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September 1, 2011

Putting the Awe in Awendaw

- "What's up, little bud?" Charleston guitarist David Dunning paused in between songs on a recent Wednesday night to look down from a stage at the edge of a sun-dappled coastal forest clearing, at a red-headed boy in a blue soccer shirt who wasn't more than four.

- "What's up, little bud?"

Charleston guitarist David Dunning paused in between songs on a recent Wednesday night to look down from a stage at the edge of a sun-dappled coastal forest clearing, at a red-headed boy in a blue soccer shirt who wasn't more than four. The little boy smiled up and then toddled back to his mom and a group of other kids standing adjacent to the stage, then returned a few minutes later to do a little dance while another young boy toddled past pushing a Tonka tractor.

Dunning grinned and launched into his next song, a blues-infused rock ballad. A steady crowd of adults, kids, and dogs milled around the stage as the sun started to set. In a few hours, adults would dance in front of the stage in the same space where the little boys had been.

Dunning's greeting his pint-sized fan was business as usual at the Awendaw Green Barn Jam, a weekly homegrown music experience where people of all ages get together to enjoy each other's company, kick back in a natural setting and listen to an ever-eclectic mix of local and regional artists perform under the stars and live oaks.

It's a place where the music is serious but the vibe is friendly, where performers readily acknowledge their fans, no matter how young or old, and where a person can show up alone, not knowing anyone, and leave four hours later with 10 or 12 new acquaintances, all who share a passion for good music and good times.

The proprietor of Awendaw Green and organizer of the barn jams is music lover Eddie White, a dentist in the day time world who wanted to offer musicians from the Lowcountry and beyond a place to make their music heard, and music fans a comfortable, fun place to gather for the concerts.

White says he's always been interested in music, but didn't realize how important it could be to people's lives until his kids got involved in their school bands about 8 years ago. He teamed up with a group of other like-minded "musical philanthropists" to develop Awendaw Green, with the goal of combining a friendly, rootsy atmosphere with professional performing and recording technology for local and regional artists.

What's developed is a concert venue and music community completely unlike anything else on the South Carolina coast, or around the state for that matter.

The Barn Jam stage is (naturally) an old barn, but there's nothing antique about the professional sound system or lights on hand for the musicians to use. The jams have regularly been streamed online, too. Awendaw Green organizers keep fans aware of what's going on through extensive use of social networking. Even the concert posters are distinctive works of art created especially for each show. As Hurricane Irene churned off shore, for instance, the poster for the Aug. 24 show featured a hurricane's eye swirling inside the outline of a mason jar.

Artists who show up to perform are mostly from the Charleston area or South Carolina coast, but plenty of acts from other parts of the state - including the Grand Strand - perform as well, along with occasional out-of-state artists who are touring in the area. Each week brings something completely new and different.

"It's such a welcoming environment, like being in your own backyard with professional musicians and a sound system," White said. "There have been so many memorable nights that to select one would be hard, but one highlight would have to be Michael Allman, Greg's son, singing with a great local band named Stained Glass Wall. That was quite a trip, especially because I'd pulled four of his (Allman's) teeth the day before!"

Awendaw Green has become a favorite with performers, including Pawleys Island-based roots-blues project My Buddy Todd, who played last night's (Aug. 31) jam and also performed at earlier barn jams. Lead vocalist Todd Roth said he heard about the barn jams from Danielle Howle, the veteran South Carolina vocalist, musician and songwriter who is artist-in-residence at Awendaw Green.

"It's just really a lot of fun," Roth said. "Where else can you find 200 people who will get together outside to listen to music on a Wednesday night? It's great for the musicians because they offer a great sound system, and all you have to do is show up and play."

All of this background is well and good, but what is a barn jam really like?

First of all, here's how you get there. Head out of Myrtle Beach, down U.S. 17, past the Coastal Grand Mall, The Market Common, the burgeoning development on the South Strand, down past Litchfield and "arrogantly shabby" Pawleys Island, over the bridges and through Georgetown, on down to where the development runs out and you start to feel you're really getting into what "Lowcountry" means. Spanish moss on the trees, no neon lights, egrets high-stepping through salt marches, that kind of thing.

Set your trip meter and when you get to about 78 miles below the heart of Myrtle, you'll see signs for Awendaw (pronounce that AW-win-daw). It's a small town north of Mt. Pleasant, known most for casual living, fishing and being part of the region that had a much-too-intimate encounter with Hurricane Hugo when it blew through in '89.

Start looking to your left for a general store and gas station called the Sewee Outpost. If you have time or the inclination, stop into the Outpost and check out the wild mix of merchandise, everything from standard convenience store fare such as beer and snacks to outdoor clothing, sea turtle magnets, and fishing gear. A huge cage of crickets chirps in one corner. The Outpost also sells some very good homemade Southern food, the workers are friendly and big supporters of Awendaw Green. You might even get a friendly greeting from the Chesapeake Bay retriever who hangs out behind the counter.

Leave the Sewee Outpost and head across a nearby field, follow a gravel road back toward parking spaces near a grey wooden barn and other series of buildings, into the clearing where the stage is set up. There is where the Barn Jams take place, under the spreading branches of live oaks and other trees, where cricket chirps and cicada whirs provide accompaniment in between the music.

The seating is random and comfortable. Wooden benches sit directly in front of the stage, and they give way to rows of plastic chairs, folding chairs, lawn chairs, seats set up around picnic tables and makeshift tables. Folks sit on a hanging wooden swing in one corner of the clearing. Others bring their own folding and lounge chairs and set up their own little personal enclaves. There's an old tractor set off to one side of the barn that truly adds to the "barn jam" atmosphere and is a favorite climbing toy for kids (and some adults.)

Those with empty pockets because of the economy need not fear. The Barn Jam organizers feel your pain. A jar is set up at the front of the clearing asking for a "suggested donation" of $5, but you can pay whatever you want, and nobody is turned away if they don't have the cash. A stand near the clearing sells Barn Jam T-shirts, themselves a bargain, as well as T-shirts and CDs promoting the night's performers.

Food and drinks are available from a food truck run by Pot Kettle Black, an Awendaw-area caterer, but many people bring their own food...and their own adult beverages. Barn Jams are strictly B.Y.O.B., and many fans stream in carrying everything from six packs of beer to plastic jugs of Long Island Iced Tea and other concoctions.

The stage itself is positioned at one end of the clearing, and the musicians play framed by an eclectic backdrop of found-object type decorations, including an American flag, artificial palm trees, old license plates, pennants and posters.

The jam begins at 6 p.m. and runs past 10 p.m., with each artist performing for about an hour. Four or five artists are featured each week, and the styles vary wildly which is part of the appeal. One week you might have a group of singer-songwriters performing in the round, the next might feature a hard rock band, a gospel artist and a country-folk group.

White and other organizers sometimes try to book artists with similar styles on the same night, others are a complete grab bag.

The eclectic styles were evident on Aug. 24. The evening started with Britt Becktell, a Charleston high school student whose style ranges from alternative rock to folk pop. Next up was Dunning, who performed in the '90s with rock band Live Bait and now as a soloist offers up a mix of classic and alternative rock, both originals and covers. He was followed by T&T, a country-folk acoustic duo; Will Lewis and Friends, a roots rock band led by a Mount Pleasant attorney; Gracious Day, a Charleston rock band with Southern, country and folk influences, and Dylan Flynn, a California-based singer-songwriter whose work is heavily influenced by Appalachian and Southern folk.

The atmosphere at the Barn Jam is completely come-as-you are, with some folks arriving still in work clothes and others showing up in beach attire. Women in heels and maxi-dresses share benches with teenagers in ripped jeans and flip-flops and men in golf clothes. People come and go throughout the evening, and the atmosphere is completely family- and kid-friendly.

Wesley Fletcher and Jillian Fletcher of North Charleston are perfect examples of the kind of folks Awendaw Green is made for. The young couple regularly attends the Wednesday night shows with son Sam, 2, and daughter Myla, 8 months.

"It's our family night out, and it's great because they can run around and enjoy themselves while we can listen to the music and still keep an eye on them," Jillian Fletcher said. "I'm a stay-at-home mom, so we're always looking for things that are low cost and fun to do with the kids. It's an intimate atmosphere, everybody is friendly and there's always a positive vibe here. We always go home feeling happy."

What's immediately noticeable about the Barn Jam is how comfortable everyone seems together, with young families such as the Fletchers sitting next to couples in their 50s and 60s, who are next to college students, who sit next to hipster couples in their 20s and 30s and groups of teenagers who have come out to support Britt Becktell. You don't always see such a diverse group of music fans in one spot, and if you do, the different crowds don't always like each other. At Barn Jam, everybody gets along. During an entire four hour evening that attracted more than 200 people, not one fight or even heated discussion broke out. Nobody feels left out either. People who walk in by themselves quickly find someone to talk with. On Aug. 24, your Surge correspondent showed up unaccompanied and within two hours had met about 20 new people, and several really cool dogs, including Scooby the mixed breed and a long-haired Bassett Hound.

Hanging out under the trees near the food van was Ron, an 80-year-old Awendaw resident who used to do legal work for Dizzy Gillespie's agent and other people in the music industry. Ron lives in the nearby Wando Farms community and is a regular at the barn jams, proof positive that the weekly concerts have become a hit across the generations.

"This is a great happening for this community, all these great musicians here," he said. "There's a lot of hidden talent around here."

After the Barn Jam, even the walk back to the car has something special to offer. Look up in the sky, if it's a clear night, and you'll see actual stars. Millions and millions of stars piling up on each other in constellations, spread out across the Lowcountry sky, tumbling over the Wando River and the live oaks and the scrub palmetto, hanging out and offering their own kind of mellow show to people who come from hyper-lit areas like the Grand Strand and might not, hardly ever, get to see this kind of show.

The drive back up U.S. 17 through the Lowcountry darkness offers a chance to think back on the barn jam, the chemistry, the atmosphere, and a parting remark from Ron, the 80-year-old.

"You know, music is the one language the whole world understands. You don't need any interpreters."

Down a gravel road, behind a barn off a flat stretch of coastal highway, White and company are doing a mighty fine job of sharing that language with anybody who's willing to make the trip, to sit under the stars for awhile and listen.

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