Kelly Rae Smith worked as intern 2005-2006, music editor 2014-2017
In no particular order, here are 20 big music moments in Charleston from the past 20 years.
Loss of radio station 96 Wave: Former 96 Wave personality and City Paper columnist Jack Hunter put it aptly when he wrote about the demise of one-time local institution, 96 Wave, in 2007: “Since 1985, 96 Wave had been an inextricable part of youth culture in the Lowcountry. For many, the station was the soundtrack to living in this city, even if you didn’t always like the music. Like jam bands, Joe Riley, and Byron, 96 Wave has always just been there.” But nothing gold can stay — once the big conglomerates stepped in, the character of radio diminished all over the country and 96 Wave was never the same. Lowcountry native Meghan Redel, who says the station changed her life growing up, remembers the day 96 Wave left the airwaves for good. “It was on a Sunday, when there used to always be the ‘Critic’s Choice’ show. And I turned on the radio and ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast was playing …” she says. “But turns out it was a whole different station.” [You can now catch the Critic on 105.5 The Bridge.]
96 Wave Fests: 96 Wave Fests were no joke: David Byrne. Wilco. Ben Folds Five. The Jayhawks. Son Volt. Stone Temple Pilots. CAKE. Tay McNabb, a.k.a. Party Dad, remembers Wave Fest of 1996, when Butthole Surfers headlined. “They opened their set with ‘Pepper’ and then told everyone in the audience who only wanted to hear that song (that is, most of the audience) to fuck off.”
Jump, Little Children mania: These guys ’bout broke the internet when they announced their 10-year reunion a couple years back. Many here and around the region held this hard-to-define band close to their hearts, and Jump’s decision to throw in the towel in 2005 most certainly marked an era’s end. Their final show at Dock Street Theatre (pre-2016 reunion) was chillingly punctuated with the band walking the audience to the Market and playing three final songs.
Shovels & Rope on Letterman: Local audiences had been championing the success of first, Cary Ann Hearst, then Hearst and Michael Trent’s project, Shovels & Rope, for too long. A talent so total and pure had to make it, and they did. The duo first appeared on Late Show with David Letterman in October of 2013 (again in 2015). I remember being at Tin Roof, where crowds gathered tearily in front of a projector screen to witness what we all knew was It. They’d made it. They fucking made it!
Closing of 52.5 Records: First at 52.5 Wentworth, then at 75 Wentworth, and finally at 561 King St., 52.5 Records was a local music lover’s staple from 1997-2010. In addition to great records, you could always find a copy of The Onion, comics, and, when at the spacier King Street locale, great live shows. And owner Clay Scales was never the typical record store snob a la High Fidelity and became a friend to many a curious shopper. We sure do miss you, 52.5.
Emmy win for Live at Charleston Music Hall: Mark Bryan (Hootie & the Blowfish) and his Chucktown Music Group create and host Live at the Charleston Music Hall, a series filmed for SCETV and aired nationally with PBS. The show features live performances from a long list of talent, interview segments, and scenes from around the city. This year, the series won big at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, taking home a Southeast Emmy Award and making this hometown awfully proud.
Southern Discomfort: Southern Discomfort was a four-hour-plus forum that happened at Redux Contemporary Art Center last fall, during which a lively and honest discussion about access and racism in the local music scene ensued. It was chilling and powerful and, so far, somewhat effective in that several venue owners listened and have since accepted the responsibility of giving more local hip-hop artists a welcoming place to present their art.
Kevin Hanley’s Chord & Pedal Holiday Balls: Beginning in 2002 at the old Cumberland’s, Chord & Pedal’s impromptu-style holiday hootenanny featured local musicians — Cary Ann Hearst, Michael Trent, the V-Tones, the Silver Bells, Mechanical River, and much, much more. The show evolved every year, quickly becoming a tradition and bouncing around to other venues, like the new, now-defunct King Street Cumberland’s, the Map Room (also gone), Music Farm, Pour House, Tin Roof, and Charleston Music Hall. Such sweet jubilation.
Shrimp Records Family Band surprise: Every time the Shrimp Records folks — Shovels & Rope, Punks&Snakes, Mechanical River, Indianola, Slow Runner, Sadler Vaden, and more — get together, it is an affair to remember. One particularly memorable show occurred the week Vaden was to be married. The crew organized a bachelor party of sorts, bringing the Family Band together for more Pour House hijinks that climaxed when both Jason Isbell (who Vaden plays guitar for) and Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ (Vaden’s former employer) joined the troupe onstage for “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”
The Lowcountry Hall of Fame: Michael Davis, owner of Ye Olde Music Shop in Hanahan, first introduced the now-annual Lowcountry Hall of Fame in 2015 as a means to recognize the local scene’s most influential veterans from before 20 years ago — folks many newcomers to the scene may not even know of now. From the Leonard School of Music to the late pianist Tommy Gill to owners of Charleston’s pioneering venue, Myskyn’s, Al Goss and Larry Walker, our musical forefathers are many. The next ceremony and show is slated for October, returning to the Hanahan Ampitheatre.
The closing of Myskyn’s: We’ve had a hard time pinpointing if the reign of former venue Myskyn’s falls into the years meant for these lists, 1997-2017 — some say it closed in the mid-’90s, while others recall it lasting slightly longer — but since that venue’s impact on the scene remains, it deserves a place on this list. Ye Olde Music’s Michael Davis told us in 2015, “Truly, the music scene would not be the same without Myskyn’s, and anybody who’s been here a long time will tell you that.”
Hootie at the Coliseum: Charleston Jazz Orchestra conductor Charlton Singleton remembers Hootie & the Blowfish’s two-night stand at the North Charleston Coliseum after the release of Cracked Rear View as a pretty big deal. “That was huge,” he says. “A lot of people said that they couldn’t sell them out. Both were sellouts!”
Restoration/preservation of A Touch of Class: This Meeting Street nightclub was a regular stop on the R&B-soul-jazz circuit as far back as the ’50s, but was left abandoned, seemingly mid-song, about 20 years ago. Rather than letting the historical space succumb to the fate of many buildings within stumbling distance of the venue and becoming another freakin’ boutique hotel, Palace Hotel co-owner and career-long promoter of funk-R&B acts Taylor Grant preserved it all and opened The Commodore: A Touch of Class last year. The time vault has the same old booths, dance floor, and signage, and Grant even created a framed collage of memories, featuring the likes of Marvin Gaye and James Brown, on the wall.
High Water Festival: Shovels & Rope launched their inaugural High Water Festival at Riverfront Park this year. The fest was much more than a kickass lineup of artists — it was a celebration of the Lowcountry that featured Gullah group Ranky Tanky opening for Lucinda Williams plus their beautifully raw performance filmed in the onsite chapel; locally bred acts like Jump, Little Children and Slow Runner took on the big stages; and money was raised for local charities the Green Heart Project, Charleston Waterkeeper, and Water Mission.
Quentin Baxter’s Grammy nods: Long-time local musician, producer, and Ranky Tanky percussionist Quentin Baxter has collaborated with national recording artist/vocalist/composer René Marie for 15 years, and it’s with Marie that Baxter picked up two Grammy Award nominations in recent years. First for his work with the 2013 album I Wanna Be Evil (With Love to Eartha Kitt), and this year he attended the 59th Grammy Awards for his work on Sound of Red, nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Lindsay Holler’s We are the World: We could talk about the killer Women & series created by musicians Lindsay Holler and Hazel Ketchum, but before local lady vocalists began paying homage to the likes of Waits, Cohen, and Parsons, Holler produced lots of other collab shows, like the epic ode to 1985 anthem, “We are the World,” performed by local musicians at a sold-out Tin Roof (later at the PoHo). Unforgettable.
Groundhog Day Concert: Another local collaboration with a special place in locals’ hearts is the Groundhog Day Concert produced by Bill Carson, Nathan Koci, and Ron Wiltrout. The tradition began six years ago, and now it’s an anticipated occasion each year to watch about 20 of the city’s most stunningly talented musicians make beautiful sounds together.
Working Title at the Plex: Remember Joel Hamilton’s (Mechanical River) former band, the Working Title? Lowcountry native Keating Norris looks back on the band and its show at the now-defunct Plex. “The Plex was literally packed that night and had this edgy feel to it, which at 15 made me feel like the coolest kid ever,” he says. “If I recall correctly, they had already signed a record deal with Universal and it was like everybody wanted to see them before they soared to new heights so that they could say they had been there from the start with the band. When they finally began to play, everyone knew every lyric to their songs. It was more of a sing-a-long than a typical album release where the band is introducing their new songs. I was mesmerized from start to finish.”
The passing of Jack McCray: Jack McCray not only wrote about jazz for 20 years for the Post & Courier, but he also co-founded the Charleston Jazz Initiative and the Jazz Artists of Charleston. He was a jazz historian, penning 2007’s 127-page collection of essays and images entitled Charleston Jazz. Most of all, he was widely adored, and his passing in 2011 left the city profoundly saddened but forever gracious for his contributions to local music history.