He’s probably not the first one you’ll notice on stage. His is a small white flame charisma, not a raging red burn.
Bill Carson is slight, bespectacled, quiet, perfectly content to show off his friends. He stands there, unassuming, behind his twangy hollow-body guitar.
So it might come as a surprise to discover that Carson is the primary force making all this music happen.
The music that’s happening — 8 p.m. Saturday at the Charleston Music Hall — is the Groundhog Day Benefit Concert, which raises money for the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.
This is the third time Carson has put the show together, with help from his The Opposite of a Train bandmates Nathan Koci and Ron Wiltrout. The first one was a 2010 songwriter showcase at the Memminger Auditorium. Last year, Carson did it again, and this performance might indicate that a tradition now is being established.
The concert features local musicians who regularly play jazz, pop, folk and new music around town (and elsewhere). This time around, the stage will be populated by Owen Beverly, Jack Burg, John Cobb, Michael Flynn, Clint Fore, Joel Hamilton, Kevin Hamilton, Rachel Kate Gillon, Jonathan Gray, Mark Sterbank, Lindsay Holler and Stephanie Underhill, along with puppeteer Will Schutze, who’ll make a special cameo appearance, and (of course) Carson, Wiltrout and Koci.
It’s an impressive feat that only a cool cat with round eye glasses and an axe could pull off.
“I think of Bill Carson as something of a modern-day Woodie Guthrie,” said Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey. “He is one of the keepers of the flame of folk and traditional music. ... Above all, Bill has impeccable musical taste, and that cannot be overstated. In relation to the Ground Hog Day concert, his choice of songs, musicians, instrumentation and arrangements all add up to an incredible evening of music. There are no missteps. He creates a cohesive whole that lovingly represents his idiosyncratic take on the American Songbook.”
The Groundhog Day tradition began with the idea to create a musical event to accompany an art show at the Halsey, but the concert morphed into a stand-alone fundraiser show. Carson is the curator.
But this is no ordinary fundraiser. This is a local exercise in hipness, a gathering of artists in the know, an assemblage of musicians familiar to one another and ready to groove.
Carson was born Oct. 12, 1976, in Baltimore and moved to James Island when he was 10. His father was a marine engineer working on commercial ships. Carson grew up around the creeks and attended James Island middle and high schools. He then enrolled at the College of Charleston, where he studied philosophy and art.
“I thought I’d be a philosophy instructor,” he said with a self-deprecating twinkle in his eye. “It’s easier to become a rock star.”
He went to work in Bob Hine’s glass shop on King Street while pursuing music and other interests. Five older sisters (Carson is the youngest of the siblings) had spun their favorite rock and pop records all those years growing up, and the music stuck in Carson’s ear. At around 11 years old, he picked up a guitar in the house and tried to learn a Led Zeppelin song.
Lessons followed, and he practiced the bass guitar, too, for a while. Music became increasingly important.
Eventually, he hooked up with the OneBeat project sponsored by the U.S. State Department and produced Found Sound Nation (the social engagement arm of the new music group Bang on a Can). OneBeat is a cultural exchange program that brings musicians from around the world together for intensive collaboration and a tour.
“That kind of stuff, I found it rewarding,” Carson said. “So I started thinking about teaching.”
Serious, daytime teaching. In a school. With youngsters. Resulting in a paycheck.
He started volunteering in a friend’s Montessori classroom. “I just loved it,” he said. Then he started training in the Montessori method about two years ago. Then he got his first real job, as an assistant teacher at Murray Lasaine Elementary School on James Island, working with Julie Hund.
“He is very kind to the students,” Principal Sherry Peterson said. “He’s always here, he’s one of those guys who quietly does his job. I like how he treats the children.”
Hund and Carson have 22 primary students and always tag-team in order to give the kids sufficient individual attention. They collaborate regularly, discussing the game plan, sharing observations, Hund said.
About six years ago, Carson decided to collaborate with Jameela Goudarzi. Now they’re married. Goudarzi came to Charleston from Landrum to go to college and train as a nurse. They met at a reggae dance party. Today she works in the intensive care unit at the Medical University Hospital.
Carson’s new CD, “Mockingbird Mockingbird,” features mostly traditional songs, along with a few originals written by friends. This is Carson’s eighth collection of recorded tunes.
Now he’s teaming up once again with many of the artists he’s known for so many years. At the hot center of the Groundhog Day concert will be The Opposite of a Train, which got its start in 2008 by accident, sort of.
Pure Theatre was mounting a production of “Eurydice” by Sarah Ruhl, and Carson, Wiltrout, Koci and Nick Jenkins contributed incidental music. The script called for three people to play The Stones, a sort of Greek Chorus. Carson, Wiltrout and Koci were assigned the parts.
“They tricked us,” Wiltrout said. “They said it would be just music with a few lines.” Instead, they were on stage for stretches of time, in a resting position. They were rocks.
One of the characters, pointing to the three rocks, observed that they looked like the opposite of a train. The phrase burrowed into the boys’ brains. Koci wanted to record the incidental music, Wiltrout said, so later that year, they issued a CD and called it “The Opposite of a Train.”
“It wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t rock, it wasn’t folk, but it had elements of all those things,” Wiltrout said. “It was a document of our friendship.”
The friendship actually started five years earlier, in a dirty bar where Cary Ann Hearst was performing with her band, Borrowed Angels. Wiltrout, a University of South Carolina graduate who moved to Charleston in 2003, first met Carson in that bar, and he knew other local musicians, such as Jonathan Gray, Quentin Baxter, Kevin Hanley and Kevin Hamilton.
“I wanted to be in their world,” Wiltrout said.
Now the cohort is almost inseparable. Wiltrout often has played with Carson and all the others. And even though Carson’s oeuvre isn’t jazz, he plays his brand of American pop in jazzlike ways, with an easy-flowing improvisatory lilt, Wiltrout said. “He just has a natural feel for it.”
“He’s one of the most quiet, morally centered people I know, but he also likes to make crazy noises with his guitar.”
On Saturday, the noise will rise up at the Music Hall. The only question is whether it will draw the groundhog from its hole.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.