Raleigh's Ashley Stove was—and on the two albums it cut for Merge Records, is—a testament to late-'90s indie rock. Founded in 1992 by guitarists Ben Barwick and Matt Brown, the band soon grew to include drummer Billy Alphin and bassist Jennifer Walker, herself an alumna of early Merge band Erectus Monotone.
1999's New Scars and 2001's All Summer Long certainly reflect one of the era's dominant templates: fuzzy, casually strung guitar lines smeared with a mumbling melody. By the time All Summer Long arrived, the band had gotten sharper, smarter and more concise in its power-pop approach, but the foundation remained, even as the band added unexpected (even to them) nuances.
"I remember [local rock critic] Ross Grady writing somewhere, saying I injected Southern rock riffs into Ashley Stove's songs," says Jim Brantley, who joined the band at the tail end of the All Summer Long recording sessions, after Brown had moved west. "At the time, I sort of took offense because I wanted to be the cool indie rocker. Now, I think it's pretty cool."
Beyond the songs, though, the band struggled with the music industry's changing machinery. CD sales were beginning to dwindle as Napster gained prominence.
"It certainly didn't help," says Brantley. "It was at a point where CD sales, especially for emerging bands, were hurting, but we didn't have all the digital tools built yet."
Barwick concurs, adding that a steady live following pushed the band forward: "We never really sold a lot of records. We had good enough out-of-town shows to make it worthwhile. We were regionally known. Our local shows got to be pretty good. It wasn't like we were going to New York and packing clubs, but there got to be a group of people that seemed to follow what we did."
And, in retrospect, that's plenty.
"Being in a beat-up old Ford van that's barely safe to drive and just jumping in it and heading out across the country is an experience in itself," remembers Alphin.
Signing to Merge didn't hurt, either. Alphin calls it a "dream come true," a validation of their work. But as time wore on, the Stove started to burn out. "There was never any kind of, 'OK, we're breaking up,' discussion," says Brantley. But the band's dissolution began in 1999 when Ben Barwick married Jennifer Walker. He became a founding partner in the sorely missed Raleigh rock club Kings Barcade, and they soon began their family. As each member began to find new interests, the band simply dissolved.
"Each of us had things going on outside of the band," says Alphin, who moved from the Ashley Stove kit to The Rosebuds' throne. He played on their Merge debut before joining Chapel Hill staples Schooner, where he remains. "Just little stuff ... can take away from some of the time that you have to put in."
When Brantley's not consumed with his studies at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, he's "slowly but surely" working on a new record with his Durham quartet, Bull City, and engineering tunes for locals, including The Rosebuds' 2008 album for Merge, Life Like. Brown lives in Portland, Ore., and runs Bladen County Records, which released the self-titled debut by Triangle darlings The Love Language earlier this year.
Ben Barwick plays in Mommie, a family-friendly pop-rock band featuring members of The Connells, The Cherry Valence and Polvo, while Jennifer Walker-Barwick is gearing up for this week's first Erectus Monotone show since 1993.
But, like the documents of Ashley Stove's peak, the memories haven't faded quickly.
"We had some really crazy times in that band," says Barwick. "All of us being close friends, and going around and playing rock 'n' roll shows—it's pretty much the best you can do. That's what I remember."
Bryan Reed is a freelance music writer living in Charlotte and a former editor at The Daily Tar Heel.