Ashland Coffee & Tea provides musicians and fans with a civilized alternative to a smoky bar. 

Java and Jive

Musicians are always searching for new, inviting venues, and during the past year or two, a growing number of Richmond-based groups have discovered a great little performance place that is free of self-consciously hip crowds and unnecessary late-night hours.

Where is it? In the Bottom or tucked away on the North Side? Maybe it's in the West End — or is the South Side home to this new joint with a promising vibe? Surprisingly, this new hot spot is in the quiet little town of Ashland, 30 minutes north on Interstate 95, where Ashland Coffee & Tea has become a favorite spot for bands and music fans.

"This is the place I've been waiting for all my life," says Burnt Taters drummer George Garrett. "[Audiences] want to enjoy the music. They want to be entertained … it makes it so easy."

Singer-songwriter Susan Greenbaum, another regular performer at the 125-seat, smoke-free venue by the railroad tracks in the heart of downtown Ashland, is also complimentary of the crowds and the space. "There's nothing I don't like about Ashland Coffee & Tea … It's amazing," she says. "[Audiences] really listen."

Local folks have been listening there since the original coffee shop at 100 N. Railroad Ave. expanded into an adjacent space in late 1998. By early1999, co-owners Jim and Mary Leffler and Kay Landry were using the new space as a music room. The Burnt Taters soon made it a regular stop on their circuit, and growing numbers of locals found the shop a great place to gather at night, as well as to grab some java during the day.

Now, with regular visits by a host of bands, including the Taters, Greenbaum, Page Wilson and Reckless Abandon, Johnny Hott and the Piedmont Souprize, Rodeo Clown, the Earthtones and others, Richmonders are making the trek north.

Jim Leffler is excited about the growing popularity of the room as a listening spot. A music fan himself, Jim wanted to feature live music at the shop from the business' first days in 1996. Inspired by the success of the music room, the Lefflers, Landry and Business Promotional Manager B.J. Kocen are now booking national acts. In about six months, Leffler says he hopes to regularly present two national acts a month. This month, country blues guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps plays Thursday, April 12, (see sidebar) and singer-songwriter Todd Snider appears Thursday, April 19. Snider's show is already sold-out.

"It's really good," Leffler says of business, the emerging music scene and the new national-act lineup. "It's a good mix of folks who come out to hear music in the room … The setting itself … to be able to see [national acts] in the intimate environment is going to make a difference."

Of course, there's much more than the music. With its welcoming mismatched couches and the homey décor of the coffee-service area, and the lengthy menu of sandwiches and light fare, the shop was already a community gathering point for many young Ashland professionals and older residents. But with bands in the music room on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, folks can now bring their families for a night out. Mom and dad can relax with a couple of beers while the kids play chess or computer games, listen with their parents or hang out with their friends. Music starts about 8 p.m., so an older crowd doesn't have to wait until midnight for things to get going.

"We go as a family with our boys, who are ages 8 and 12, but we're likely to see our 18-year-old daughter sometime during the evening," explains longtime Ashland resident and shop regular Dearing Gaddy. "You can hardly go there without seeing somebody you know real well … It's truly a multigenerational thing."

Doreen Croson is another enthusiastic regular. "The music … is absolutely unbelievable," she says. "I can't stay away."

Whether the singles, couples and families of all ages who come seek coffee, friendship or music, Ashland Coffee & Tea fills a need in a quiet town and a region where good coffeehouses and listening venues are numbered. It's clear that a number of area musicians see the room is a welcome alternative to playing a smoky bar. Taters drummer Garrett sums up his viewpoint succinctly. "I think this room is going to be a big deal."


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