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When Pastor Phillip Trees took over the old Feed and Seed in Fletcher, North Carolina, his plans were modest: first, remove two and a half tons of old TVs. Beat back the termites. And, if he was lucky, find some pews to bring in.

He had been preaching out of the public park for years at that point, and was happy just to have a roof over his head. "But a year later, after I started doing music in here—I play guitar during worship—I noticed the acoustics were wonderful," Trees recalls. "So I said hey, let's open the doors and have a venue."

He points out the floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the store. "Look at the Blue Ridge Mountains, right out the window. You're in a general store. What do you think you're going to do?"

"You're going to do bluegrass."

And boy, did he. The Feed and Seed now hosts bluegrass shows every Friday and Saturday, free of charge (the bands are paid by donation). More remarkable even than the music is the dancing: in front of the stage, audience members get up during every song, the jangle of clogging shoes accenting down-beats. No alcohol is served—it's a church, after all—but it's the best dance party in Fletcher.

Trees knew little about bluegrass as he began inviting bands to the venue, but what he's discovered has thrilled him. "The music is such a treasure," he says. "The catalogue of these songs—not only the history of what they teach, but of love lost, and cheat, and murder—it's life. But there's always a gospel song thrown in. And that's the hope. We stumbled onto that. I'd never theologically considered bluegrass music. But I realized, 'wait a minute—that matches exactly what I'm doing on Sunday.' The murder, cheating, and moonshining, and then a gospel song—that's what life is."

"The murder, cheating, and moonshining, and then a gospel song—that's what life is."

Some weekends that connection becomes even more pronounced, as bands that play on Saturday nights will stay over to lead Sunday morning worship. Trees credits the pull of the night-time reveries with expanding his flock: when his church took over the Feed and Seed in 2007, his congregation was thirty members. Now, it's four times that.

The congregation, in turn, helps to run the weekend show. They book the acts, they sell the one-dollar popcorn and keep the free coffee stocked, and they fill in emceeing and on the soundboards when Trees takes a rare vacation.

The gospel numbers are accorded special treatment on Fridays and Saturdays; everyone stands at attention with hats off. It's one beat in the rhythm of a Feed and Seed night. Slow songs are obvious, quicker songs beget fancier footwork. I've yet to see someone turn down a dance request. After each song, dancers sit respectfully in their pews before starting all over again when the next one begins.


Every weekend, Jeri Jerome and Perry Clayton pace the proceedings. Each song is a partner dance, with eyes locked: she in shiny shirt, often gold-trimmed, alert and wide-eyed; he in cowboy hat and ponytail, sanguine. The two met seven years back at a "Pickin' in the Park" event in nearby Canton, before Jerome knew how to dance in the mountain way. "I was from the West Coast," she explains. "I saw kids and 80-year-old men and women doing the same dance. And I thought, 'how cool is that?'"

"I was from the West Coast," she explains. "I saw kids and 80-year-old men and women doing the same dance. And I thought, 'how cool is that?'"

"And that's when she looked up and saw me," says Clayton with a laugh. He grew up in Sylva, forty minutes west, and so caught her up to speed. Now every weekend they dance the same dances that he grew up on.

Much of the crowd hails from their white-haired generation. The venue is older still. Built in 1920, it has housed a great many businesses in its near-century of life: it started out as a general store and kerosene distributor and became for many years an agricultural purveyor. When Pastor Trees took it over in 2007, it was four years removed from life as a ceramic shop and TV repair business.

Bill Moore, mayor of Fletcher from 1999 to 2017 and a regular Feed and Seed attendee, recalls growing up with the building as the largest grocery store between Asheville and nearby Hendersonville. That was decades before the town of Fletcher incorporated in 1989.

Despite having quadrupled in size since then to around 8000 people, Fletcher has no walkable downtown. Instead, Highway 25 cuts through, with retail strips dotting its sides. In a town without a true center of gravity, the Feed and Seed acts as a hub on weekend nights, a gathering place tailor-made for the community it serves. That means a space for celebration, for joy, in a town that Pastor Trees describes as having little else happening on weekend nights.

Trees has a simple test he uses to assess the Feed and Seed's community import. "If a church got hit by a Star Trek invisible beam, and the church disappeared on Monday—would the people realize it was gone on Tuesday?" he asks. "Would it take 'til next Sunday?

Trees has a simple test he uses to assess the Feed and Seed's community import. "If a church got hit by a Star Trek invisible beam, and the church disappeared on Monday—would the people realize it was gone on Tuesday?" he asks. "Would it take 'til next Sunday?

"If this place disappeared on Monday," he continues, "there'd be riots. Because people are already looking on the marquee: "Who's playing?" And then on Wednesday they're checking the website: "Who's playing?" And then on Friday, they're coming at 2 o'clock to park, to get here early enough. There'd be riots in Fletcher if this place disappeared!"

Ex-mayor Moore is thankful for the economic boon that influx provides Fletcher. "A lot of people fail to realize that on any given weekend the Feed and Seed will bring an average of 400 people to Fletcher," he says.

Even so, much of the audience hails from close by. Every week, a crowd of regulars arrives hours early to sit outside and chat before the shows begin. "It's a place you can go, and you can talk to friends and family, and meet somebody new," Moore says.


From behind a pulpit-turned-sound board, Trees reflects happily on the many functions of his venue. "This is actually supposed to be a pulpit: this is where I'm at. So Friday and Saturday nights, from four or five to ten, I'm here. Instead of a sermon, the pastor is serving sounds. And lights. It's got the connection: 'I saw the light, I saw the light'—Hank Williams. So I'm serving not from the front with a pulpit, but I'm more of a conduit. People come in: the door is open, it's free, there's no ticket.

"To serve the community with sound and light for a musical tradition and heritage of the area—it's a native art form, bluegrass, to the community, with our doors open—I love that."

The open doors and free entry foster a community with a wide embrace: musicians, cloggers, bluegrass fans, church-goers, locals, tourists.

"Fletcher's a better place with Philip Trees," says Moore. "Since he came on, we're a better town."

Trees, for his part, seems stunned at how the venue has come together, with each week another happy surprise. "I've been in the ministry 20 years now as a pastor. And it's been a renaissance for me, to do something for the community. And then final thing on Sunday, I get to teach a little sermon. It's been a neat thing for me.

"I would've crashed and burned like everybody else in the machine of church. This is the farthest thing from a machine. It's alive."

Sammy Feldblum

Sammy Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and reports across the southern half of the United States.