It’s late, and the wind is shifting. Just two blocks from where I’m headed on Sam Ritt, traffic crawls to a stop. Minutes fritter away, inching forward. Pulled off in the right lane — windows down, radio still blaring — a white four-door Chevy sits empty, looking like a teakettle furiously boiling over.
From beneath its hood, smoke corkscrews upward in a tall grey plume. One by one, cars nose up to the abandoned vehicle and reach the spot where smoldering vinyl and burning plastic sting the inquisitive eyes of rubberneckers. They quickly move on.
It won’t be long before the car fully erupts in flame — a grand, colorful spectacle. A good omen for tonight.
This year, the Summer of Love turned 40, and for those who belong to the generation that set a torch to convention, brassieres, and draft cards, its anniversary is an invitation to pause and look back.
It was the era of the singer-songwriter, born in protest, anchored in the headlines. It was the era sparked by the 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park, by Timothy Leary’s cry to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” and fueled by the flames from joss sticks, joints, and handmade candles in the hippie crash pads of Haight-Ashbury. But by the ’70s, the role of the singer-songwriter had narrowed; it became myopic. James Taylor, Harry Chapin, Carly Simon, and Cat Stevens dominated the airwaves, and the music they made was less a clarion call than a collective sigh.
Tonight, I’ve decided to check in on the torch-bearers of that generation shaped by the events of the late ’60s, to listen to the words and music they sing these days, to hear, I suppose, the songs of an old flame.
The tools of the songwriter’s craft — pen, paper, verse, and melody — are easy to carry around, but in the midst of life’s distractions, they are easy to misplace. Yet the songwriter can never completely turn a deaf ear to the music. Whatever the cause of estrangement, in time, the songs come back around. And when they do, something — somewhere — has to give, a doorway must swing open.
In the Lowcountry, it happened like this:
The way they tell it, all roads lead back to Oceansong Café, to Carroll Brown’s inspiration. The way he tells the story, it was the thing to do: Songwriter’s Night.
Brown leans back in a chair, creating a comfortable distance only to fill it in with a slow, genial smile. He has been a working musician since the mid-’70s, a singer and songwriter regularly performing all over the Southeast in bands and as a solo act. He opened Oceansong intending “to create a room where grown-ups could enjoy quality music.” By all accounts, from the first day it opened in 2004, he did just that. And more.
In a town best known for being a “cover” town, where most venues cater to familiar set lists and original songs are not much in demand, Brown’s Oceansong opened a door.
Word got out — Monday nights on the Isle of Palms, bring your songs. And people showed up, loads of them: no longer looking to be the next Dylan or Springsteen, hauling their own gear, buying their own beer, all for the pleasure of singing their songs for an appreciative crowd. Monday became the night to sit and listen. In 2006, Oceansong ended, but the momentum it created did not. It has since taken up residence at the Sunfire Grill and Bistro in West Ashley.
Like others who “just showed up” on Monday at Oceansong, Jeep White admits to being lured there by nostalgia for the stage. “It had been awhile,” he says, “and I missed it.”
The Air Force veteran of two tours in Vietnam also admits, cautiously, to some first night jitters. “Scared shitless,” he laughs.
But watching him on stage with his guitar these days, it’s hard to see that. There’s a sense about him, something pared down to basics: dark eyebrows and a trim white goatee counterbalance a clear-eyed regard that welcomes even as it locks in.
White favors jazzy pork pie hats. He loves his Martin guitar. And his enthusiasm for Monday nights and songwriting is boundless. To see him perform, especially a song like “Sergeant Chris,” which was written about his nephew’s military service in Iraq, is to see a person thriving in his element.
For many here, getting in front of an audience is a personal mission of recovery; it’s about rediscovering a piece of themselves that languished on the back burner while other demands took center stage. It’s about reclaiming, for the next season of life, a missing piece without which all the rest recoils. The first step toward the stage, to take that piece back, requires a deep breath.
For some, like David Moulton, the songwriter’s journey is not recovery, but discovery.
A decades-spanning career had him shaping bare metal into Olympic-winning bicycle frames. Success had taken him over from England to southern California and eventually to Charleston, to write. He has a novel to his credit, The Prodigal Child. His presence on Monday nights is a reminder of the roots of this music — the Sceptered Isle that was, where bards and balladeers served their countrymen by keeping faith with history, news, and fable.
David Owens has a way with a guitar. In his hands, it bobs up and down as he sings, like a tethered boat cheerfully rocking in the wake of a larger passing craft. He is quick to smile, quick to laugh, often at himself. On stage, he is in constant motion with the music. Watching him charm the audience with his tune “Dilapidated,” it’s easy to suspect one reason why the house he’s been remodeling is taking longer to finish than he might have wished. There’s too much restless energy in him to be contained by just one project. So he keeps at the house, sure, but he’s writing for and recording a new album, too.
One of the musicians playing back-up on that album is Bob Tobin. His friends say they’ve watched him blossom on these Monday nights, open up, the laugh lines in his face deepen. Near at hand on Songwriter’s Night he keeps a square black case, about the length and width of an LP cover, almost as thick as the Charleston phone book. The evening doesn’t get too far without someone asking him to reach into the case, pull out one of his harmonicas, and stand behind that microphone set aside, to join another songwriter’s set. Tobin is a fine songwriter in his own right. The regulars here tonight will sing along when he’s up playing his own tunes. Yet he’s clearly happy in each of his roles. One of the hallmarks of Monday nights is this sort of collaboration, of pulling together.
“To me,” Susie Summers will tell you, “every Monday is like Christmas morning. I never know what I’m going to get.”
Summers oversees Songwriter’s Night, making sure everyone who signs up gets to play, even when that means cutting out her own set. No matter who’s on stage, she’s likely to be the first to sing along, the first to applaud. The atmosphere in the wood-panel bar is congenial, sometimes raucous. Sunfire’s owners are very supportive.
“Just like Christmas morning,” she says. “It’s always good.”
Marc-Alan Barnette, in town from Nashville, must be feeling like an advance cavalry scout. He keeps scanning the room as each songwriter plays their set. He knows what to look for.
“Our job is to get the disinterested gal at the end of the bar to turn around, to pay attention to the song,” he says.
Thus far, he likes what he sees. There are no disinterested parties here.
“In Nashville,” Barnette says, “it’s the Bluebird,” referring to the renowned club, a beacon among songwriters “writing for cuts” — songs written for chart-topping stars or to fuel an up-and-coming performer’s early career. Barnette’s mainstay is writing for cuts, and that’s where he honed the techniques he’s sharing this week with local writers.
When it comes to making it in the music business, he tells his workshop group, it’s not simple or quick or without pain. The average residency of a songwriting hopeful in Nashville is just six months — for many reasons — not the least of which may be self-inflicted.
“I’ll tell you,” Barnette leans in conspiratorially, “the number one songwriter-related injury is head trauma. Imagine sitting in some club on open mic night, having to hear, ballad, ballad, ballad. Ba-llud! Your head just finally hits the table.”
That line, like the rest of his workshop, goes over well. He’ll be back in town, he assures everyone, to keep an eye on the promise he sees among the musicians at Songwriter’s Night. “What you have here,” he gestures at the musicians around the room, “you just don’t get that many places.”
Bruce and Lorna Roberts are the husband-and-wife team of the Monday night group. Lorna keeps the local chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association humming, and she shares what she’s learned plugging her own songs among the Nashville folk. She taught music in elementary and middle school, plays a mean keyboard, and sings from her heart. “Here’s to the beauty of things that don’t last,” goes one of her tunes. And while Bruce lends his stand-up bass playing to his wife’s song, the room quiets down, listens up, drinks it in.
Claire* is not a musician. She teaches college English. She writes poetry. Tonight, she finds herself officially divorced from her husband of two decades for only slightly longer than she’s been nursing the beer in front of her. She knows a number of the regulars, and, under the circumstances, it’s a good night to be out, among friends. It helps, too, that most everyone here has gone through a divorce or two. It leaves less to hash out or gloss over. There are hugs, gratefully, and those require no explanations.
And there is music: Ted McKee lifting the crowd with his soulful voice and Frank Waddell, just returned from a road trip to Alaska, tearing at the heart-strings with a tune about the grandfather he never knew, the man who nonetheless molded his notion of genuine character. The songs and the singers here are good medicine, crowding out lesser demons, the way songs and singers were meant to do.
The end of the night sneaks up on everyone too soon. It feels like being cut adrift. There is more to say.
They gather their instruments. The bartender clears empty glassware from the tables. Guitar cases bump against each other in the hall.
From the door, someone calls out, “Hey! — next Monday.”
“See you then, sweetie.” Some lights go dark at the other end of the restaurant. “Count on it.”
It’s early. The wind has shifted once again; rain has come and gone. Street lamps give off gauzy light. The air now feels cool and fresh. I linger. Everything glistens.
* Name withheld
from The River
I went down to the river, bottle of wine
Gonna wash a memory out of my mind
Nothin’ that I could say, no, nothin that
Could wash away the memory of you
from Love Is A Labor
Work all day into the night
Work it again ‘til you get it right
It ain’t easy, it never was
Love is a labor, a labor of love
Sometimes you can’t find love
from Never Had A Grandpa
He could have taught me to tell time
How to keep my old shoes shined
He could have taught me how to fish
And how to try again when I miss
If I’d had a grandpa
Man, I wish I’d had a grandpa
from Sergeant Chris
The days are so hot
And the nights are so cold
I’m much too young
To have to be this old
And I don’t want to be here
And I don’t want to die
So I’ll try one more day
Just to stay alive
Passionate kisses and fireflies at night
Babies’ sweet smiles and the morning’s
The magic is in the moment as the
moments flow past
Here’s to the beauty of things that don’t
from Raindrop Lullaby
I’d give you strength and understanding
A self-love that burns so true
And each time you looked in the mirror
You’d see yourself as I see you
Photos by Joshua Curry