Charleston long has had a reputation for being a sleepy town when it comes to popular music, conducive to the solo singer-songwriter types and cover bands, but not really a vibrant “scene” that cultivates edgy original music.
That’s all changing.
With an increasingly robust second tier of music-friendly clubs and bars, Charleston is becoming known as the pop music hub of South Carolina, according to several musicians and managers. One of the bars at the center of the action is The Royal American. Others, such as Tin Roof, The Sparrow in North Charleston and, now, the Commodore, are adding breadth and depth to the indie scene.
And it’s not just the growing number of good venues that’s raising the musical profile of Charleston. A local record label, Hearts & Plugs, has become the star at the center of this pop-music solar system. Another label, Shrimp Records, provides a platform for local musicians such as Bill Carson, Joel Hamilton and groups like Shovels & Ropes and Punks & Snakes.
“Charleston has been a magnet for talent (recently),” said Tony McKie, who manages the music-friendly Home Team BBQ locations in West Ashley, downtown and on Sullivan’s Island. “In the ’80s and ’90s, people took a chance by moving to L.A. or Nashville. Now that’s starting to happen here.”
Adding substance to the local scene are Ohm Radio and WYLA, low-power stations with lots of original music programming, and people, including Mark Bryan of Hootie and the Blowfish, who are working to provide local musicians with more infrastructure and business acumen.
“It’s very progressive,” McKie said. “It’s Austin, Texas, 20 years ago.”
In the 1990s and into the 2000s, it was the Music Farm on Ann Street, the Windjammer on Isle of Palms, the Village Tavern in Mount Pleasant and Cumberland’s Pub and Grill downtown that hosted rockers most. And the success of the band Jump Little Children, which landed a record deal, inspired many musicians. For a while, it seemed like Charleston was heating up.
But then the music industry faltered and scaled back as digital formats became more popular and musicians increasingly could record on their own and market their own stuff. A new era was born.
Jump Little Children and a few other regional bands were dropped by their labels. The burgeoning scene had received a blow.
When John Kenney moved to Charleston in 2008 after three years in New York City, hoping to carve a musical niche for himself, he was a bit disappointed initially.
“It wasn’t a hip scene,” he said.
The Charleston Music Hall had not yet undergone its remarkable reincarnation at the hands of the ambitious Charles Carmody. It was dark most of the time. What good rock music there was could be heard occasionally at the Farm or at the Pour House on James Island.
Kenney needed a job, so he went to work managing Raval, a popular tapas and wine bar on Upper King Street. Raval closed in 2009. When its owners were preparing to open a rusty cantina on Morrison Drive, they asked Kenney to help.
The Royal American originally was meant to be a dive bar, but Kenney’s influence turned it into an edgy music venue, “a home for local musicians in Charleston,” he said.
It was too late to redesign the tiny stage, wedged into a space between the bar and a front entrance. But it wasn’t too late to install a great sound system and hire a talented sound engineer, Matt Zutell.
Kenney said his experience as a working musician informs his choices as a booking manager. He treats bands well, pays them fairly, supports local players and regularly exercises his discretion, preferring to book groups that perform original music.
The Royal American opened in early 2012, about the same time Hearts & Plugs got started. A year later, about half of the bands Kenney booked came from somewhere other than Charleston. Now he’s receiving 30 emails a day from agents, he said.
Last month, the bar was the site of the New Music Confab showcase, sponsored by Glassnote Records. The multi-band performances over two nights were part of a three-day event that brought together music industry professionals — agents, venue managers, record company executives, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists and others — for a series of discussions.
Another venue that’s helped make the area a destination for musicians is Awendaw Green, managed by Eddie White, who converted a barn along U.S. Highway 17 into a performance space 10 years ago. And for more than eight years, he’s organized “barn jams” featuring bands and solo artists of all kinds. In recent months, he has taken on music booking responsibilities for Palmetto Brewery and Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer.
Matthew Logan Vasquez is among the many nonlocals who have appeared at The Royal American and other venues here.
Vasquez is the frontman for the band Delta Spirit and a third of the band Middle Brother. But lately, the Austin resident with California roots has been touring as himself, promoting his loud new solo album “Solicitor Returns.” He appeared in Charleston on July 29.
“I think The Royal American is one of those one-in-a-million beach town venues,” he wrote in an email. “Cities in beautiful places don’t always produce the best music scenes, but I think Charleston is one of a few exceptions.”
The bar is “grimy in all the best ways,” he wrote. “I’m most certainly aiming to play Charleston as often as humanly possible. Charleston has always been a place that continued to surprise me over the past 10 years.”
Michael Quinn, a saxophone and guitar player, has been in Charleston for 11 years. He said it has been common for musicians to leave the area with hopes of finding success. But Charleston now has a substantial community of homegrown musicians.
“The thing that’s kept me here, as opposed to going to New York, is the quality of the musicians, and the density of the musicians,” Quinn said. “I think there’s something innate to this place and the people here.” It helps that the city boasts lots of cultural activities, beautiful surroundings, good food and other attributes, he added.
One indication that the music scene is maturing is all the genre-crossing and collaboration among players, Quinn said.
“There’s more now than ever,” he said. “I wish there was more of it. A lot of it has to do with infrastructure. Nothing can really happen without infrastructure. You can’t build houses without roads.”
Quinn said he thinks Charleston has plenty of room to grow.
“The town could use six more venues right now,” he said. “The more we have, the more opportunity there is for people to get heard, for people to get paid.”
When he started out in Charleston, it was the Pour House on Maybank Highway that did the most for him, he said. It had no deck at the time, but the club welcomed a variety of bands and styles, local and from off (and it still does).
Lately, Quinn has been playing a lot of funk and rock at the recently opened Commodore, which is quickly proving to be an essential addition to the popular music landscape.
“The Commodore rides a really cool line between a classic venue, club, dive bar, classy bar,” Quinn said. “It’s kind of nothing and everything at the same time.”
The Charleston popular music scene is vibrant enough now that Carmody, manager of the Music Hall, has organized a new monthly series of shows called “CMH Live” meant to showcase local and regional bands.
Dan McCurry, who runs the Hearts & Plugs label with his wife Megan Elger, said Charleston is developing a certain critical mass.
“People are more willing to stay, and I’m even seeing bands moving into town to be a part of this,” he said.
The High Divers relocated from Hilton Head, McCurry said. Danny Jones of Octopus Jones, a North Carolina band, moved to Charleston a few weeks ago. Clay Houle of Tedo Stone came from Atlanta.
The city’s music scene is beginning to generate its own light. As musicians settle here, or cycle through on tour, they encourage others to do the same. And the successes of bands such as Shovels & Rope and Susto provide needed encouragement, McCurry said.
He started his label in 2012, mostly to provide his own band, Run Dan Run, with a means to record and share music. Soon after, the band Brave Baby approached McCurry about a working arrangement, and things started to take off. Soon McCurry was paying more attention to the operation of the label than to his own music-making, he said.
“That was point when I realized this could be a bigger thing.”
Besides Brave Baby, Susto and Run Dan Run, the label works with a variety of musicians who tend to have in common a certain pop sensibility, McCurry said.
They include Michael Flynn, Johnny Delaware, Nic Jenkins, ET Anderson, Grace Joyner and Ashley Hopkins. Other bands on the label are The Lovely Few, Slow Runner, Hermit’s Victory, Gold Light and Elim Bolt.
McCurry said he’s not only curating music but distributing it strategically. For example, he’s working with the Commodore on a short-term residency, Tuesday nights in September, featuring bands on the label.
McKie, of Home Team BBQ, said when he started presenting live music (favoring original blues, bluegrass and Americana) in 2006, there weren’t many places combining food and entertainment. “So we took up the baton.”
Now things are hopping.
The West Ashley location remains the restaurant’s main space to hear original music.
Every Monday, it creates a “listening room” atmosphere for its Holy City Confessionals series, a live jam night hosted by Danielle Howle and Reid Stone (a musician who doubles as bar manager). It’s Charleston’s version of the Bluebird Cafe, a famous and famously small venue in Nashville that showcases upcoming singer-songwriters once a week.
“People can always count on us for a great band, a very talented band that probably no one has heard of,” McKie said. And they can count on high-quality production, too. “We don’t just throw the band in the corner. We make it happen.”
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