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All Aboard?

A few weeks ago the Albany, Ga.– based roots-rocker Davin McCoy was performing another soul-stirring set with his band, The Coming Attractions. The act had a one-night show at the historic Myrtle Beach Train Depot, the acoustically enhanced venue dripping with ambience and authentic old-time charm. The smells of a potluck dinner from an hour earlier hung in the wooden rafters of the 75-year-old 200-person-capacity venue, while McCoy’s music stirred and mesmerized the lucky few in attendance. Kegs of New South beer were tapped, the wine bottles open, but a scant 25 were there to catch the magic of another South By Southeast Music Feast.

Myrtle Beach is a long way from Austin, Texas, home of South by Southwest, perhaps the best-known annual music and film festival in the nation, all respects to Bonnaroo. The 10-day event each spring features indie acts, rock ‘n’ roll bands, singer/songwriters, country, folk, punk and Americana newcomers and veterans alike. Hordes of music fans attend, and like the artists they’re there to see, most march to the beat of a different drum.

But Austin doesn’t hold a monopoly on appeasing lovers of the musical avant-garde; Myrtle Beach has its purveyors, too.

A local Grand Strand non-profit organization, South by Southeast (SXSE), not to be confused with the for-profit juggernaut South by Southwest, was founded in 2003. It was formed originally from a loose-knit bunch of friends who all pitched in to bring to town well-respected singer/songwriters, who would otherwise not likely perform in our little ‘Burg. The acts booked required listening rooms, not bars, for their performances, and they were not the type of artists to fill the House of Blues, or other larger halls.

These original SXSE members hosted pot-luck dinners and concerts at a few locations around the area, including private homes, the Aloha Motel (no longer standing), the New South Brewery, and eventually the Myrtle Beach Train Depot, the concert series’ home since 2006. The small but growing group shared a love of community and music worth listening to; that which is off the pop charts and off the radar. Often the acts were up-and-coming Americana groups or the songwriters or sidemen behind well-known artists. The acts they brought to town had a focus on songwriting, not star power. Verlon Thompson, one such legendary storyteller and songwriter to the stars, will make his second appearance at a SXSE Music Feast (concert and potluck dinner) on Saturday.

But future shows were in jeopardy until recently. The organization was on the very edge of folding, voting to dissolve effective Dec. 31, Music Feasts no-more, unless some 11th hour salvation would descend.

Even dating back to its earliest days, nearly 10 years ago, the organization would discover that though a compass may point you directly South-by-Southeast, it will not tell you of the pitfalls and swamps that may lay in your path.

After a few good years, and a few tough years, the struggling organization lost its voice and co-founder with the passing of Myrtle Beach native Jeff Roberts in 2010. Roberts was known as the “Minister of Music” and owned and operated the popular Sounds Familiar record store until its closing in 2003. Roberts was a big man, a gentle giant, with a passion for good music and the perfect personality to lead the fledgling organization. When he died, SXSE almost went with him.

Roberts and other early co-founders always wanted to see SXSE as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. When its Music Feasts and fund drives did make money, they needed something to do with the cash, and music education seemed an obvious choice. Its first eight years in existence it was a recognized charity, but only achieved the 501(c)3 designation roughly two years ago, and it was no small task.

As the workload increased, the Music Feast turnouts were sometimes disappointing. It seems Roberts’ big shoes were hard to fill, though not for a lack of effort. Earlier this year the board had seriously discussed dissolving the organization, citing lack of attendance and an inability to live up to its 501(c)3 charter, to contribute monetarily to music education in the region, as it had in the past. But new blood, and new energy, combining with the tenacity of long-time supporters and the loyal membership core, decided SXSE was worth fighting for, and that the course is again clear, the sails are billowing, and the compass headings true.

Hail to the Chief

Shelly Ridout is the branch manager of the North Myrtle Beach Library, and has been SXSE’s new president for two months . She’d been an active member of the organization almost since its inception, and was one of those poised to take on more responsibility in this new phase.

“Just after Jeff died, I asked if they needed help on the board, and they said ‘Yes,” said Ridout. But two years since Roberts’ passing the group floundered, and the work was wearing thin for those on the board, and the volunteers. “A lot of great people who put in a lot of great effort, essentially said, ‘You know, it’s been fun, but [we’re] just tired of doing all this work.” It was at that point that SXSE voted to dissolve its 501(c)3 status, and call it day. Ridout, along with co-founder Seth Funderburk, and a few other board members, decided instead to carry on after so much good work had already been accomplished in the form of music instrument drives, and other tangible benefits to public schools in the region. Saved by the bell, it was decided at the last board meeting that SXSE would continue.

“About three months ago SXSE had talked about closing,” said Funderburk, a sound engineer who also manages local original act Ten Toes Up. “Some on the board just didn’t see the organization moving forward and were voting to dissolve. I’m on the board now – I hadn’t been for about the past two years. Some of the past board members resigned, we’ve added a few new ones, and will add a few more. But there was no animosity or bad vibes; it had just become [too much work] with not a lot of results sometimes. It takes a lot of effort to keep this afloat and sponsor these shows. It starts to weigh on you. That was the main reason for considering the shut down.”

Funderburk also worries that the $25 ticket for an artist someone has maybe never heard of, scares some people. But he makes a valid argument for the price as a real value.

“I think a lot of people suffer from a sticker shock when they see the $25 ticket (members pay $20), but one thing we have not promoted is that it’s really the best deal in town. You’ll get a hot [homemade] dinner, a ticket to a show in a venue with no bad seats, and all the New South Brewery beer, and wine, you might ever want to drink. Plus it’s a social event. You’re going to know people or meet new people, and your supporting a music education charity. So $25 is really a good deal. You’d spend that much or more, just for dinner and drinks.”

Members pay an annual tax-deductible $25 fee, and then $20 for Music Feast tickets. Funderburk and others are working on the 2013 schedule, with no confirmed shows as of press time, but says they are forthcoming.

Understanding the Mission

Before moving forward, it was important to the remaining membership and board to define the mission, within the context of its federal obligations as a non-profit group. Even before achieving the 501(c)3 status, SXSE had given thousands of dollars to area music programs in public schools, sponsored a half-dozen (or more) major music instrument drives, and given scholarships to college-bound music majors who demonstrated a need.

All of this will continue, when the coffers allow. SXSE’s concerts and potluck dinners, called Music Feasts, are a means to an end; a way to interact with the community, and keep the membership happy and involved. With “Music Education” as a part of its charter, it could even be said the concerts themselves help to fulfill the mission. Without SXSE, most of the not-quite-superstar artists booked at its Music Feasts, would likely never perform in Myrtle Beach; they’re not good fits for bars, and they won’t sell enough tickets for area concert venues, but their high level of artistry, has never been in question.

Many of the acts are older established veterans, such as Verlon Thompson, and Mike Farris, but others, such as Davin McCoy represent up-and-coming talent. Funderburk used The Avett Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, and Band of Horses as great examples. “These are the kind of acts we like to book, but by the time you hear about them, they’re too big. We could never afford to make it work with them, now. We try to catch them on the way up.”

So just who are these unknown artists so many work so hard to bring to town, and what sets them apart from other acts? Professional photographer, music blogger, and Surfside Beach resident Randall Hill offered some insight.

“Through my work with The Sun News I had done stories on SXSE, and Jeff [Roberts],” said Hill, “and Jeff and I had become friends. I went to my first SXSE show that featured an artist out of Nashville named Diesel. I expected a guy, or a band, and when I got there I found this pretty little five-foot-two inch, blonde-headed girl singing original songs with her guitarist cohort. It was very quiet and laid back, but very emotional – something I didn’t expect. But that’s what drew me in the first place. It’s music you don’t hear on the radio, or see any where else.”

All Aboard

Much of what makes the SXSE Music Feasts, and Hill’s first experience, so memorable, comes from the venue itself - the historic Myrtle Beach Train Depot.

Saved in 2002 from the wrecking ball by local historian and photographer, Jack Thompson, and a dedicated group of preservationists, the depot was restored to better than its former glory. With mostly private and some city funds, the 75-year-old depot was updated with modern electricity, heat and air conditioning, and new plumbing. But more importantly, along with the restoration, none of the original integrity was lost. The wooden structure easily hosts 200 attendees, with perfect acoustics, charm, ambience, and just the right vibe for a wide variety of social engagements, especially singer/songwriter concerts.

SXSE President Ridout, as with most that have ever been to a SXSE show, agrees that the venue was tailor-made for the organization. “We have a wonderful, intimate, non-smoking venue, where the audience can interact with the artists, and really hear the music.”

This “listening” is what sets SXSE shows apart. Large cities have legendary listening rooms, but unknown to many, Myrtle Beach has one too, in the form of the depot. These shows have a social element, especially during the dinner-hour, the intermission, and the after party, but what sets them aside are chairs for sitting and listening to the artists, and the expectation and understanding that conversations are frowned upon during a performance. Longtime friend of SXSE, award-winning engineer and producer, David Henson, has visited most of the well known listening venues in the nation, and thinks the depot ranks up there with the best of them.

“Having worked in the music industry for more than 40 years, and having lived in New York [City], L.A. and Nashville, I found I was drawn to singer-songwriter listening rooms,” said Henson, “like the Blue Bird Café, Douglas Corner and 12th & Porter in Nashville, and the Troubadour in L.A., and The Bottom Line and The Bitter End in New York. Not only are they great listening rooms, they host top-ranked artists. The Train Depot is a rare gem for this region.”

The venue is a one-of-a-kind, but just who are these artists? Henson has seen more SXSE shows than he’s missed.

“In Myrtle Beach there is no where else besides the SXSE shows at The Myrtle Beach Train Depot where you’d hear a Verlon Thompson, Randall Bramblett, David Onley, Ericson Holt, Lauren Ellis. Those artists don’t want to perform in bars. They want people to enjoy not only their music presentation, but the content of their lyrics.” The obvious implication is that bars are noisy places, where patrons shout to be heard over the music, instead of being happy to be quiet and really listen.

The Artists

If you’re not familiar with the names just referenced, you’re not alone. These are not superstars, but most have created a niche in the Americana music movement, even defining the rootsy, folk-rock genre itself. Others are the songwriters behind superstars that you do know and love. Verlon Thompson is one such songwriter.

“This will be my second appearance at SXSE in Myrtle Beach,” said the 58-year-old Oklahoma-born troubadour. Thompson is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Train Depot. We spoke with him from the road, half way between Austin and Dallas, Texas. He’d just played a show with Guy Clark, a legendary Texan and songwriter in his own right. Clark and Thompson have performed together for many years, and Thompson is widely considered his wingman.

Thompson’s discography lists his songs recorded by Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Trisha Yearwood, Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson, among many, many others. But it’s the personal songs that reflect Thompson’s own Okie sensibilities that have earned him a small but loyal fan base around the country, including here in Myrtle Beach.

“This will be my final night of this 20-day-run,” said Thompson, who is out on tour in support of a 2011 recording “Works.” “It’s always fun, the last night,” he continued. “I try to save something special for those nights.”

Thompson is a songwriter’s songwriter, and needs a venue and an organization such as SXSE in order to perform songs that require that the audience pay attention. “I used to go to Music Row [in Nashville] every day and make things up, but now I write for my own purposes. I try to take people on a journey with me, back to Oklahoma, and throughout the phases of my life, and share with them what music has done for me. It’s a lot of personal stuff, but with universal themes.”

Thompson’s shows are among those that bring good crowds to the depot. Both Hill and Henson remember Thompson’s first appearance there, and look forward to the next.

“Verlon is salt of the earth,” said Henson. “Everybody should see him.”

“I’ll be going to the Verlon Thompson show,” said Hill. “I went to the last one. The show was very spiritual. He’s a wonderful storyteller and musician. He can make his guitar sound like a mandolin, or a banjo – I saw him do it. Somehow he’d figured out a way to make it happen. It was magical, and game changing. I didn’t pick up a guitar for three days after I watched him play.”

Thompson, like many SXSE artists, was carefully and thoughtfully booked by the SXSE board. Most all of the acts booked by the organization fit into the broad Americana genre, which can be difficult to define. Roberts had gone on record as saying “Americana is too rock ‘n’ roll to be country, and too country to be rock ‘n’ roll.” While that is a part of the definition, its goes beyond that to include blues-influenced roots rock, old-time music, and folk.

“I was talking to a guy the other night,” said Thompson, “and he came up to me and said, “I was looking you up on the Internet, started not to come, because you sounded pretty country. But then he said. “You’re not country; you’re folk with a country accent.” I thanked him and said ‘That’s great. I’m gonna use that,’ because I think that’s really more what I am. I more of a folk-singing, story-telling type of person, but with this accent of mine it comes out country.”

Where Now?

With a 10th Anniversary looming ahead in 2013, SXSE has difficult choices to make, and plenty of work to do.

“I’ve been president for two months,” said Ridout. “We’re kicking around lots of ideas, and will follow up and see what pans out. I’ve heard that we may go back to having a local artist open for our headliners. I think that’s really fun, and helps bring local people in. We’re looking at changing up how we provide food, and some ticketing options. We may explore new and different genres. We’ve always stuck pretty close to the Americana genre, but that encompasses a wide variety of styles, and there’s no reason we can’t explore that.”

Explorations have merely tipped the iceberg.

“We have to look into more creative ways to use the 501(c)3 to our advantage,” said Funderburk. “We’ll be able to write tax receipts now, solicit donations. These shows cost so much with paying the artists and the insurance that we’re lucky to break even. But breaking even doesn’t fulfill our mission and our charitable obligation.”

“I would like to see the organization get involved with other groups,” continued Funderburk, “and maybe sponsor shows even outside the train depot, like we did with Mike Farris at the Winyah Auditorium in September for the Georgetown Rocks the Equinox Music Festival. Looking toward events like that will help grow our name recognition. We’ve got to look to draw from out of town. There’s no reason why we can’t draw from several hours away for someone like Mike Farris or Randall Bramblett, or Verlon Thompson.

“We like to shoot for 100 in attendance every time,” said Funderburk. “We can make a little money. We have had several shows with 200, which we call a sell-out crowd. We have around 100 active members, and have had as many as 200 in the past. Some of our current members don’t make every show – some don’t make any shows because they can’t, but they still support the cause. We’re very excited about pushing forward into 2013 and bringing in some talent people have never seen, and making some money for the charity.”

As a music lover, Hill is concerned that SXSE survives.

“I don’t worry about SXSE when they have shows, like Verlon’s, or Randall Bramblett, or artists like that,” said Hill, “They’re going to be well-attended. But the shows like Davin McCoy and the Coming Attractions (Oct 13). They’re maybe the best band I’ve ever seen, and there were 25 or 30 people there. The band didn’t care; they still put on a great show. I think they played on the same night a USC game was on TV. I say TiVo the freakin’ football game, and come to the concert. It was a moving and heartfelt two sets of music. He mixed in three or four cover songs with the rest originals. He did “Purple Rain.” I saw Prince, front row, in Greensboro N.C. last year and he did “Purple Rain.” And…I can’t believe I’m saying this…Davin McCoy was better. The soul was all there. The Train Depot was just made for them. God, I wish there’d been more people there.”