Inspiration struck over a bowl of rice and beans. In 2006, bartender Sandlin Gaither, of the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, looked up from pouring a pint and noticed the Tennessee-born Americana singer, Will Hoge, eating a simple supper before his performance that night. “It occurred to me that this should be a photo,” Gaither says. “Instead of him on stage, which anyone could get, here was this moment—just me and him.”
Gaither had dashed from behind the bar to snap quick live shots with his point-and-shoot camera before. But that moment ten years ago made him rethink his approach to photographing the musicians who play the low-key venue—and prompted him to buy a better camera.
Today, Gaither has photographed a decade of performers—more than 250—at the Grey Eagle, and the photos line the walls leading to the music room. His hobby has also blossomed into a career: He now photographs bands across the country for album covers and editorial pieces in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and Entertainment Weekly. But he still returns home to tend bar in Asheville and capture images of music’s up-and-comers. We chatted with Gaither about some of his favorite shots, memorable performers, and what keeps him going.
On capturing the moment: “I’m trying to draw out someone’s personality. I ask them to pose or tell them a joke, and it’s that split second after when they come into this moment at ease. That’s what I’m going for.”
On a favorite memory: “I wanted to do a documentary-style image of Jason Isbell after being inspired by a photo of Bruce Springsteen taken by Danny Clinch. I told Jason to look like he was writing a song, so he fired up the obligatory cig and I spent a few minutes with him in the green room of the Grey Eagle as he strummed and played his guitar. This type of intimate interaction with the artists is probably why I still work at the Grey Eagle after all these years.”
On an iconic shot: “Former Grey Eagle owner Jeff Whitworth encouraged me to climb up on the roof and take this shot of Vic Chesnutt, looking down on him among the dead orange leaves that carpet our outdoor patio every autumn. Between the fading light and my precarious position from the roof, I was able to pop off about six shots. Sadly when Vic took his life two years later, this was the shot that accompanied the news all over the media, and has become my most popular image to date. Every season when the leaves fall and cover the patio, it makes me think of Vic.”
On being both a bartender and a photographer: “The artists see me behind the bar, pouring beers and carrying kegs. When I sit down with these people to take a shot, they don’t see me as a photographer who has come to be invasive, but one of the guys. It’s real. There’s no pressure to create an album cover.”
On the motivation to keep going: “All these musicians are different. They have stories to tell in their character and their songs. I’ve been documenting the Grey Eagle for so long… I thought I would have a book called 10 Years at a Music Hall, but now it’s been more than ten years. I’m getting old and the kids are getting younger. I don’t know how long the bartending is going to last, but as long as the music lasts in Asheville, I will be taking photos.