole frequented largely by a Greek (lettered) crowd.
This is the Klondike of the new millennium: DJs, microbrews and fraternity brothers. This, however, was not the Klondike of the ’90s.
There’s a saying that’s kicked around town these days: “you know you’re old school Boone if you remember when the Klondike was still cool.” Between the years of 1994-98, locals frequented a genuinely cool Klondike that cranked out live music six nights a week to a packed out hodgepodge of attendees, all of whom could expect welcomed inclusion — unless, of course, they decided to talk during Doc Watson’s set.
While the scene involved innumerable persons and groups, the nucleus of the community can be traced to one man: Billy Herring.
“I grew up listening to music in my household, so music was always around me. Being close to the Watson family: Doc and Merle and Richard. It has just sort of been the backbone of my life,” says Billy, who became Klondike’s third owner in 1994. “I came back here and met my wife, and then, instead of an engagement ring, we bought the Klondike.”
Herring, 51, is soft spoken and cool, but he could easily fool anyone into thinking otherwise. Skinny and graying, he talks in webs, like he’s on a relentless quest to link together all the people in his life, past and present. Having established booking ties working at a club in Colorado, he came back to Boone in ’94 looking to rev up its live music scene, which was still in its infancy.
During their time as owners, Herring and wife Disa Mast built an inclusive environment at the Klondike that welcomed all forms of music and all types of people.
“It didn’t matter if you were a professor at ASU, if you were a carpenter or if you were down on your luck and living on the street. I mean, we took care of everybody,” he said. “By 5:15 everyday the place was packed with people drinking beer on the front porch and people playing foosball. You never saw so many fender benders because you always had to look and see who was on the porch at Klondike. I mean, we’d sit out there and count them.
“It’s all about the community. It didn’t matter if you were driving a Mercedes or driving an old pickup truck — when you walked through those doors, we were all the same.”
In addition to welcoming all types of patrons to the Klondike, Herring also opened the stage to all sorts of music and musicians.
“Music comes in all forms and fashions. I mean, one night we’d have a raging metal band and the next night we’d have a sit down Doc Watson show,” he said. “One of the things I’m most proud of about the Klondike was the fact that the kids that were going to school at ASU, great musicians, would walk in kind of sheepishly with a cassette and say, ‘Hey, can I get a gig here?’ and I would say, ‘Sure, how about Thursday night?”
Because of its welcoming and free musical attitude, many talented young musicians and technicians who would later become famous frequented the Klondike of the ‘90s.
A teenaged Derek Trucks played the Klondike several times with varied backing groups, as did Ryan Adams with his band at the time, Whiskeytown. Chris Mitchell, a world-class electric engineer who rewired the Time Warner arena in Charlotte and repaired the soundboards at Abbey Road Studios in London, ran the front of house sound for the first time at the Klondike.
Mitchell is wanted all over the world now by the likes of U2 and Bruce Springsteen, but he remains loyal to Indiana jam band Umphrey’s McGee to this day.
The Klondike’s musical environment served as a community-building playground for young talent to learn how to do live music and meet other musicians, and it fostered many success stories.
“I manage Acoustic Syndicate. We’ve been together since I gave them their first gig ever: at the Klondike on a Wednesday night, $2 a head. Tonight, we’re playing at a place and it’s $30 a head,” says Billy. “There are guys now who are traveling the world in various forms with large touring bands: Bill Reynolds is the bass player with The Band of Horses. Jake Eckert played with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for seven years and then he started The New Orleans Suspects. I’m proud that me and my wife were able to be sort of a building block or stepping stone for these guys to figure out how to do live music.”
In the ‘90s, Klondike was surrounded by a tightly knit community that binds still today. The only requirement for inclusion was a love of music and a respect for your fellow humans. It was an environment where student musicians could get a gig, where Doc Watson could silence the room enough to hear a pin drop, where a 13-year-old Derek Trucks could test his talent, where everyone was welcome, where Acoustic Syndicate was born, where Larry Keel cut his teeth for the first time in North Carolina after sharing a long car ride with his wife and a doghouse bass that forced each of them against the windows. It was a place where countless individuals warmed themselves in the neon glow of welcoming friends and neighbors.
Though the music scene began to dwindle at Klondike after 1998, the community that was established continues to live on. If you can find anyone who lived in Boone between the years of 1994-1998, they are almost guaranteed to smile at a mention of the Klondike. More than that, they probably also know Billy.
The musical happenings of that place and time signify community, creativity and kindness. They deserve remembrance, and they are remembered, as Herring constantly hears from members of the community he helped build.
The Klondike was also home to some adventurous after parties (sometimes playing well past curfew and on through the night) when big time groups came to town, like Southern rock jam band Widespread Panic, whose lead guitarist Michael Houser hailed from Boone.
“Panic played at the [Horn In the West] ampitheatre in ’95 and they still talk about it,” Herring said. “We had to tape newspaper on all of the windows so nobody could see in.”From wild after parties to sound engineering, from shredder metal to sit down folk, the Klondike represented a utopic gathering of a diverse community hell-bent on having a good time six nights a week. For four years, the Herrings devoted themselves to maintaining this environment.
“She ran the show during the day. She would get there in the morning and do the lunch up until like 5 o’clock,” Billy said. “I’d get there and I’d run everything until about two or three in the morning and go home and we’d like high five each other on the way out the door.”
Eventually, the two decided to sell the bar so they could have more time as a family.
During the next 18 years, ownership of the Klondike would change hands three more times, but the music would never return the same. However, the Klondike’s recent closing actually signifies new home for a revival of its musical legacy. Work has already begun on connecting it with the adjacent Tapp Room by knocking out the wall has divided the two spaces. Tapp Room, which has been stepping up its live music in the past year, plans to take advantage of Klondike’s large space and stage, which seems promising for hopeful musicians and enthusiasts around town.
If indeed an era of history-making music returns to the Klondike stage, one can only hope that the same spirit of community and inclusion will follow.