Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Asheville may not be as famous as another similar-sounding city in Tennessee, but it still holds its own unique music history. The soil of Western North Carolina has long proven fertile for bluegrass music, with people like Bill Monroe and, later, Doc Watson cultivating the development of “mountain music.” Into the present day, the city enjoys a symbiotic relationship between its many craft breweries and its pulsating live music scene. However, even in this city of close to 100,000 with such a noteworthy musical history, there was one thing it still lacked: a professional rehearsal space. Enter Claude Coleman Jr.
Coleman is known primarily for his quarter-century tenure as drummer for the genre-defying band, Ween. With his band off the road, he turned his full attention to his adopted community of Asheville where he opened SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s alongside business partner Brett Spivey in December 2020.
“It’s going to be pretty much the first one of its kind,” Coleman tells Live For Live Music by phone. “There are no practice spaces, where in every other town they’re pretty abundant, and I’m accustomed to using them everywhere across the country, different parts of Europe even. But for some reason not in Asheville, especially with being such a predominantly heavy arts and music town and a tourist town where the music industry is close to half the product output of the tourism dollars is music. For some reason, there was just never anyone either crazy and foolish enough to take it onto themselves to try to create this resource for the music community.”
Though SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s is the first business of its kind in the city, Coleman hopes to accomplish more than just provide musicians with a place to practice. Just below the surface of SoundSpace lies a deep cultural history that stretches back over half a century to the legacy of Black-owned businesses in Asheville.
Formerly known as Rabbit’s Motel, the tourist motor court served a vital purpose for Black travelers in the segregated South. Opened in 1948 by Fred “Rabbit” Simpson, Rabbit’s Motel served Black families and entertainers alike at a time when not all lodging was open to them. With a beloved soul food kitchen as well as state-of-the-art amenities, Rabbit’s Motel became a crown jewel of motor lodges in the South until it closed in 2002. Though Coleman originally happened upon the former site of the motel by accident, he became enamored once he learned about the plot’s hallowed history.
“I spent all night looking into the history of the property and the history of the surrounding neighborhood and how they related to these other Black communities in Asheville, which were really prosperous, thriving, business-minded communities that were full of Black families and Black residents that were doing very, very well for themselves,” Coleman says. “So there was all this history connected to this place that I delved into the night after I had found it, and after my realtor told me to write a letter, if we really wanted it, so I did.”
Coleman’s passion for the history of Rabbit’s Motel paid off: the day after Coleman wrote the letter, the seller prioritized Coleman and Spivey over two separate cash offers to buy the property.
Whereas Coleman’s original mission was to merely create a rehearsal space for himself and his fellow musicians in Asheville, the concept had now ballooned to one that would affect the entire community.
“I was really impassioned and I had the whole idea in my mind, I wanted to restore the property,” Coleman explains. “I wanted to create this landmark of it and do murals to the building and just create this destination and this sort of hub of culture to pay tribute to this history and try to reconnect people to this history.”
Among the many new ideas for the expanded vision of SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s was to create murals honoring the many Black figures who had stayed at Rabbit’s including first-ever Black NASCAR driver Wendell Scott, as well as members of baseball’s Negro leagues. Coleman also has plans to revive the soul kitchen that made Rabbit’s Motel a destination for Black travelers throughout the latter half of the 20th century up until its closure in 2002. The soul kitchen drew its fair share of famous visitors as well, such as comedian Richard Pryor, R&B artist Jackie Wilson, and many more who will also be immortalized with murals.
“On top of the rehearsal studios, we’re going to recreate the soul food kitchen, which was in the front building of it, which was loved by everybody in the city,” Coleman notes. “And there’s a lot of people in Asheville now that are familiar with it and went to it.”
While Rabbit’s Motel once sat in a mecca of fellow Black-owned businesses, the neighborhood has changed considerably in the intervening years. Over the past several decades, Asheville, like many other cities across the country, has seen the implementation of “Urban Renewal.” This strategy, though supposedly well-intentioned by many local governments, has seen the devastating effect of driving out minority-owned businesses, and Asheville is no different.
“There were these prosperous, thriving Black communities, Black business communities,” Coleman explains. “And then they redlined their neighborhoods and took their land and confiscated it and evicted them. And that happened in Asheville to a really harsh degree. It was over a period of like 20, 30 years. They redlined these areas and districts and all of these communities were just decimated and split up and just torn apart. So yeah, what it represents is a lot more than just a jam room for the both of us.”
Just like his intentions for the space occupying 109 McDowell Street in Asheville snowballed into a much larger mission, Coleman also hopes that his presence as a Black business owner in the neighborhood will create momentum for fellow entrepreneurs.
“So there’s going to be two Black-owned businesses where there was zero and with the murals project and just the overall creation of a landmark. I’m hoping that it’ll inspire and encourage other people to kind of, you know, ‘Maybe I can get a piece of dirt over here. Maybe I can get a piece of dirt over there,'” Claude muses.
In the time since Coleman opened SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s last year, he has seen his celebrity in the community increase past just the point of being a famous musician. At a time when the city of Asheville, and the United States as a whole, seeks to amplify the representation of minority-owned businesses, Coleman has found himself as an unlikely poster child for a progressive economic movement.
“It feels like I’m carrying like a flag of coolness and of deep, deep meaningfulness and importance,” Coleman reflects. “At the same time, yes, it’s a lot of pressure in a way that I’m happy to carry and deal with, but I certainly didn’t expect it. I mean, it’s like a city’s energy being funneled through my intentions and it can get a little overwhelming at times and it’s a funny place to be in promoting it so much and having so many people want to know about it and promote it and help me do that while at the same time, figuring out how we’re going to afford our loan payments for this month.”
While COVID-19 continues to keep the Asheville music community at a safe distance, Coleman is cooking up ways to keep the music alive. Later this year, he plans to kick off SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s Live, a lineup of music programming designed to highlight underrepresented voices in the music community.
“It’s going to be kind of like Tiny Desk meets Afro-punk kind of vibe,” Coleman said. “Definitely want to feature a lot of different styles of Black artists, not just one or the other, because there are lots of different styles and genres within the Black music artists and what they’re doing, as well as from women artists and other minority artists. And it won’t feature only minority artists, it’ll feature a kaleidoscope of other artists in town.”
For now, you can find Claude Coleman Jr. hard at work at SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s, amplifying a voice in the Asheville music community that was in danger of falling silent.