No band broke into the world on a higher plateau than Alabama did from The Bowery in downtown Myrtle Beach in the 1970s.
Ever since, clubs across the Grand Strand have been providing their own small universe to both rising and established and stars to shine on stage.
Parmalee, a quartet from the Tar Heel State, performed last May at The Boathouse Waterway Bar & Grill, just west of Myrtle Beach, when the group’s break-through single, “Carolina,” had begun its long climb to the top of the charts. Now the band, a Best New Artist semifinalist this past winter for the 49th annual Academy of Country Music Awards will play The Boathouse again, on June 1.
Jason Black, general manager of The Boathouse, with the Intracoastal Waterway as its backdrop, said with so many free outdoor concerts – every Friday during “Nashville Nights” and Sundays starting April 6 , said the club has “filled a void in the Myrtle Beach music scene.”
He said with only one “non-theater type establishment” in town bringing in national acts, and the closure a few years ago of the Beach Wagon, a country music draw, The Boathouse has built a niche.
“In partnering with local radio,” Black said, “we saw an opportunity to reach a market that we were not, at the time, associated with. We have been very fortunate to have had some really good acts come in at some prime moments. Kip Moore, and Love and Theft, actually each had the No. 1 song in the country when they played here. Thomas Rhett, Brantley Gilbert, Lee Brice, Justin Moore and Colt Ford were all just beginning to become well known when they played for us.”
Riding on the heels of his debut single to reach No. 1 on the country charts, with “Chillin’ It,” Cole Swindell’s concert on March 14 marked “pretty good timing as well,” Black said.
The Boathouse series began “in its original form” in 2007, he said, with annual growth, and really taking off in later 2010. Also, amid the tourist economy here, Black figures that people from every state have visited the club, and “I can assure you most European countries have been well represented,” as growing a “very large contingent of European students [who] each summer enjoy the back yard.”
American Aquarium, a country-rock quintet from Raleigh, has played twice in the past year at Pirate’s Cove Bar & Grill in Myrtle Beach. BJ Barham, the group leader, before its show Feb. 7, said musicians naturally have goals to play “the big rooms,” yet to give a concert in a small place, “where people are really into your songs” lets artists reap another kind of reward, making “quieter songs” fun as well.
John Powell, general manager for Pirate’s Cove, with its scenic overlook of the Atlantic Ocean, said that family business will hit its 20th anniversary in 2015.
“We’ve always done live music,” he said, “and it was always kind of ... a bar with a band.”
In the past few years, though, with house lighting and sound system upgrades, the club has ramped up the “quality of music ... with a mix of original live music and cover bands.”
Powell remembered growing up in Myrtle Beach, and that “being able to have successful, original, live music concerts right in my hometown is fulfilling to me.”
With American Aquarium coming back May 30 and Badfish June 21, Powell sees “an intimate environment” as a key reason bands like clubs such as Pirate’s Cove.
“It’s a small, but good-sounding room,” he said, noting its capacity for close to 600 people and another 100 on its deck upstairs. “And fans can get right up there close with the band. ... kind of like in a living room setting.”
Leslye Beaver owns two Beaver Bar sites in Murrells Inlet: The “Little Beaver Bar” opened in 1996, and the “Big Beaver Bar,” at the Georgetown County line, in 2009. They’re among a family of businesses, including sites in Ormond Beach, Fla., near Daytona Beach, and two new places she said will open this year, in Panama City, Fla., and Sturgis, S.D.
She said locally, the Big Beaver Bar has had concerts in recent years by such “red carpet people” and country “rock stars and celebrities” as Lee Brice, Colt Ford, Dustin Lynch, Justin Moore, Kip Moore and Sunny Sweeney.
“We’ve certainly proven ourselves,” she said, explaining the logistics she weights in booking artists, with hopes they also can rotate among the Beaver Bars out of town as well.
Beavers said being all-outdoor venues, with room for 5,000 at the Big Beaver Bar, their busy seasons, working around summer’s searing heat, are spring though May, then in fall, from September through December.
The Murrells Inlet schedule for this spring remains in the works, she said, and that negotiations continue for the likes of these acts she named: Frankie Ballard, Clare Dunn, Colt Ford, Chase Rice and Chris Stapleton.
“We have a lot in the fire,” she said.
Ukulele pro in town
Local venues also attract other talent, such as Victoria Vox, who picked up the ukulele after graduating in 2001 from Berklee College of Music in Boston and has recorded eight CDs with her “uke.” She will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Fresh Brewed Coffee House in Myrtle Beach, her first visit to the Grand Strand since 2009.
The Baltimore resident also will give a workshop and play Saturday at a ukulele academy in Wilmington, N.C. – the only one of its type she knows – then do a gig Monday in Savannah, Ga., on her way to a songwriters’ festival in Florida – all while taking the train and bus to get around, part of her “duty to seeing the country ... and slowing down between stops.”
Small clubs, Vox said, thrive on “grass-roots” operations in serving artists and patrons, and that “people like to be connected to it.”
Being an independent artist, she said, “there’s something cool about performing in smaller venues. ... I would rather perform at a small venue that’s full, versus a larger venue with the same amount of people and feeling empty.”
Also, in a club setting, Vox said, a special, “all there together” feeling in the crowd moves her.
Promoting her latest album, “Key,” on the Obus Music label, Vox called that project “very personal – definitely a little more modern than typical uke music,” along with “experimenting with the sound of the uke” and its four strings.
“As a singer-songwriter,” she said, “it doesn’t have to be fun and life all the time. It is a moving and emotional instrument.”
“Key” follows a pattern of development since she traded her guitar emphasis for a ukulele, and digging “a little deeper” in expression with each successive CD, “creating music from the heart, in the moment.”
Music in general, Vox believes, “is such a great skill to practice as a kid or even as a scientist or mathematician,” a diversion and direction that’s “good for the brain and the heart.”
“The uke is a really great way to make music,” she said, “ ... and with just few one-finger chords, you can play some pretty songs. ...
“You can go to town and rock out on it.”