Brad Willis’ music column is right — but it’s also wrong


For years, I’ve tried to make myself stop and take a breath when I get angry. I’ve tried to make myself take a moment and put things in perspective. Is this really what I think it is? Should I investigate further before reacting? It’s been a struggle, but it’s something I’d like to be able to do.

So when I began reading Brad Willis’ column about Greenville’s music scene, a scene I’ve spent much of the last 10 years writing about, I told myself not to get angry. Read the whole thing. Read it again. Then read it again.

And I’m glad I did, because the main point of his piece is something I agree with. Greenville seems to be apathetic towards live, original music. There’s a lack of response to local and national bands that aren’t playing at the Peace Center or Bon Secours. I’ve been to countless shows at places like Gottrocks, The Radio Room, Smiley’s Acoustic Café, or Independent Public Ale House that pitted an incredibly talented band against a handful of people.

And I agree with his point that, in the wake of The Handlebar closing, there’s a hole that needs to be filled. A 500-1,000 seat venue near downtown would no doubt be great for music fans around the Upstate.

But the last section of the piece is something I cannot accept and cannot move past. To be fair, he’s speaking hypothetically about what people might say about Greenville if the situation doesn’t improve: “Greenville, S.C., is a wonderful destination for shopping, food, and outdoor life, but if you’re looking for a community that supports music, keep driving until you see the signs for Asheville. At least, that’s how I’d write it.”

To me, that stands not only as an example of the very apathy Willis is decrying, but also as the exact sentiment that’s going to keep Greenville’s music scene from ever becoming what it can be. Yes, The Handlebar is gone. And yes, it presented many great bands over the years. And yes, our scene is smaller now.

But I would argue that the musicians and venues are working harder than ever. Venues like Gottrocks in Greenville and The Spinning Jenny in Greer have extensively renovated their spaces, while the Radio Room and Smiley’s Acoustic Café are putting on three shows a night, in some cases seven nights a week, showcasing any and every kind of music you can think of. And that’s to say nothing of the work that Soundbox Tavern in Simpsonville and Ground Zero in Spartanburg are doing.

Musicians are creating weekly concert series’ and banding together in collectives and relentlessly promoting their shows on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else they can think to do so. They’re giving their music away for free and riding 10 hours in vans to play here. Some of this you know, some you may not.

And believe me, there are some weeks when the concert calendar looks mighty thin, and the bands I planned to interview stand me up, and I wonder if maybe we’re headed where Willis thinks we’re headed.

But does that mean the shows aren’t there, or that I’m not looking hard enough?  At what point does it become a music writer’s, or a music fan’s, turn to step forward and do some of the work? At what point does promotion and marketing and hustle need to be rewarded with a little searching, a little curiosity, and a little bit of effort? Is a music fan obligated to do that kind of legwork?

There might be an example in Willis’ column that gives us an answer.

Willis mentions Charleston’s Shovels & Rope, talking about how he attended the band’s packed Fall for Greenville performance a few years back. But does he know that Shovels & Rope played the Radio Room and, yes, The Handlebar first?

The point is that Shovels & Rope weren’t always Shovels & Rope. They were once a band in a van playing for a handful of people. That’s where bands you haven’t heard of become bands you’ve heard of. That’s where Jason Isbell becomes Jason Isbell, where the Avett Brothers become the Avett Brothers— small places like the Radio Room or The Wheel or Chicora Alley or The Spinning Jenny.

There’s also a rosy sense of hindsight here when it comes to The Handlebar. I’ve heard the lament at TedTalks and meetings and committees over and over again: Now that The Handlebar is gone, we can’t get certain bands to come here.

I worked at The Handlebar for three years in the early 2000’s. The truth of the matter is that for every sold-out show we had, for every Robert Earl Keen or Little Feat or Delbert McClinton, there was a show we missed out on because of what’s called a “proximity clause.” Once they’ve booked a band, venues like the Orange Peel often place restrictions on where in the region a band can play before or after, simply to make sure the venue sells as many tickets to as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s what any mid-sized venue is going to be up against if and when they open their doors here.

The point of all this is to ask, why not control what we can control? Right now: We’ve got a mid-sized venue 20 minutes down the road in Greer. It’s called The Spinning Jenny, and Jim Lauderdale, the cosmic-country-cowboy who graced The Handlebar stage many times, is playing there in May. Why not hop in the car and drive 20 minutes instead of an hour and a half?

Worried about a show starting late? Why not go to Smiley’s? Their shows run like clockwork starting around 6:30 p.m.

Do you love to dance? Why not check out Karma Grooves’ monthly electronic dance music shows at Independent Public Ale House?

Do you love punk rock? The Radio Room has a loud, fast, and angry band waiting for you.

And Gottrocks’ concert calendar over the next few months is packed with fun jazz, rock, and country.

To Brad, and those who feel like he does, I simply say, we’ve got you covered. Just take a chance. Give it a shot. The next big thing, the next Shovels & Rope, are playing somewhere in Greenville tonight, for around $10 or $5 or even free. Why not see them up close?


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