THE YEAR 2020 was shaping up to be a good one for the Charlotte music scene.
Going into March, independent venues The Evening Muse and Neighborhood Theatre in NoDa had celebrated a run of sold-out shows. Uptown, the brand-new jazz club Middle C had hit its stride with its own string of sellouts. Charlotte’s largest venues, including four Live Nation-owned stages and the city-owned Bojangles Coliseum, Ovens Auditorium, and Spectrum Center were booking more shows than ever.
Any night of the week, you could experience high-quality, local, live music. Heck, pick a night, and you could hear live jazz, which, until the Bechtler started a monthly series 11 years ago, was kept on life support by the legendary Bill Hanna, who died in January. Once a month, at cozy Snug Harbor in Plaza Midwood, Elevator Jay, the bard of Beatties Ford, presided over Player Made, an Ode to Southern Rap. At Comet Grill in Dilworth, some of the city’s best bar bands lit up the place three or four nights a week. On Sunday afternoons, local and touring bands contorted themselves into a corner at iconic dive bar Thirsty Beaver and played for hours.
Recording studios were booked with sessions. Local artists in all genres worked on new material. Backup players joined big names on cross-country tours. Charlotte’s own Jonathan Kirk, better known as DaBaby, was on his way to a second straight Billboard No. 1 record.
For me, more than two years of work was starting to pay off. In late 2017, through my role at Charlotte Center City Partners, I helped launch an initiative called Music Everywhere CLT. Our long-term goal, building on a latent strength of Charlotte, is for music to become an essential element of this city. Through research, focus groups, a survey of 2,000 people, and work with a consultant, we produced something called The Charlotte Music Ecosystem Study and Action Plan. Nerdy, I know. Town halls and meetups followed. We have strategies to boost audience awareness, grow artist resources, develop the industry, ensure equitable outcomes, and organize the music community. All of that is the foundation. Atop it, a killer music scene can flourish.
At 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, I was scheduled to meet with a few folks in the music community at The Evening Muse. We were planning the first-ever Charlotte Music Week, a follow-up to Confluence, a music conference and festival that debuted at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in 2019. We were shooting for the week before the Republican National Convention in August. The concept: a conference during the day, with guest speakers from Charlotte and all over the country.
At night, artist showcases in venues all over town. It would be a regional draw, an attempt to establish Charlotte as a Southeastern hub for music.
I never made it to the Muse that afternoon. My week turned into a dizzying series of meetings with titles like “Public Health Strategy.” On Friday the 13th, I tucked my computer monitor under my arm and walked out of my office, not knowing when I would be allowed to return.
FROM 1994 TO 2016, while I worked at this magazine, I wrote or edited tens of thousands of words about the Charlotte music scene. I did it because music matters to me. I can neither play a lick nor sing a note, but some of the most memorable nights of my life have been spent inside local music venues.
I also did it because I think music matters to a city. People want to live in cities with lively cultural scenes. Companies want to be in those cities, so they can hire workers. Music is a growing industry. Every record made or concert produced helps create dozens of jobs. Increasing numbers of visitors want to come to cities with great music scenes, and they spend money when they are in those cities.
At a deeper level, music matters to a community. Music unites and inspires. Lord knows we could use some unity and inspiration.
At its core—and this is why I do the work I do—music is how a place expresses itself. Rock, jazz, blues, country, folk—all are American creations (in fact, all are African American creations), and each has its own vernacular particular to the area from which it emanates. Try to imagine New Orleans without jazz; New York without Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith; California without The Beach Boys. Memphis isn’t Memphis without Stax Records and a horn section. Without hip-hop, Atlanta has no soul. Bluegrass is the soundtrack to Western North Carolina.
Charlotte has long sought not only to define itself but to announce itself, and, well, I think that’ll be really hard to do without music.
So when COVID ripped out the city’s vocal cords, you’d have been forgiven for thinking: Game over. Except I’m hopeful. In fact, I’m more than hopeful; I’m optimistic—and you should be, too. The music community took some punches, sure, and they hurt like hell. But they weren’t knockout blows. Artists figured out ways to play. Charlotte showed up with financial and emotional support. Venues banded together.
It will continue to be hard. But Charlotte’s music community was busy building something last March, and we are far from finished.
THROUGHOUT THE 1990s AND 2000s, venues came and went. Bands surfaced, threatened to break through, then faded. The ’90s were promising. Charlotte’s first alternative-rock radio station, WEND 106.5 The End, promoted local shows and played local bands. A no-nonsense woman named Penny Craver leased an old cinder block building in then-gritty South End and opened Tremont Music Hall. Everyone played there: teenage hardcore bands and early-career Ben Folds and Ryan Adams. Major labels snatched up promising area bands like Muscadine, Jolene, Lustre, and Sugarsmack.
It didn’t last. Radio went corporate. The labels discarded the Charlotte bands, attracted to newer, shinier objects in some other city. The Charlotte music scene seemed doomed to forever stay a stepchild to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill powerhouse and up-and-coming Asheville, occasionally lunging toward a tipping point, then turning back or being turned away before anyone else noticed.
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