By Michelle Boudin
It will probably shock most people to hear that both the indie rock and funk music genres got their starts right here in Charlotte. Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. In February of 1965, James Brown recorded one of his biggest hits in the Queen City; “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is largely considered the song that provided the foundation for funk. Meanwhile, indie darlings R.E.M. recorded their first two albums, “Murmur” and “Reckoning,” in Charlotte in 1983 and 1984, respectively.
R.E.M. laid down tracks at Reflection, a recording studio that churned out tunes on Central Avenue for more than 40 years before closing in 2014.
James Brown did his thing over at Arthur Smith Studios, still in business as Studio East on Monroe Road. The story goes that the Godfather of Soul and his band stopped in on their way to a show and recorded "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" in under an hour.
The studio was run by local legend Arthur Smith, know for his music, the records he produced and the TV shows he hosted-- most notably "The Arthur Smith Show," which was the first nationally syndicated country music TV show. Smith had a big hit in the 1940s with "Guitar Boogie," which fittingly led to his moniker: Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. His song was so popular that a guy named Paul McCartney used it to audition for a little-known group called The Quarrymen... who became The Beatles.
Tom Hanchett, former historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, loves telling these stories because he often gets the same reaction: complete and utter shock.
“I think Charlotte has a much stronger music scene than folks recognize, and it’s really rooted in this history. People have always made music here. It started in the 1920s and 1930s and has continued since then. For a long time, Charlotte was a busier recording hub than Nashville.”
Before World War II, there really wasn’t a center for country music—certainly not the honky-tonk capital that Nashville is now. So, major labels would come down from the north to cities with strong radio stations like Charlotte, which had one of the best.
“WBT had good live musicians coming in from all over the place,” Hanchett says. And they still do, he adds. Many of Charlotte’s venues are legendary for drawing in big names and big crowds. The Double Door Inn is one of the longest running blues clubs in the country. The 200-seat space once saw Eric Clapton take the stage, and hundreds of bands still vie for a chance to play there each month. Sadly, the club will close its doors in January. Still, there are plenty of other places to hear great music in the Queen City.
The Milestone Club, known as a punk rock club, has been open since 1969 and keeps a running list of bands that have performed there on its website, even asking patrons to help update the ledger. On it you’ll find fan favorite names like Nirvana and 10,000 Maniacs.
“All of the venues play nicely together here because we all want the same thing; we all want every great band to stop somewhere in Charlotte,” says Chris Ozment, marketing director of The Fillmore Charlotte.
Ozment gets excited when talking about the recent growth of Charlotte’s music scene; he’s seen it firsthand. “We have three to four times as many shows a year now as we did three years ago.” The scene is so good that he and his partners at The Fillmore just opened a brand new, smaller venue right next door at the AvidXchange Music Factory. Their hope is that The Underground will be a place for local acts to shine.
The Evening Muse has been that kind of place since 2001. Owner Joe Kuhlmann says he saw a need back then for an intimate venue where singer-songwriters could perform. “We wanted to see if we could help, and we’ve been going strong ever since. The music scene now is pretty healthy. We used to be more of a cover band kind of town but now people really give the original artists a chance.”
With the crowds coming in like clockwork, The Evening Muse has gotten creative with its space on the weekends, packing in two different crowds every night; a low-key performer plays early on, and rock bands take over late night. The Neighborhood Theatre and The Visulite Theatre both offer similar low-key, intimate vibes.
Ozment says there is plenty of great local talent to keep all of those venues busy.
“I was asked to find an opener for the Steve Miller band, and I immediately called Sinners & Saints,” Ozment reminisces. The country crooners were already booked, but they are well-known on the festival circuit and call Charlotte home, regularly performing around the Queen City. They’re often compared to another Charlotte-born band, The Avett Brothers.
The Avett Brothers longtime manager and owner of Ramseur Records, Dolph Ramseur, says, “I always tell people when we’re far away that we’re from North Carolina, and they always take notice because, from a musical point of view, I think it’s the center of the universe, and I think it’s more charming and real that The Avett Brothers still call Concord home.”
Despite a new album that’s garnering rave reviews from fans and critics all over and recent appearances on the “Today Show” and the “Tonight Show,” Ramseur says The Avett Brothers still work to win fans over one at a time.
Still, Ramseur knows that the band has helped pave the way for other Charlotte groups who are working to carve a name for themselves in the city’s music circuit. Among them is Matrimony, a Charlotte-based, alternative family rock band. Two of the members—Ashley Hardee Brown and Jimmy Brown—fittingly met at The Evening Muse in 2008 before forming the group in 2009 as a husband-and-wife duo. In 2011, the final three band members joined. If you’re a fan of the HBO series “Girls,” you’ve probably heard Matrimony’s tunes; they’re featured on the season 3 soundtrack.
You’ll also hear names like the Temperance League, Junior Astronomers, Ancient Cities and Fiftywatt Freight Train buzzing around town. If you catch them now, chances are you’ll be bragging, “I knew them when” down the line.
“The music scene here is as it’s always been; there are always bands forming, always people playing,” Ramseur says. “You just have to walk out your door to find someone who picks a guitar or plays a banjo.”
This article ran in the September 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.