A haphazard web of antique clocks, family photos, mismatched pots and pans, kids’ drawings and old Christmas cards cover the cabin’s thick, wooden walls. Only a series of large windows facing the swamp interrupts the sea of knickknacks with rays of afternoon sunlight.
The doorway is flanked by bookshelves, which are near-capacity with stacks upon stacks of CDs. On one end hangs a drumhead scrawled with a message in black marker that reads: “THANKS EDDIE, FROM BRAVE BABY,” followed by five signatures.
Electrical cords crisscross the floor, past the kitchen table made out of an old tree trunk. They stretch to microphones and amplifiers crammed around the drum kit, the electric piano and the four members of the High Divers.
They’re playing loud and “just shooting off the cuff,” lead singer Luke Mitchell explains between songs, just before they lean into a slow tune with an a cappella chorus.
The band is the latest to take advantage of the so-called Swamp House on the edge of McClellanville. Dozens of South Carolina artists, including Cary Ann Hearst, Edwin McCain and Mark Bryan, have written and recorded music here over the past several years.
The solar-powered cabin — about an hour’s drive up U.S. Highway 17 through Mount Pleasant, then Awendaw, then a labyrinth of dirt roads — is on a hill at the tip of its own peninsula surrounded by a swampy forest.
There are no telephone or cable lines, and you can only find cell reception sometimes in one spot on the property.
How did this cluttered little cabin in the middle of nowhere become a hot bed of creativity? Two answers: the man who built it and the songwriter who stumbled upon its magic.
Eddie White knew early on he’d become a dentist, just like his father. He earned his degree from Furman University, started his career in Charleston, and for about 18 years, he’s run his own practice, Sewee Dental Care on S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant.
He always had a passion for the outdoors, too: kayaking, fishing, exploring the woods and building tree houses.
But music? That wasn’t exactly his thing.
“I don’t play an instrument and I was never that into music,” he said.
But everything changed about 12 years ago, when his son, Clay, joined his middle school band to play the trumpet.
“I started just supporting him and meeting musicians,” he said.
Soon, he was friends with people such as Dan Henderson and Mark Bryan, who were both heavily involved in the local music scene.
White started hosting house shows every once and a while, just so his son and his friends could play together for an audience. Soon, White’s support for his son’s talent extended to the whole community of local musicians.
In 2008, he and a group of friends started Awendaw Green, which is now the host of the weekly Barn Jam, an outdoor showcase of local and regional musicians on his property next to the Sewee Outpost. The not-for-profit series is supported by $5 donations collected at the gate, which helps pay the musicians and the energy bills.
“It’s simply something we do to enrich the original music community and the people that support it,” White said.
Danielle Howle, a singer-songwriter from Columbia, was part of the original team that put together the first Barn Jam.
Today, she’s Awendaw Green’s artist-in-residence, which is more than a job title. She lives in a small house on property owned by White adjacent to the Awendaw Green. She’s also the mastermind of “concepts that support the assets that Awendaw Green has and wants to develop,” she said.
Howle’s out-of-the-box creativity, combined with White’s dedication to supporting local musicians, is how the Swamp House became one of those coveted “assets.”
White purchased 100 acres in McClellanville in 1991, eager to own a “slice of wilderness” near a creek where he could camp, fish and kayak. He cleared the little peninsula surrounded by black water swamp and in the mid-1990s, started building the Swamp House with his own hands.
It was initially just a platform to camp on, then a little sleeping lodge run with a generator. Today, it’s powered by solar panels and it has running water. But it’s still like a “fish camp” as White puts it. There’s no central heating or air conditioning; the bathroom is an outhouse facing the swamp, with an outdoor shower nearby.
Until about six years ago, his wife and three kids were the only ones that visited, aside from a few groups of archeologists and scientists that used it to explore the area.
Then Howle went out there one weekend to record some demos, and later talked to Eddie about what an incredible experience it was, writing music in the calm seclusion of the swamp.
“I thought, why don’t we have other artists out there to record their stuff?” she said.
“And it was like, ‘Let’s get five or six artists up there, let’s do a series, and ... write some songs up there and just see what happens,” White said. “So it grew out of that moment.”
That original idea became known as Swamp Sessions, and about once or twice a year for six years, Howle has invited a group of musicians that don’t typically play together to spend a weekend up at the Swamp House to write and record music together.
“Swamp Sessions ... is just me bringing people together to make amazing music, make amazing energy and make amazing friendships happen,” Howle said. “It creates community, it strips you of everything ... so that your true artistic ability and identity can shine because you’re in a strange place with people you don’t normally hang with. And some of the recordings are insane.”
One of her all-time favorites was when Valorie Miller, a singer-songwriter from Asheville, and Joel Timmons of Sol Driven Train, played a blues song as a duet.
There are several low-fi recordings from the sessions that she hopes to release on album, or maybe a series of albums, in the next year or so. She said she’s still working out the details.
Since the series has taken off, Howle also started doing weekend-long songwriting workshops with small groups of all ages at the swamp about twice a year. She said it was particularly rewarding to work with a group of younger students recently.
“We didn’t use phones for two or three days. Some of the young people didn’t know what that was like,” she said. “I saw the change. They came into the present moment. People were dancing around, looking at trees, playing things on their guitar, making up stuff, using their brains to create instead of outside stimulus from electronic devices.”
Mitchell, the lead singer of the High Divers, said that’s one of the reasons the band wanted to use the house to write music for their next album.
“It’s easy to get removed out there because there’s no phones,” he said. “It’s surprising how peaceful it is. And you realize when you can’t use your phone how much time you’ve been spending on social media and all that stuff, and how nice it is to disconnect and just go full-speed ahead into your songs.”
White says he’s heard the same thing from all sorts of bands that have used the Swamp House for a little creative getaway.
“I don’t know what it is, there’s just this great energy about it,” he said. “You are your own worst enemy, and because there’s not anything going on beyond what you bring to it — it’s the simplicity that allows you to slow down a little bit.”
As a solo musician who’s toured the country for about 20 years, often by herself, Howle says the Swamp House offers her a sense of place.
“When I get to the Swamp House, it reminds me that I belong to the planet. That I’m not alone. I’m not in a world that doesn’t care about itself. I do belong here, I belong to everyone, and it helps me have greater compassion for human beings,” she said. “Music in general does allow us to have more perspective and more compassion. Melody, rhythm, and the truth are things that all humans have in common.”
White says that sums up exactly what he’s going for as a supporter of the local music scene.
“You validate people’s ability to feel like they belong, and that’s what we’re doing at Awendaw Green. It’s that belonging that I think is the important part.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.