Against The Current
By Corbie Hill
Coastal musicians, promoters trying to make tourism, tour-stop equation work
It’s a warm and sunny April morning, and the locals and visitors are learning that it’s far easier to drive out of the coastal North Carolina town of Southport than it is to drive into it. Tourists crowd the one road into the small town at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and entire families wander across it, oblivious to cars. In a downtown park overhung by Spanish moss, there’s a major crafts festival where the out-of-towners converge.
But Museum Mouth drummer and vocalist Karl Kuehn isn’t downtown. The 21-year-old, who has lived in Southport since he was two, is sitting in the sand by the river, watching boats in the channel. He loves his town, though he admits it’s more accommodating to retirees and tourists than young musicians.
“I forgot that was happening because I’ve seen that every year, and I’ve just become numb to it,” he says of the Spring Festival downtown. ”It’s a craft festival that I don’t even go to, so I forget that it exists. It’s a bunch of rude old ladies in booths selling weird paintings.”
Of course, tourists and retirees are constants of coastal life everywhere. The windy shores and laid-back lifestyle draw them in droves. Given its usual role as a vacation destination, it’s easy to mistake the Carolinas’ coastline as a homogenous stretch of sun and sand: a place to get a sunburn, drink Natty Lite, and toss a Frisbee. And when music enters the equation, it’s too easy to think of Shag culture or, more recently, inane jam bands or tiki torch-lit acoustic Bob Marley and Jack Johnson “surf ” covers.
But that’s far from the fleshed-out picture. “Carolina Coast,” for instance, can mean anything from the subtropical bake of the South Carolina lowcountry to the gray waves and wintry storms of Bodie Island, the northernmost Outer Bank. There’s not even a common history, as the dialects make obvious: from Gullah, a Creolization of English with West African languages, to High Tider, which preserves elements of Elizabethan speech.
And that rich array of language mirrors the diversity of the region’s homegrown music. From the Burt Bacharach-and Brian Wilson-isms of Charleston’s Explorers Club to the uncommonly candid pop-punk of Museum Mouth; from the unhinged surf-pop of Kill Devil Hills’ Zack Mexico to the twilit glam of Myrtle Beach’s Octopus Jones; from the swampy roots rock of Shovels & Rope to the smoove grooves of Nicolay; few, if any, generalizations stick. “We (don’t) all drink Coronas,” says Dan McCurry of the moody Charleston rock outfit Run Dan Run.
Still, despite the area’s musical diversity, jaw-dropping scenery, and the seasonal influx of the young and intoxicated, it can be hard to convince touring bands to route far enough east to play coastal towns. And without the influx of non-coastal regional bands, the musical exchange rate remains a mostly one-way road — which is increasingly the landlubbers’ loss.
A big part of the problem is the lack of interstates in coastal Carolina. The closest tend to be an hour inland or, in the case of Eastern North Carolina, several hours. And though I-40 hits Wilmington, the port city is the end of the line. Sitting as it does just inland of Cape Fear’s terminal headland, it’s not on the way to anywhere else — not by car, at least.
Highway 17, the main north/south route that runs through both states, can be slow going. It’s mostly a two-lane through small towns with 35-mph speed limits peppering its 500-odd mile length. It hugs the South Carolina coast when geography permits, wending through a sandy, rural depression on its way through Charleston, Georgetown, Myrtle Beach, and eventually Wilmington. From there, 17 goes far enough inland to no longer be a dedicated coastal route until it crosses into Virginia through the appropriately named Great Dismal Swamp.
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Kuehn’s small town of 2,000 or so sits some 25 miles off Highway 17 and, unsurprisingly, supports no venues. He has been able to book house shows in Southport with acts like Columbus, Ohio’s Tin Armor and jubilant Orlando punks You Blew It!, but it’s not easy getting bands to come through.
“After the hour-and-a-half-drive off the highway, they’re like ‘Oh my God, why did I do this? This is stupid,’” says Kuehn. “Living in Southport and trying to be in a band makes me feel like I’m on another planet.”
But he’s made it work: Kuehn has been throwing shows in his basement since a friend, whose house had been used as a venue, went off to college. With so many of his friends being teenagers, such departures are a recurrent theme. Kuehn recognizes this is an odd home base for an ambitious pop-punk band, and he’s ready to leave, too. “I’m dead set on it,” he says. His plan is to be in Raleigh, where Museum Mouth guitarist Graham High already lives, by the end of the year.
It isn’t just small towns like Southport that fail to attract touring acts. Larger cities like Wilmington and Charleston also fall off the map for most high- and mid-level touring bands. “I-95 is like 50 miles from Charleston,” says Jason Brewer, the principle songwriter and vocalist in the summery retro pop outfit The Explorers Club. Though I-26 leads directly to Charleston, that’s where it ends — much like I-40 does in Wilmington.
And Charleston is not, as Brewer says, your “typical beach town.” There’s an old Southern feel from its long, early Colonial history. With the sea breeze, it’s not as hot as living inland, and it’s a decent-sized town, which means there’s also some nightlife. But according to McCurry, most of the live music downtown caters to jazz or cover bands. The darkly melodramatic pop-rock he creates with Run Dan Run fits neither category.
“There is definitely safe jazz and edgy jazz. It depends on where you go and who is playing,” McCurry says. The town is also home to the annual Spoleto Festival, though it’s more focused on “high art” than rock & roll, and does little to route bands to Charleston. With a 100-mile round trip from I-95 to Charleston, it makes little logistical sense for bands hitting major tour stops in Georgia and North Carolina to play the coastal city. Yet for bands with a regional focus, there are other roads. “Highway 17 ain’t too shabby either,” McCurry says. “It just depends on the markets you’re trying to target.
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Myrtle Beach presents a baffling tangle of stoplights and speed traps to Highway 17 travelers — one that was unavoidable until the early aughts, when a bypass was built. The town gets lumped in with Gatlinburg, Tenn., Branson, Mo., and the king of all neon strips, Las Vegas, in the American subconscious when it comes to overdone, gimmick-driven tourist traps. But there are people who call Myrtle Beach home, too, living fairly normal lives despite the nearby glow of Ocean Boulevard. Some of them even make original music.
“There are most certainly aspects of it that are like the ‘Redneck Riviera,’” says Nicole Davis of Shoplifter Booking, echoing the common epithet. “For every restaurant there is a tacky-ass beachwear store, but you have to remember: That’s how people make their money.” Davis books shows in Myrtle Beach venues while her partner, Wes Gilliam, does so in Greenville, S.C. Yet large-scale tourism — revenue stream that it is — leads to a seasonal, feast-or-famine economy. Many music rooms close in the cold months, when tourist money on the Grand Strand dries up. Some never reopen.
“There is a local draw of about 50 to 75 loyal, die-hard music followers,” says drummer Darrin Cripe of Octopus Jones, a fever dream of a surf band based in Myrtle Beach. “At any given show you can expect to see about 40-plus of these familiar faces.” Yet he has seen plenty of cool rooms shut down, from The Clubhouse (back in ’08) to Drink (which transitioned to a sushi bar in a failed attempt to save itself) to the CBGB-esque The Basement. Octopus Jones played the latter’s opening (“in our underwear,” Cripe adds) and its final night in business. Yet Cripe says tourists are either spring breakers looking to get their dance on, or families headed to Broadway at the Beach, a sprawling tourist trap lousy with Elvis tributes, NASCAR memorabilia, and themed restaurants. He says there’s a tiny percentage of tourists who want to hear original music, but they and the core of dedicated locals aren’t enough.
“This group of people cannot single-handedly keep a venue running,” Cripe says. And so venues have a hard time bringing people in the door or giving decent payouts to touring bands. Many of the rooms weren’t built to be venues either, and it’s hard to get out proper publicity — especially in the shadow of multimillion-dollar entertainment complexes like Dolly Parton’s Pirates Voyage or Medieval Times.
Yet Davis does what she can to bring bands to town. Often she and Gilliam will coordinate shows, giving a band one night in Greenville and one in Myrtle Beach. But with the neon heart of the Grand Strand an hour east of I-95, it largely suffers the same fate as Charleston and Wilmington. Like the others, Davis also mentions the alternate coastal-friendly route following Highway 17.
“A lot of bands fail to recognize that you can totally do a tour that way. There are such fantastic venues along that way, and not to mention the scenery is to die for,” she says, hoping to make the coastal road a touring spur rather than a high-mileage detour from traditional routes. “Yet not many bands go for it. They tend to almost always opt for the bigger cities, which is unfortunate for all of us.”
It’s not just traditional tourist traps, either, that suffer the coastal fate. Wilmington isn’t dominated by tourism the way Myrtle Beach is, though summer weekends still see I-40 frantic and crowded between inland urban centers and the port city, which is near family beaches like Oak Island, Holden Beach, and Topsail Island, not to mention Southport and Wrightsville.
And Wilmington does have its share of tackiness and trashiness, says Corey Blackburn, who plays guitar in the avant-indie outfit Fractal Farm. He mentions Marines from Jacksonville, who come down every few weekends to raise drunken hell on their rare nights off. Museum Mouth’s Kuehn cites the film crews from Iron Man 3 and MTV’s Teen Mom 2, too, who come into the coffee shop where he works and seem to bitch about everything. There’s a lot of seasonal work, too, Blackburn concedes, but there are regular full-time jobs there, as well.
And there’s UNC-Wilmington, where Kuehn’s bandmate bassist Kory Urban and 13,000 others are enrolled. Yet the school hasn’t yet translated into larger audiences for local music. “I think the only UNCW students I’ve seen at shows are the people I know through Kory,” says Kuehn.
Still, the port city has made impressive contributions to regional music, from Foreign Exchange music-maker (and Dutch transplant) Nicolay and Onward, Soldiers’ slick alt-Americana to the Confederate gutter metal of ASG and Weedeater — not to mention southern sludge progenitors Buzzov*en, who have made the town their home since ’91. The main difficulty comes from the 130 tedious miles separating Wilmington from North Carolina’s de facto music capital, the Triangle. That kind of drive is hard to swing outside of a longer touring itinerary. And there’s nowhere to play north of Wilmington without comparable amounts of time behind the wheel.
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But the coastal picture isn’t all negative. On North Carolina’s northern coast, tourism and unapologetically offbeat local music have found a strange and reckless common ground in Kill Devil Hills.
“I really don’t know where to start,” John Saturley says about playing indie rock on the Outer Banks. Saturley is the guitarist and vocalist for Zack Mexico, which swings from demented surf-pop to Cousteau-esque suicide-lounge. For years, he says there was nothing happening — at least, nothing beyond “Christian surfer tunes” or classic rock cover bands.
“With that being the normal way, I had no plan of becoming part of any music scene around here,” he says. “Well, besides crazy house shows.”
Yet somehow Zack Mexico has brought the house-show vibes to the island venues, and improbably, it’s clicked. Saturley says the initial plan was to show up at an open mic and “to play a few songs and tell everyone to ‘fuck off ’ when we got booed offstage.” Yet the audience had the opposite reaction. Not long after, he discovered like-minded bands playing crazy shows, and tourists and locals alike coming out, having fun, and going a bit wild.
“I predict this summer to be one of the best summers in a long time for the music out here,” Saturley says.
Zack Mexico has also been up to Norfolk and Virginia Beach several times to do shows, which is close to the coastal tour model Davis, McCurry and other coastal musicians say is possible. And Bodie Island — where Kill Devil Hills is — is no longer technically an island now that it attaches to the mainland north of the state line, not far from Virginia Beach. It’s still a long ways away, but it’s not as isolated as it once was.
But Kill Devil Hills, like Southport, Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston, is still the end of the line for most of the roads that lead in. If these cities were inland and part of the I-95 or I-40 connective touring tissue, they’d have a better shot at making their locals bigger regional names. But the beach is where the big roads end. And this, more than tourism, is probably what keeps a region rich with original bands from being the touring hub and rock & roll hot spot it might otherwise be.