Boone's blues diva is back.
Actually, she never left.
Meet Melissa Reaves, a former Lilith-Fair-er with a raw Janis Joplin grit and an appreciation for all things High Country.
"I have been playing music and touring nationally and internationally for probably 20 years," Reaves said.
And she calls Boone home, a place that, after being expelled in 1981 from school in South Carolina, helped her recreate her identity and her art.
"I think mama felt like it was a place of refuge here," she said. "It's was a pretty big blow to her for me to be expelled ... but it was what it was."
From violin lessons to rock and roll bands, she stayed in the background, at least at first.
"Then I had a buddy invite me to sing ... and I just started singing more and more," she said. "I'd sing the blues. That's when I guess I kind of discovered I could sing like that."
She may have started belting it out at 18, but, like a cabernet, her vocal chords have only gotten better with age and experience. That experience has taken her around the world, from Boone to Virginia to New York to Europe. After her first CD (with a producer who played with David Bowie) was released in 1995, things kept rolling.
Opening for acts like Robert Plant led to Lilith Fair and friendships with Lilith vets like Sarah McLachlan.
"She was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," Reaves said. "I have the highest regard for her. She's just such a nice woman."
And not the only one Reaves has belted out the blues with. Add in Cyndi Lauper, Sheryl Crow and Doc Watson, and you'll start to get the idea.
"They're normal people," she said. "It's like they're normal people, they just have these moments of genius, and they have them often."
Some might say the same thing about Reaves who, since the '80s, has been in and out of Boone and "always called it home."
"I'm a rock and roll artist," she said. "I'm not a bluegrass artist. I think that's what most people think of when they think of the mountains ... roots, bluegrass type early country, early bluegrass music ... but when I heard Doc Watson do some things, he's doing exactly what I call the blues. He's doing his brand of blues, and that's really at the base of what I'm doing. Being in this area, I've been afforded just to see people playing that kind of music up front and close ... I've played with a lot of folks whose families are from this area for many generations, and that's the music they grew up with, and that's influenced my music."
And, as her mountain brethren will tell you, her music has its own unique relationship with its audience.
"I'm a rock and roll musician who plays with an acoustic guitar," Reaves said. "I really relate with that intimacy you have between an acoustic instrument, and I think that's something that's really prevalent in our area, acoustic instruments and just playing for the sake of playing and enjoyment."
It's that innocent love of music that's sustained her through the decades.
"I take that with me," she said. "I try to think that's the whole purpose."
And she recognizes some of her colleagues don't feel that way.
"Some musicians ... they're always working toward something," she said.
But here, in the shade of the Appalachian Mountains, Reaves can escape expectations and just play.
"It's my incredibly supportive community, which is a family to me now," she said. "I can't imagine doing the rigors of music and not having an emotional and spiritual and just a nurturing community to know I'm coming back to and rejuvenate and regroup and recreate. It's my community and the beauty of the mountains. These mountains are old, and they hold an ancient special energy, and I know I'm just drawn to that."
And there's nowhere she'd rather be.
"I probably could have done a lot better out of the area ... but that wasn't the choice I've made," she said.
And she's changed a lot from that girl at Bob Jones University all those years ago. Through sets at local venues like Char and Boone Saloon, she's proven she can break the blues barrier and tap into genres many rockers fear, genres like country. "I think all the music I'm doing is related to each other," she said.
But she always comes back to the blues.
"We all know what people mean when they say the blues," she said. "The certain chord progression, the certain feel, but for me, if you ask me, 'Let's sing some blues,' often times I find that people are meaning, 'Well, what blues do you know?' That's so foreign to me ... it's real life's experience that evokes intense emotion and within this certain framework of music and chords, singing, bleeding my heart in front of you ... There are a lot of different types of blues ... but for me, I like the blues that is emotional, that's real, that's speaking of real things and not candy coating it, laying it out."
And her words don't just bleed through in her blues, they cut through, with a raw aggression that goes past fingers on strings.
"It's hard to listen to sometimes because you relate to it," she said. "That's the blues to me, people speaking truthfully about their heart and matters of their heart in song form. I think that they doing that in song form, it's the sense of, 'well, I have one little bit of survival left in me, and I'm willing to sing it through instead of throwing in the towel and not even singing ... the best I can do is sing the blues.'"
And it's blues that her audience not only relates to, but thrives on. Take Reaves' Facebook fans. A Monday comment from Jeana Lowe illustrates what she's talking about.
"Melissa, it's been forever since I've seen you play," it reads. "The last time was at the Irish Cue (about 9 years ago), and I had just lost my fiance and you played 'Long As I Can See The Light' for him. I can't wait to see you play again."
And Lowe's is one of many.
"That vocal marathon will stay with me the rest of my life," Lucie Pollard Branham commented.
Add in audience members after the shows, e-mails and smiles on King Street, and you've got evidence of more than a local celebrity: A true local artist.
And, while she's singing in the New Year at Casa Rustica (1348 N.C. 105 South) Friday (9 p.m., dinner service starts at 5 p.m.), Reaves doesn't have a New Year's resolution. At least not yet.
"I'm always having resolutions, just not on New Year's," she laughed.
The New Year's show (with David Fox, Sam Flip and Jonathan Priest) comes with a champagne toast. Call (828) 406-7085 for more information. For more on Reaves, check out http://www.melissareaves.com.
And Melissa Reaves has a busy 2011. On top of a KISS national tour appearance next week, expect her to belt the blues locally Jan. 13 with The Deciders at Boone Saloon (489 W. King St., $5).