This story appeared on the cover of Asheville Scene, published by the Asheville Citizen Times, on Friday, Dec. 16. Click here to see the story as it appeared in print.
Each winter for the last 20 years, A Swannanoa Solstice has ushered in the holiday season with world-class music, stories, dance and collaborative artistry, bringing joy and light to downtown Asheville on winter’s darkest day.
It’s a celebration of all that makes Western North Carolina unique — of its people, cultures and traditions, whether Asheville born-and-raised or newly at home in the Blue Ridge Mountains — all brought together for one day, on one stage in a seasonal variety show filled with holiday cheer.
“It just feels like you’re just home with friends and family,” said musician Josh Goforth, who’s been part of the Solstice lineup since 2020. “Even though you might not know everybody there, there’s a sense of belonging.”
A Madison County native and renowned old-time, bluegrass and swing musician, Goforth grew up surrounded by music — by ballad singers, banjo players and fiddlers, all picking tunes together on his family’s front porch. “Learning music as a kid, you’d go to someone’s house and talk for 10 minutes, then play a tune together, talk a bit more, then play another tune,” he said. “It was a full experience.” To Goforth, Solstice embodies much of that same energy, offering a true sense of togetherness that’s often missing from large-scale performance.
“I want these shows to feel like you’re sitting on a front porch, right there with the artists,” he said. “Let it be the full Appalachian experience.”
But in an ever-growing town like Asheville, the Appalachian experience is constantly evolving, and Solstice, too, has grown to include new voices that reflect the diversity of its expanding audience.
“Most of the audience do not have deep mountain roots,” said Solstice newcomer and professional storyteller Becky Stone, a Philadelphia native who has lived in the area for more than 40 years. In fact, despite her background in theater, Stone had never heard a professional storyteller perform until she and her husband moved to Fairview, where she first heard a series of folk tales come alive through the voices of the Folktellers, Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan-Blake. Now, bringing decades of experience to the stage, she hopes to pay this gift forward by bringing the art form to new audiences.
“We are leaving folk tales behind at an expense to our young,” Stone said. “But they have been told for hundreds and hundreds of years for a reason. They still have something to offer us.”
And while, for many years, Solstice has “been set in Appalachian and Celtic traditions,” she continued, the performance itself is universal. “I hope the stories I have chosen will get us thinking and feeling in broader terms than Appalachia, ethnicity, race or religion. They are stories of deep love, faith, giving, sacrifice and joy — ending with a feeling of: ‘Yes! That’s how the holidays speak to all of humanity.’”
And while Stone tends to gravitate toward time-tested and traditional, two other Solstice newcomers will showcase the art form in a different light, preparing a collaborative, personal and musical story that takes listeners from the peaks of the Peruvian Andes to the rolling hills of Southern Appalachia.
“I wanted to create something specifically for Solstice that felt like a personal thumbprint — something geared toward those past holiday memories that, reignited year after year, feel like a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past,” said Gina Cornejo, a multidisciplinary artist whose work includes music, dance, storytelling and film.
Much like Goforth, Cornejo grew up surrounded by the arts, though her childhood home in Wisconsin grooved to a tune of a different rhythm. The daughter of a Peruvian mariachi singer and a professional jazz dancer, Cornejo recalled family holidays filled with music and artistic expression: “Someone picks up a guitar and starts to play, or someone puts on music and starts to dance. I wanted to recreate that same feeling on stage, to open up our home and share our traditions — which may be a little different than what this community might normally see.”
To add new depth to her performance, Cornejo asked Peruvian-born friend and musician M A R to collaborate on the project’s creation and to accompany her on stage for its debut at Solstice. M A R was able to take Cornejo’s idea for the personal vignette, incorporate additional themes from Peruvian holiday traditions, and infuse the story with live, multi-instrumental music.
“I just knew M A R could bring so much life to this piece, and what we’ve ended up with is a showcase of Peruvian musical styles set to stories of family traditions — traditions that have been passed down from our parents and grandparents, through the generations, and carried from the Andes Mountains all the way to Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Stone, Cornejo and M A R are the latest additions to join the robust lineup of A Swannanoa Solstice veterans, which this year includes Goforth, renowned multi-instrumentalist Robin Bullock, old-time musician and dancer Phil Jamison, professional Highland bagpiper E.J. Jones, Asheville folk artist Zoe & Cloyd and musician and event emcee Doug Orr. The annual holiday celebration of culture, heritage and community will, for the 20th year, warm the stage at downtown Asheville’s Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, with performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18. For tickets or more information, visit worthamarts.org.
IF YOU GO
What: A Swannanoa Solstice
When: 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Dec. 18
Box Office: 828-257-4530 Ext. 1