It’s a cold night, but that hasn’t prevented about 150 people from coming to the Wednesday Barn Jam. They’ve bundled up and lit fires. On stage, the guitar players extend their fingers to the outdoor heaters that can’t quite throw enough warmth across the stage.
Eddie White greets friends and patrons, then hops to the mic to introduce the next band. A Great Dane frolics with a black Lab by one of the fire pits.
White, a local dentist, has that recessive gene that causes uncontrollable conciliatory impulses. The unfortunate man also harbors a chronic infection, the result of a music bug bite he received long ago, but which in the last dozen years or so has proven quite contagious.
In 2007, after buying some land in Awendaw where he could retreat into the woods in order to protect the greater community from his ailments, White’s conciliatory impulses asserted themselves, causing him to organize informal concert events that drew people to his enclave. Naturally, so many people having fun together in close quarters made it easy for the music virus to find multiple hosts.
Flash forward 11 years and Awendaw Green is a thriving music venue in the northern reaches of the Charleston area, luring hundreds of infected people to the Wednesday night Barn Jams, and always some whose clean bill of health gets sullied.
The shows feature as many as eight bands, some local and many touring, that play short sets of original material. It’s a singer-in-the-round format, according to White.
“I’m just saying ‘yes’ to artists who don’t normally get to play Charleston,” he said. “We find it’s a nice steppingstone event.”
Musicians get to play the Green on Wednesdays, then a regular urban venue in the days that follow.
“We bring talent to the area, then the artists can do other things,” White said, in that typical conciliatory, selfless way of his. He just wants to bring people together, he said. And hear good music.
Filling a need
Wyatt Espalin is among the many musicians who keep coming back to Awendaw Green. He will play a set Wednesday, Feb. 6, joined by his pal, local guitarist Michael Jones.
Espalin is a singer-songwriter from Hiawassee, Ga., who spends a lot of his time in Nashville these days when he’s not on the road. He plays guitar and fiddle, and likes to collaborate on stage with various musicians he knows, such as Jones.
“I’m always writing songs and very well known for sharing something new almost every show,” he said.
That’s what he’ll do at the Barn Jam. He just penned a bunch of songs, and he plans on spending Tuesday afternoon before the gig with Jones so his buddy can learn them. This will be Espalin’s fifth appearance in Awendaw.
He said the Barn Jam fills a need: Wednesdays usually are slow nights in the music biz, and it’s great to play in a relaxed environment before an appreciative audience, trying out material and meeting other musicians.
It’s a lot like the campground concerts his granddaddy organized when he was a kid, setting up a couple of stages — one for music, one for clog dancing — and cooking his famous barbecue. (Espalin and his brother were champion cloggers back in the day.)
At Awendaw Green, it’s wood-fired pizzas and local oysters, but the vibe is similar enough, Espalin said.
“(Eddie White) always gives me a prime slot, I sell a lot of merch and the people are very supportive. It’s a great community. One thing that’s always happened when I’ve played there: I’ve enlisted one (member) or parts of other bands to play with me. I’ve got a couple of songs that are simple to learn on the fly.”
Joining Espalin in the Feb. 6 lineup are Nathan Evans Fox, The CarLeans and C2 & The Brothers Reed.
Since the beginning of this ingenuous enterprise, White’s pal and patient, graphic designer Gil Shuler, has created the poster art. Every week. For 11 years now. Like clockwork. Shuler’s made around 600 posters for Awendaw Green, and about 125 of the best ones are being assembled in book form.
“It’s something we’ve talked about for years,” White said of the book project. “Finally, he’s taking the plunge.”
The process is simple: Every Tuesday, White emails Shuler the lineup and links to YouTube videos of the musicians.
“He looks, and spits it out, and it’s just golden every single time,” White said.
Shuler said he’s always loved making art for musicians, and poster art specifically, so the Barn Jams provide an opportunity he can’t resist.
“It’s great for me as a creative outlet where I don’t have anybody telling me what to do,” he said.
Sometimes he’ll land on a particular image or idea, then develop a set of variations over the course of a few weeks. Guitar picks have appeared as a leitmotif. In one image, Shuler referenced the rural setting of Awendaw Green with the image of a watermelon whose many black seeds were shaped as a pick.
Or he’ll play with the semantics of the “Barn Jam,” creating posters that use the image of a jam jar. Or he’ll arrange guitar necks into the shape of a snowflake for a wintertime date, or use images from nature, six thin trees and a big round moon for example, to represent the body of a guitar.
“I try to make everything relate to live music in the country,” he said.
For the book, Shuler solicited the curatorial assistance of Halsey Institute Director Mark Sloan, a frequent collaborator who helped choose the posters and who wrote an essay. The volume, which likely will appear by summer as a $25 paperback, also will include an interview with Shuler and White and a few non-Barn Jam poster images.
Keeping things real
In the last couple of years, White has extended his musical reach, presenting bands in other, more urban venues. But Awendaw Green remains the center of his musical universe.
He said the Barn Jams are on rain or shine, and just about every Wednesday throughout the year. The original location has become a sort of commune. This is where Artist-in-Residence Danielle Howle helps to “keep things real,” and it’s where a few chickens and goats meander about.
White’s “Swamp House” 30 miles north in the Francis Marion National Forest provides shelter for traveling artists.
Derek Willis has been attending the Barn Jams since the beginning — and helping set things up.
“I’m in Eddie’s Army,” he said.
He’ll chop wood in the winters so patrons can gather around pit fires to keep warm. He’ll help organize Awendaw Green’s annual Bluegrass Festival (the next one is March 29-30 at the Charleston Woodlands, 2479 Ashley River Road). And he’ll assist Howle with the 600-kilowatt solar-powered Swamp Sessions at White’s Swamp House. Howle will host a songwriter retreat there Feb. 15-17.
The house is off the grid, and meant to assist musicians struggling to succeed against the odds, Willis said.
Awendaw Green succeeds in some measure thanks to the generosity of Sewee Outpost, the comprehensive country store on whose property White and his army have set up their stage and gathering space under the oak trees. It’s a little reminiscent of the South’s old pickin’ parlors or hidden Chitlin’ Circuit venues. Admission is $5, and the social vibe is loose and friendly. Dogs are common. Babies nod off in their strollers. Bearded and flannel-clad young men sip brews. Business people hop off their merry-go-round to chill with friends for an evening. Shrimpers from McClellanville stop by, mingling with MUSC doctors. And the diversity of the musical offerings tends to draw a relatively mixed audience.
Keith Grybowski, another in Eddie’s Army, said he’s worried about real estate development in the area and rising land values. Little by little, the sprawl of suburban Mount Pleasant is sending tendrils up Highway 17 into Awendaw. It’s uncertain for how much longer this will remain “country.” And it’s uncertain for how much longer Awendaw Green can hold out here.
But for now, all is well. The bands play. The people come. White bends over backwards to make everybody happy. He’s not motivated by the opportunity to profit from this enterprise. In fact, he sometimes loses money when an insufficient number of fivers are slapped down at the entrance (rainy days are the worst). White always pays the bands.
So Awendaw Green is not so much a commercial venue, or a concert series; it’s more of a comprehensive, multidimensional endeavor meant primarily to aid musicians and please patrons. And there’s pizza, so …
“I don’t really know why it works, it just does,” White said. “I don’t take it very seriously, but it’s a serious experience.”