Lorne Chambers was music editor 2000-2005.
Long before the Pour House was one of Charleston’s premier music venues, it was a humble little bar and sandwich joint in a tiny strip mall along Savannah Highway in the part of West Ashley the city is now desperately trying to get people to call DuWap.
This was West Ashley before Voodoo, Home Team, and Tin Roof. There was hardly anyone doing live music then, except for an occasional band at RPub or the Wolf Track Inn down Highway 61. This was West Ashley before Avondale “happened.” Before there was talk of a Whole Foods or revitalization. This was West Ashley before I started West Of. Back then I was the music editor at the Charleston City Paper, and it would be another four or five years before I left that to start West Of, a weekly community newspaper serving what was then viewed as Charleston’s red-headed stepchild but has since become a happening part of town.
For the last several years, 1750 Savannah Highway has been home to Hunley’s Tavern, a cozy neighborhood joint with daily lunch specials, a pretty good jukebox, and a large NASCAR crowd. Before that it had a short stint as an Irish pub. But in the early 2000s, when I was at City Paper, it was the original location of the Pour House, a neighborhood pub and one of the first local bars to have several decent beers on tap. This was before the craft beer boom, so if a bar had Bass Ale, Sierra Nevada, and Guinness, it was doing all right from a young beer snob’s perspective.
Every Wednesday was “Widespread Wednesday,” and they would play live recordings of Widespread Panic shows all night. I tended to skip those nights. Eventually, it evolved into more of a live music venue once it was purchased by Alex Harris, a former Pour House regular and old drinking buddy of mine. He and his wife Vanessa, who was also an old Pour House regular, still own and operate the much larger Pour House on Maybank Highway on James Island and the adjoining restaurant, The Lot.
I worked at the City Paper from 2000-2005 and I lived around the corner from the original Pour House. I would find myself there almost daily, drinking Bass Ale and playing Golden Tee. I got to know Alex then. He was a local drummer and we shared a passion for music. We spent many nights at that bar just shooting the breeze, throwing back beers, and talking about our favorite bands.
I was a “music writer” then, so I felt like I had to give a shit about whatever emo, cool kid indie-rock band was popping up on the scene. It was a markedly bleak time for Charleston’s music scene. Post-Jump, Little Children, pre-Shovels & Rope. Bands like Wormbelly, Beam, and 351 Cleveland were rare bright spots. The Working Title and Leslie hadn’t quite emerged just yet. So I had the task of covering whatever fleeting flavor of the week was deemed “cool.”
Alex, with his undeniable Southern drawl, gravitated more toward bands like the Allman Bros. and some of the jammier bands of the day that were rooted in Southern rock ‘n’ roll.
Being from Greenwood, S.C., I also had an appreciation for these bands. I was raised on country music and grew up listening to Marshall Tucker Band, the Allman Bros., and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But, in my effort to be a “cool music writer” I had admittedly wandered far from those roots. Alex helped bring me back to them.
Once he took over the Pour House, it became more than a neighborhood pub that served good sandwiches and had a decent beer selection. Music was Alex’s passion and so music became the focus of the Pour House 2.0. West Ashley needed — Charleston needed — another live music venue for local and touring bands, so it filled that niche nicely.
By then, Alex was renting my house, located just behind the Pour House. I had moved across Savannah Highway, but was still stumbling distance to my favorite watering hole, which had now also become my favorite music venue.
This was 2002 or 2003 and I remember it was the first year City Paper added “Critics’ Picks” to its annual Best Of issue. So I wrote that the Pour House was “West Ashley’s Best Music Venue.” But the former editor and assistant editor, neither of whom had ever stepped foot in the place, couldn’t get past the “Widespread Wednesday” thing and decided it was just a place for hippies to listen to jam bands “noodle” around. Without my knowledge, the headline of my critic’s pick was changed to “Best Noodle Bar.”
Alex felt betrayed. He was hurt (pissed), and I couldn’t convince him that I didn’t know the category would be changed. We’ve patched things up now, and I’m as happy for he and Vanessa’s success as they are of West Of‘s and now, Folly Current‘s. But that doesn’t change the fact that for months after that Best Of issue, people would come into the Pour House looking to order some ramen or chicken lo mein.
One night in 2003, the Pour House closed to the public, and I was invited to a private BYOB event where a band called the Drive-By Truckers were playing an intimate, acoustic show at the small West Ashley bar.
At the time I had heard of them, but never actually heard them. I remember sitting on a cooler in the middle of the bar and listening to something that would change my musical trajectory and in some ways my life’s trajectory. These boys from Alabama, by way of Athens, Ga., had all the swagger of the Southern rock bands I loved, but without the Confederate flag, racist bullshit, and “Play Freebird!!!!” jokes that went along with it. They had a punk-rock soul with a Southern accent. They were cool and indie, but talked like the people I grew up around.
This had been the sound I was longing for. Indie rockers who played loud and with three guitars, just like Skynyrd. But they also had three distinct songwriters with three distinct voices. Back in 2003, a new guitarist had just joined the band, following their critically acclaimed Southern Rock Opera breakout album. He was a young, fat kid who wrote heartfelt songs that also rocked out.
He went on to shed the weight and the Truckers. His name is Jason Isbell. He’s now a skinny, Grammy Award-winning songwriter who just played a packed house at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center and has been crowned by some as the savior of country music. But he’s really not country at all. He and his new band The 400 Unit, which features Charleston’s own Sadler Vaden (formerly of Leslie, Drivin N’ Cryin’), actually are a great rock ‘n’ roll band in their own right, but are beloved by those who, like me, were raised on country and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a delicate line to walk, but Isbell has managed to do it masterfully.
But back in 2003, Isbell was still unknown, although he was showing signs of his future greatness. And everyone else who had packed into the old Pour House that night knew they were seeing something special. Not just the emergence of a new voice in Americana, but the Truckers were just about to blow up and become the darlings of the Southeast music scene.
The last cover story I wrote for the City Paper in late 2004 was about the return of Southern rock and the rise of the Drive-By Truckers. A blown-up image of that cover still hangs framed in my dining room. I’ve since seen them dozens of times and am never disappointed. But that night back in 2003, sitting on a cooler at the old Pour House in a West Ashley strip mall will always be my favorite.
The lucky few that got to see that band in an intimate, acoustic show that night were really lucky. And Charleston is really lucky that Alex and Vanessa went on to take the Pour House to a bigger space on James Island where they continue to help cultivate the local music scene and expose folks to some of the best bands touring the Southeast.
[location-1] Stay cool. Support City Paper.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.