Back when I traveled regularly for the Winston-Salem Journal, covering Wake football and basketball far and wide, my most dreaded times were spent alone in hotel rooms with the walls closing in around me.
I had to get out.
More often than not, my refuge was any club, bar or honky tonk in town known for cold beer and hot music. I’d scour up a local entertainment guide, maybe do a little due diligence on the internet, hail a cab, pay my cover charge and take my chances.
To me, genre has always been a lame word contrived by marketing types for those who don’t realize that all good music flows seamlessly into all other good music. (And besides that, it’s French).
But my rule of thumb was, when in doubt, go with the blues.
You rarely go wrong with the blues.
There were many nights I would love to remember every magic moment and there were nights I’d just as soon I could forget. But it dawned on me one time coming off the road that my prevailing opinion of any given town was shaped almost entirely on what kind of scene I happened to find on that given night.
Case in point: Anyone who has made it to the Tractor Tavern, up north in to the university community of Ballard, knows that Seattle is one rocking town. Any establishment that has a weekly Hank Williams Tribute Night is all right by me.
Conversely, I never found Tallahassee to be much fun until about my 15th trip when my compadre Lenox Rawlings and I drove about 10 miles north to this cinder-block dive with the tin roof stuck way back in some field called the Bradfordville Blues Club. Turned out to be one of my favorite haunts of all time, and had me looking forward with bated breath to the next trip to the capital of the Sunshine State.
To peer through the other end of the telescope, any working stiff passing through the Piedmont from mid-2007 through 2011 lucky enough to fall into the Garage on a Wednesday night we were having our weekly Open Mics had to return to Peoria or Hicksville or Flagstaff or Kalamazoo absolutely certain that Winston-Salem, N.C. was a mighty cool place to be.
What wild and rollicking times were to be had down that long, narrow hallway off Seventh Street. The beauty of the Garage was it never tried, or needed, to be more than what it was, a warm, happy, naturally cosmic space with the comfortable vibe you seek in such places, one that lets you know you’re welcome.
We always made sure everyone who showed up to play felt like they belonged, because they did. And by we, I include the whole family, owner/managers Richard Emmett and Kimberly Lawson, sound engineers Jeffrey Paul Irving and Brian Doub and servers like Sarah E. Smith and Erin McCully-Davis.
The music was amazing at times, a bit hard on the ears at others, but what mattered most was that we had gathered as a community to show and tell and celebrate the music and art and each other together. As I’ve written before, Open Mic done right can be downright holy.
None of which is to say Wednesday was the only night magic could be found down at 110 West Seventh. There were so many other evenings I danced myself silly to the Emma Gibbs Band or the Red Elvises or the Bo-Stevens or the Near Strangers or Lonesome Bob or Possum Jenkins or Vel Indica or the Band of Heathens or the Red Lipstick Society or the Felice Brothers or the Liquor House Soul Revue or the Solid Citizens or whatever groove a local icon like Mitch Easter might happen to be in at the time.
Best show I ever saw there was the Gourds sometime back around 2000 when Kevin Russell and his cohorts were in all their glory. It was mandatory attendance for the Collins family, though Nate was only about 15 and Rebecca around 11.
I feel almost guilty in saying I didn’t make the scene much after Tucker Tharpe took over the bar from Richard and Kim five years ago. We got the Open Mic up and going out my way at Muddy Creek Cafe, and it wasn’t the getting downtown that impeded me as much as the prospects of getting back home.
Truth is, I got older. I also got spoiled by having what I wanted – cold beer, hot music – five minutes away.
And now the sorrowful news comes down that the Garage will suspend operations come the New Year. Richard and Tucker are, from what I gather, holding out hope that somebody with deep enough pockets will come forward to keep the door open and the music and adult beverages flowing, but that obviously remains to be scene.
I wish that somebody could be me, but that would require me winning the lottery. Anyone with a love of live music and all the good times associated with it will attest that the town needs places like the Garage to get folks up from their easy chairs and out of their apartments and homes, and, lest we forget, the hotel rooms with the walls closing in.