On February 26, 2018, the Lowcountry and the world lost a true musical and artistic genius, Charlie McAlister. Charlie began to make and self release cassettes starting in the mid ’80s under a variety of different monikers. Eventually settling upon C.Mcalister and starting his own label, Flannel Banjo, these releases would find their ways into the hands of many devout underground music fans.
In a pre-internet era tapes and information were hard to come by, so in order to access them people depended on zines, word of mouth, and tape trading. Through these networks Charlie amassed a cult following and was very musically prolific during this time. This audio output continued up until his passing with him appearing on 100+ releases.
Charlie’s music stylings are hard to describe and often fall into many different genres, as often is the case with true music trailblazers. If you had to attach some sort of label — something he despised — one could reference folk, avant garde, noise, punk, anti-folk, sound collage, nuclear beach music, “porch jug,” and post-shag.
Charlie would utilize his own tuning for his guitars, three-string banjos, horns, fiddles, classroom turntables, and many other non-traditional instrumentation in order to create his very unique soundscapes. Charlie’s lyrics that accompanied these wonderfully simplistic yet heavily layered modulations, had a very distinct narrative style. Many times the sung stories were based on plantation mythology, Lowcountry landscapes, sea adventures, bog men, and other neo folktales. The tunes could range from a lullaby sensitivity to a very confrontational tone, often on the same album and sometimes even on the same song. This unique blend is what people came to know him by and continued to fascinate his audience with such a diverse and inventive sound.
Charlie McAlister was born on March 4, 1969 in South Carolina, and he was the youngest of three brothers. Charlie spent the first part of his life sailing around the world, eventually returning to S.C. where he attended Wando High School. At Wando Charlie gravitated towards the skaters and punks as their kinship aligned with many of his ideological musings.
It was at Wando that Charlie really started to focus on his visual art as well. Charlie was an accomplished painter with hundreds of works that he created throughout the years. His paintings have been apart of numerous art shows and galleries. Along with his paintings, Charlie also used a cut/paste/xerox technique that was showcased on many of his albums as well as others who wanted his style to represent their musical creations. This cut/paste/xerox style would be the basis for his Sardine Magozine.
Started as a Sardine review zine, it morphed into a publication that had interviews, recipes, product reviews, and typed-out correspondence with corporate consumer relations. The correspondence would begin with Charlie writing a letter, under one of his many pseudonyms, to the addresses something found on product packaging. He would accuse them of defrauding the consumer in a very quirky and humorous way. Charlie would always end the letters with a “please admit you are wrong.” The response that would come from corporate would often include apologies as well as coupons for their products. Charlie would print these letters side by side and they would provide endless hours of laughter to all readers of Sardine Magozine.
Charlie’s artistic impact has had ripples throughout the world during his time with us. One of his many achievements was to be asked to play John Zorn’s (naked city) venue The Stone in NYC as part of a night curated by Trevor Dunn (mr bungle). He played a double banger that night utilizing one of his famous puppet shows as well as a musical performance. John Pundt, Kevin Earl Taylor, and myself were lucky enough to perform with him that night. The sold-out crowd was populated by many fans coming as far away as Scotland, Los Angeles, Omaha, and other parts unknown. This show, which was played 08/08/08, was the first time I realized how much of an impact and how far his art could and would reach. Charlie’s music has been played on numerous free form and college radio stations including WFMU and BBC One hosted by John Peel. There was even a radio show in California that played only his music that was curated by one of his long-time associates.
Charlie had a very endearing way about him that would inspire others to create and contribute regardless of their abilities. This motivational spirit would challenge his cohorts to come out of their shells and realize the potential that resided in all of us. With a 30+ year recording career Charlie’s impact is far reaching and the music and art that he left behind is a true testament to his genius and serves to inspire the DIY ethic that lives and waits to be discovered in all of us.
A few words from some of the people he inspired:
I met Charlie Mcalister in our Wando High School art class when I was a sophomore and he was a junior. I skateboarded, listened to punk music, and made art, so I thought I was counter-culture and progressive, but meeting Charlie made me realize how timid and traditional I was in my art and cultural perspective compared to him. Charlie was making art referencing Dada, Fluxus, Surrealism, and Cubism way before I had learned about those movements or created art that was remotely provocative. Charlie was a genuine eccentric experimenting in a lot of art styles and listening to a wide range of music which also manifested in a funky wardrobe including home-made tee shirts and embellished jackets. I owe my passion for screen printing in part to Charlie because he liberated some screen printing supplies from the supply room of our art class which had been collecting dust and convinced our teacher that he could use the stuff competently and teach a few of us who were curious how to use it as well. I made my first Sid Vicious/Sex Pistols tee shirt stencil with Charlie’s help and I’ve been stenciling and screen printing ever since! Charlie lived his whole life as a creative person fearlessly making the exact art and music he wanted to. He was a genuine non-conformist and I feel very lucky to have soaked up a bit of his spirit during a formative period of my life.
I didn’t know him at the time, but I remember Charlie McAlister walking around the halls of our high school. Trench coat in full effect, he was making tapes and selling them in the local record store even then. It wasn’t until years later that I found myself working on a movie crew next to Charlie. We hit it off over a Naptha high as we stripped the paint off of an antique baseboard in a historic plantation home in Charleston, S.C. We were cracking each other up so hard behind our ventilation masks, we almost died of asphyxiation — or maybe that was just the chemical?
Since then, I’ve gotten to know Charlie pretty well and have spent some of the most memorable, hilarious, and abstract moments of my life with him at the helm. It would take writing a book or making some six-hour documentary to even begin to archive Charlie’s artistic contribution, but this is a mere blog post meant to give those unaware an expedient glimpse into the creative vortex that is C. Mcalister. If you, like a small crowd of appreciative others whom I have had the pleasure of introducing Charlie’s music/art/writing/antics to, find yourself fiending for further discovery, I urge you to search him out beyond the information here. Elusive as he may be, he’s out there.
—Kevin Earl Taylor
It’s not every day that you get to scratch seven or eight years worth of poison-oak caliber itch, but that’s exactly what happened the last night on the first date of my three-week spring tour. It was Charleston, S.C, and Charlie McAlister’d copped the opening slot. Charlie first came to my attention when he started sending tapes to the greatly-missed Car In Car Disco Product label, which dutifully released them; he was a shadowy figure in the cassette underground throughout the mid-nineties, if by “shadowy” you mean “totally cool in a where’d-he-come-from where’d-he-go living-legend kinda mystery guy.” His Mississippi Luau album on Catsup Plate is one of my favorite records of all time. (As an aside, let me note that despite my longstanding philosophical opposition to Best Albums of All Time lists, I have got the urge lately to make a list of Them Albums What I’d Generally Consider My Very Favorite Ones Ever, and will probably get around to it sometime in the next year or two.) Charlie’s music could probably be described by any number of not-quite-right music terms: it’s back-porch jug band stuff, sorta, but it’s got a real affinity with guerilla noise warfare, and also with actual gorillas, who nine times out of 10 will make the guerillas look like amateurs. It’s got that organic Neutral Milk Hotel feel, but its spiritual side isn’t the transcendent schtick that Jeff Mangum mastered and then put behind him; Charlie’s spiritual kin are the mediums who charge you a quarter for an hour’s worth of Ouija board in a shack down the highway near some southern beach town, and you think they’re maybe fulla shit but then they hit that huckster vein where it’s not really a con any more because everybody’s agreed to just ride the moment out even if it did start out phony. Charlie’s the wizard in Kansas without any MGM sanitation.
—John Darnielle (Mountain Goats)