Local musicians thank him during their shows and credit him in the liner notes of their CDs. One artist described him as a "spiritual advisor" while another acknowledged him as a co-songwriter. And it was Emmylou Harris who christened him the "Renaissance Man of Raleigh, North Carolina."
With such a mystique surrounding Van Alston, it's no shock to find that he has his hands in about everything that is alt-country in Raleigh. He's the co-owner of the Comet Lounge, a gritty musicians' hangout on Hillsborough Street, next door to the Brewery. He's the co-proprietor of the Lakeside Lounge, a swanky little bar and music venue downtown. And he's the CEO and co-owner of the local record label Rice Box Records. Needless to say, he's got it going on.
One would hardly expect such entrepreneurial fervor from someone whom Ryan Adams describes as "a 30-something Linus from Peanuts ... [whose dress] is like a Picasso in a barber shop." But Alston's jovial and innocently disheveled exterior belies the hard-line businessman beneath.
As far back as 1987, when the inchoate stirrings of the alt-country movement were just beginning to be felt in the Triangle, Alston was already backing Raleigh's music scene. That year he booked what was the first incarnation of the Backsliders at Kisim's, a little bar he managed on Hillsborough Street. At the time, the band was called Pokin' Yoko. Alston remembers Chip Robinson, the lead singer: "We were talking and the name Joe Ely came up and Gram Parsons and he was, at the time, one of the only people I had ever met who had: (a) heard of Joe Ely and; (b) liked him. So, Chip and I really hit it off."
That was obviously the beginning of a lasting friendship, for it was Chip Robinson who, 12 years later, named Alston as his "spiritual advisor" on the Backsliders' CD, Southern Lines. And though Alston claims to have no musical talent whatsoever, stating, "If I knocked over a stack of guitars it would be like the tree in the forest, not a one of them would make a noise," he is, nevertheless, well remembered for his one-time performance with Chip Robinson and the Backsliders at the Brewery during S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest.
Alston and the Backsliders had just driven 32 hours straight through from Louisiana, where the band had recorded Southern Lines. In a state of delirium, Alston committed to playing the tuba on one of Robinson's songs, even though he hadn't picked up the instrument in almost 20 years. When all he could find was an E-flat tuba, which he didn't know the fingering on, he opted for something simpler. He decided he would shake boxes of Comet Rice like maracas. Half-embarrassed and half-amused, Alston recalls, "I was caught up with being on stage--got my wrap-around sunglasses on, trying to act cool--and I missed my big shaky thing." Robinson laughed and said, "That's all right. I'll bring it around again." So Robinson brought it around again and Alston got to do his big shaky thing. Alston's performance debut has since become a community hallmark. In fact, it's inspired both his Internet handle, "boxofrice," and the name of his fledgling record label, Rice Box Records.
It was back in the early 1990s, when the Backsliders were picking up speed, that other alt-country artists like Ryan Adams of Whiskeytown had started to break out. Alston remembers, "Yeah, I knew him back when he was sneaking into the bar at the Comet. I was throwing Ryan out of there until he turned 21." Well, Alston sure isn't throwing him out anymore. Alston claims, "more than half the songs on Ryan's new album [Heartbreaker] were written on my living room floor." And two of the songs, "Bartering Lines" and "Come Pick Me Up," were actually co-authored by Alston.
It was through his close friendship with Adams that Alston first met alt-country icon, Emmylou Harris. Flattered as all hell, Alston recounts: "She grabbed my arm and said, 'Gosh, I sure like those songs you wrote on Ryan's record. I hear you own a bar in Raleigh and you're going to open one up in Nashville. You're just like the Renaissance Man of Raleigh, North Carolina.'"
Harris was referring to the Lakeside Lounge, which opened in downtown Raleigh on tax day of 1999. That evening's playlist included Hazeldine, Whiskeytown (minus Ryan Adams), the Backsliders, Patty Hurst Shifter, Tres Chicas, the Bottle Rockets, Peter Blackstock (the editor of No Depression) and some folks from the Black Crowes. "It was a star-studded type deal," says Alston.
Since that grand gala, the Lakeside Lounge has served as a stepping stone for countless Triangle and touring alt-country acts. "We give anybody a shot [and] we usually give people a second chance, if they want constructive criticism," Alston says. No matter who is playing, however, there is always a feeling of camaraderie. "I hear it over and over. It's the one place that they feel comfortable," he claims. And it's more than just a place to play. The Lakeside Lounge has become the center of a musical community. Kenny Roby, formerly of Six String Drag, Chip Robinson of the Backsliders, and Mikey Ross, from the band Brown, all work at the Lakeside.
Eight years ago, alternative country music in Raleigh was a smoldering spark but Van Alston fanned the fire and now it's in full blaze, making it Raleigh's most happening music scene. Alston continues to encourage the music he loves by booking shows at the Lakeside Lounge, signing fresh talent to Rice Box Records and even offering up his living room floor.
"You know, my house is used as a flop pad by everybody who's coming through town," he says. "There is nothing better than waking up in the middle of the night and hearing music coming from your living room and walking out there and seeing Chip and Alejandro [Escovedo] and Kenny Roby and Ryan Adams ... You know, the people that have played in my kitchen are just phenomenal. I just feel really, really, really lucky."