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Not Joshing Around - Myrtle Beach’s Josh Brannon Band cooks up winning country recipe

While country music, as a genre, soldiers on representing a somewhat healthier segment of an otherwise anemic music industry, full-time live country music has been a bit harder find on the Grand Strand. There’s plenty of southern rock, classic rock, alternative, trop rock, beach music and other forms of contemporary music, but in bars, not too much country. Two years ago you could have asked a dozen random locals to name their favorite country band in town and they would have been hard-pressed to name any country band in town, let a lone a favorite.

That’s no longer the case. The Josh Brannon Band (JBB) has slowly, steadily risen to the top spot, riding on a wave of talent, youthful energy, and a bit of good luck.

Part of the problem in finding a good, local country band was the lack of venues catering to that style of music. Where are the bars and bands ready to accommodate a cowboy hat-wearing, belt-buckle wranglin’, country music fan base looking for a cheap brew, a dance floor, and maybe a bull to ride? With the exception of the 67-year old Myrtle Beach honky-tonk, The Bowery, in downtown Myrtle Beach, and the so far successful one-year run of Charlie Floyd’s Daisy Dukes – it was hard to find steady, live country music on a nightly basis along the Strand – but that was last year’s story.

With the opening of the Rodeo Bar & Grill at Broadway at the Beach in March, plus clubs with dedicated country music nights, live country music is back at the beach - and Brannon is the poster child for its resurgence. At the beginning of the year JBB was well positioned to capitalize on a genre it helped revive here at the beach. The band performed country music all across town, when almost no one else was, playing authentic original country songs, a slew of modern country covers, and a few country classics. Most importantly the act featured a young Coastal Carolina University graduate with a strong work ethic, a ton of friends, a big grin, an acoustic guitar, and a solid band behind him.

JBB has, in three short years, earned its way to the top of the local country music scene and will release its first all original self-titled CD with a release party and concert June 29 at Rodeo Bar & Grill, and then again on July 1 at the Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet.

Just before a recent gig at Rodeo we caught up with Brannon and band mates to discuss country music, the steady progression of the act, and these heady days of playing music full time with dreams of national success still fresh and viable – but it might not have been. There were early stumbles, and a move home by Brannon to Spartanburg that threatened to keep the band from ever forming. But the stars eventually aligned, Brannon moved back to the beach, assembled the right mix of players, new and veteran, landed a high profile house gig, made a respectable recording at David Atwater’s Sound Hole studio, and has a summer full of gigs to get the message out.

That message? JBB is the newest, next best hope to put Myrtle Beach on the national musical map, and its pure country.

Young Country

“I moved here to go to college at Coastal Carolina University in 2005,” said Brannon. “I’ve always loved the beach.” The upstate South Carolina native grew up listening to his hometown Spartanburg legend The Marshall Tucker Band, but also every new country act on the charts as well. “We play some classics,” said Brannon, speaking of his band’s influences. “Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Garth Brooks – but we also play the new country hits, too, along with as many originals as we can get away with – right now that’s about one third of our show.”

Original music is the key to any long term success, and the fact that JBB has the opportunity to perform its originals in front of thousands each weekend was an opportunity that Brannon wasn’t about to let go. “We could perform [our originals] up and down the East Coast for a year, and not get to be in front of as many people as we will here this summer and fall at the Rodeo,” said Brannon.

The band has been riding high since March sharing the limelight at Rodeo Bar & Grill with a mechanical bull, a hip-hop DJ, boots-and-bikinis contests and a diverse audience. But the band’s humble beginnings are rooted in front man Brannon’s hard work from three-four years earlier.

While still in college Brannon took his authentic country voice, his acoustic guitar, and a few dozen songs and began scraping up gigs around town. He began playing solo and duo gigs eventually growing a band around a college-aged energetic fan base that came to see him every Wednesday evening for most of 2008 – 2010 at Ron Jon’s Beer & Burgers in Myrtle Beach.

By then Brannon had assembled a full band featuring current fiddler Worth King, drummer Greg Griste and a handful of players that came and went, including former lead guitarist Ed Dennis (The Guilt Trippers, Soundchaser). Joining those original members on the current roster is veteran guitarist Jeff Watson (Four Way, Who Shot JR?, Ten Miles High, Sideways Derby), and bassist Chip Harrelson. This five-piece act enjoys not only the house gig at Rodeo, but steady work at the Dead Dog Saloon and clubs throughout the Carolinas including the Windjammer in Isle of Palms.

Not fade away

Prior to this current success, Brannon almost let the dream fade away.

“Right after I graduated college I went home and worked for my dad’s construction company in Spartanburg,” said Brannon, now 25, “and driving home from work one night I told him I wasn’t happy doing construction and I wanted to pursue the music thing. He told me ‘You’ll be in those honky tonks night after night – don’t let that bottle get a hold of you.’”

With those parting words the then 22-year-old moved back to Myrtle Beach with the support of his parents. “They support this venture as long as I don’t ask for money,” Brannon laughed. As the primary lyricist and songwriter for the band, Brannon, like all good country music songwriters, writes personal songs, and emotive songs that tell the story of middle class, often rural America. His father’s admonition against drinking became one such song on the new CD. “I remember at a gig I reached for a bottle of beer, my hand still shaking from too much to drink the night before,” said Brannon, “and I let it sit there. I remembered what my dad told me before I left to come back down to the beach, and on the bus I wrote this song “Put You In the Grave.” The track is one of Brannon’s favorites on the new project, and is featured on the JBB Web site

JBB first garnered a great deal of attention with the wildly successful Wednesday nights at Ron Jon’s. When it came time to move on after nearly two years, Brannon had also become a fairly regular performer in Murrells Inlet and at Blarney Stones Pub & Cigar Bar (now Rodeo Bar & Grill). “We had a good run at Ron Jon’s,” said Brannon. “It was a lot of fun, but Blarney Stones had a house P.A. and soundman, and the money was better…” JBB had come to the attention of former Blarney Stones’ owner Craig Smith, and when Smith and partners sold controlling interest of the business to Mike Rose, with plans to close Blarney Stones and open Rodeo, Brannon got an endorsement.

The Rodeo Comes a Callin’

“I didn’t know a whole lot about Josh Brannon - and for that matter about country music,” said Rodeo owner Rose. “I knew what I saw on American Idol, and some about the big country music stars. But Craig Smith referred me to Josh Brannon, told me they would do a great job. I set up a meeting, Josh walked in with cowboy boots and jeans, and I knew he was country – that was it – that’s who had to be at Rodeo. We hit if off right away. The band has a lot of energy, great personality, and they adjust to what the demand is in the room at the time. I love those guys. They’re going to do very well on their own nationally, and they do very well for us at Rodeo. We love having them [here] and they’ll be with us through October, and off and on through the winter.”

Some regulars who visit the Rodeo noted that JBB faces odd musical competition throughout the evening, especially when the house DJ spins urban dance music before, in between and after JBB’s live country sets. Brannon says the music mix is not that unusual.

“When we go out of town,” said Brannon, “pretty much everywhere we go, we see the same format. When we play large clubs like Rodeo around the state – we’ll play our hour set and then DJ Dudley plays the “Cha Cha Slide” and “The Wobble,” and “Teach Me How to Dougie,” and those same crowds fill the dance floor. You can “Dougie” with a big belt buckle,” he laughed.

The Rodeo’s schedule includes Monday’s Boots & Bikini Contest, various mid-week events such as trivia and Karaoke and the JBB each Friday and Saturday. “The DJ Starts the night out, and warms everybody up at 10 [p.m.],” said Brannon. “We start at 10:30 [p.m.], play till 11:45 [p.m.], take a 30-minute break, then play from 12:15 [a.m.] to 1:30 [a.m.].

Brannon’s isn’t the only house band playing all country in town – The Bounty Hunters at The Bowery and the Charlie Floyd Band also play steadily at their respective venues. Plus area rock ‘n’ roll clubs have added dedicated country music nights putting live country back in the spotlight, after a quiet few years.

The magic formula

In addition to Rodeo Bar & Grill, Daisy Dukes, and The Bowery, other area clubs offer dedicated country music nights – The Boathouse Waterway Bar & Grill in Myrtle Beach features live country music every Friday evening, and Bubba’s Love Shack Murrells Inlet every Wednesday evening. Brand new country-themed club Block Party (across the street from The Boathouse) also has reported live country music from house band duo Ricshaw with plans for more to come. Meanwhile, JBB not only performs weekends at Rodeo, but still plays regularly at local clubs and travels to out-of-town venues early in the week, home in time for the Rodeo house gig.

So while country music seems to once again be riding high on the Grand Strand, how does JBB hope to make the most of its talent and fortunate timing?

“We have four equal parts that make this work,” said Brannon – “First, have fun, that’s important to what we do on stage and it’s why we play music. Second, make money – we have to pay our bills. Third, get better as a band, always strive to write better songs, and be better entertainers, and fourth, continually get better and bigger shows.”

“We’re always progressing, getting better as musicians, and better songs,” said North Myrtle Beach native and JBB drummer Griste. “[Josh] is a better front man now then he used to be, and we’ve got a big show now.”

“We never practiced” added Brannon, “but now we’ve revaluated our goals, rehearse every Thursday. And adding Jeff [Watson] - Jeff had no idea what he brought to the band – a lot of cool creative energy. I used to just stand there in front of the microphone, but Jeff is all moving around shaking his hair, and I said that’s cool – check that guy out. Everybody in the band – Worth I’ve been jamming with for a long time – he’s original. And Greg and Chip. This is a great band – I’m so lucky. Chace Mitchell, our sound guy, also does a great job.”

Watson, also a North Myrtle Beach native, is best known for his atmospheric rock styling and membership in (or sitting in) with nearly every band that’s ever played on the Grand Strand since 1995. He adds his own rock ‘n’ roll style to JBB’s traditional country sound, saying he “exorcises his [rock] demons” at the Stool Pigeon’s Open Jam each Tuesday evening. But Watson didn’t have to change his style dramatically – country music and rock ‘n’ roll share a long history together. JBB’s loyal fan base seems to like the approach – as long as it’s country at its heart.

“The Josh Brannon Band is country music on a bender,” said Myrtle Beach fan Shaw Dargan. “I’ve been coming out to see them for probably the last two years or so. I guess I caught them at Ron Jon’s one night and the fiddle player caught my ear. You don’t see that too much in local bands. I started loving their original music. Josh is a great songwriter, he writes on a street level, something everybody can relate to. They know how to do it.”

Chris Maxwell of Columbia agrees. “Shoot man, I’m ready for them to go all the way – they’re something else,” he said. “I first heard them at Ron Jon’s. I’ve been following them ever since – I almost feel like a groupie.”

Brannon hopes these fans, and others like them, will be first in line to buy a CD or purchase a digital download of the new project.

“Josh Brannon Band” – the Album

“We hope to have the whole project on iTunes and available for digital downloads soon,” said Brannon, “and we’re all, very happy with the final product. We’ve been waiting for this [project] to get our promo kits and merch together.”

Approximately five months in the making, JBB’s new nine-song release features guest artists and local musicians Damon Bradley (keyboards), Don Colton (saxophone), Robert Napier (fiddle) and co-engineer and studio owner David Atwater (banjo). Atwater is best known as the guitar playing front man for local rock/country act Black Label. His home studio near Conway has been the starting point of many fine local releases.

Luke Ward, who is a front-of-house sound engineer at the House of Blues co-engineered the project with Atwater.

Filled with songs rich in instrumentation, and with lyrical content aiming to please most country music fans, the “Josh Brannon Band” release showcases the diversity of musicianship and is a respectable first foray into real recording. An earlier demo-styled release is not considered the band’s first official project.

“Home In Carolina,” track one of “Josh Brannon Band,” sets the tone of the release touting the virtues of a life well lived in the Palmetto State, even invoking the state marketing slogan “Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places.” The song builds slowly, to an up tempo country-rock tune creating a musical landscape reminiscent of the state itself – mountains to the sea, not unlike Brannon’s own journey from the upstate to the beach. He repeats the first line of the chorus “Lord I’m home in Carolina,” with the conviction of someone deeply rooted. “…so baby if you’re thinking about leaving, you can go on by yourself.”

JBB has helped revive live country music at the beach. It could be argued that the band’s Ron Jon’s run was its proving grounds, and helped to prove to other venues (and other bands) there was a viable market here for live country music outside of the big theaters. And who better to wave the flag then a young man who’s never wanted to do anything else but play country music.

“There’s no better feeling in the world when you’re playing and look out and see complete strangers singing the words to the songs you wrote,” said Brannon. “That’s why I do it.”