On the evening of April 3, 1991, an unassuming little brick building on a desolate block north of the Market on East Bay Street started to come to life. Cedar planks added to the walls and ceiling masked the stale beer 'n' ashtray odor left over from a previous nightclub occupant. A new backdrop hung behind the stage. Local funk-rock band Uncle Mingo had already set up and sound-checked on the stage to the far right.
More music lovers than aspiring moguls, Carter McMillan and Kevin Wadley anxiously opened the front doors at their new club. Cars started to fill the gravel parking lot. The bar ran out of ice early in the evening, prompting a mad dash up East Bay to the gas station for a truckload of bags. The band played through two sets free of major technical difficulties. The audience grooved and drank.
The Music Farm's successful opening weekend was an experiment -- a hopeful idea that Charleston could genuinely support a venue that focused on live music. Fifteen years after the no-frills kick-off weekend, the Music Farm has survived two major renovations and three sets of owners to help put Charleston on the map. The faces of the staff and the decorations on the walls may have changed, but the mission stays the same.
Kevin Wadley, a young musician with local pop/rock band The Archetypes, was the first to kick the idea of a new music club around. In 1990, he joined up with McMillan, a radio/promotion guy, and developed the club's first actual business plan, keeping live music at the top of their priority list.
"In the early days we didn't know anything about running a bar, but I knew from playing with the Archetypes what bands wanted from a room and that there was a void in Charleston," says Wadley. "The Archetypes broke up and I needed a job. I saw where Mongo Nicholl [the originator of the Upwith Herald, a predecessor to the City Paper] had rented the club formerly know as Tremors at 525 East Bay St. from Joe Sokol and hosted a few parties. I thought, 'I can do this!'"
Wadley and McMillan opened the Farm in April 1991 in a small brick building at 525 East Bay St. (where Papa John's Pizza stands nowadays).
"In early 1991, I initially asked Woody Bartlett at 96 Wave to be my partner for obvious reasons, but as owner of 96 Wave, he couldn't do it," remembers Wadley, who currently works as land acquisition manager for Centex Homes. "Woody invited me to have dinner with Carter. This was the first time Carter and I had formally met each other and during dinner Carter said, 'When do we get started?'"
Wadley made the plunge into promoting and managing and rented the room for a few nights. Fortunately, he achieved success with groove-rock band Uncle Mingo, who pulled a larger-than-expected crowd on their first Thursday night. From there, he and McMillan pushed ahead with their business plan and came up with the name. Architect Edward Bailey created the logo and received a lifetime spot on the club's guest list.
They equipped the stage with a solid, sizeable PA system and immediately started booking a progressive mix of local rock acts (original and cover bands) and various touring "alternative bands," most of whom were big on the college radio charts.
Live music was scant in the 1970s and early '80s in Charleston. Aside from the regional blues and rock bands playing occasional weekends at the likes of such medium-sized venues as Captain Harry's, Myskyn's, Bert's, McNamara's, The Fulton House, Club Dog Alley, or the Windjammer, only a handful of serious local bands worked the circuit.
Within their first few years, the Farm snagged more and more of the up-and-coming bands -- acts who were enjoying airplay on college radio and MTV's 120 Minutes who considered Charleston a random stop-over on the way. By the late '90s, some of the biggest names in rock -- from the grungier side of Woodstock '94 to the H.O.R.D.E and Lilith Fair acts -- were making return visits to the Farm for sold-out shows.
"We were on a mission to become the best live music venue in Charleston," remembers Wadley. "We broke rules. We were the first to allow underage patrons, we played surf movies, we had a great local staff, we had unique stamps on hands, we gave away bumper stickers, we had the cool logo, we continuously plastered the city and the CofC with flyers, we gave the bands free T-shirts and stickers, we had the Stone Age Pizza, we had the beer room with beer girls, we had the DJ band room upstairs. We covered the entire building inside out with cedar planks. We would play cattle noises to usher out the crowds at the end of the night, etc. The bands began wearing Music Farm T- Shirts at events around the country. Probably the most famous was Darius Rucker with Hootie on Late Night with David Letterman and the MTV Awards show."
The Stray Cats, The Samples, Phish, Meat Puppets, fIREHOSE, Chick Corea Elektric Band, The Dave Matthews Band, NRBQ, Warren Zevon, Widespread Panic, L7, and Social Distortion graced the small stage at the original Farm, as did several regional bands who went on to greater fame, including Gibb Droll, Allgood, The Samples, Drivin' N' Cryin', The Connells, and Cowboy Mouth.
"I think the success of the Music Farm is one of the main reasons why Charleston has become a secondary market and a place many bands want to hit on the way from Atlanta to Florida," says the club's current owner, Kurt Papenhausen. "The original club on East Bay obviously served a huge purpose in luring bands down here. Now's it's expected for touring bands to hit the Carolinas hard -- from Asheville, Winston-Salem, and Chapel Hill down to the coast. It's part of the same touring circuit now."
Only a year and a half into things, the Farm execs made major plans to relocate to a new, high-ceilinged facility set between Meeting and King streets, just across from the Charleston Visitor Center. Choosing an old, 6,000-square-foot building that used to house the South Carolina Railroad storage depot at 32 Ann St. (one of the oldest existing railroad structures in the U.S.), they completely renovated the facility, built a full bar and kitchen, and installed a state-of-the-art PA into one of the most spacious stages in town. It was also the first large-scale music club to open north of Calhoun Street and south of the old King Street Palace venue.
With a specific design in mind, they made sure the facility was very accessible for bands, with an easy load-in ramp on the west side of the building that led right onto the stage, and a large dressing room with private bathroom (set in a private balcony over the left side of the room). They built the stage big enough to accommodate more than just a drum kit and a few amps, allowing for bigger productions and more flexibility with audio gear and lighting rigs.
The original Farm closed its doors in Dec. 1992 and the "new" Farm officially opened at 32 Ann St. in Aug. 1993 with the legendary disco/R&B band The Ohio Players playing the first show. Word spread among touring bands, booking agencies, and record labels: the Music Farm was a legitimate music venue to hit. Through the mid-'90s, nearly every major alternative, indie-rock, reggae, punk/metal, blues-rock, and jam act seemed to make it onto their calendar.
In 1993, Jimbo Webb, one of the club's most familiar characters, was hired to be part of the security team. By 1995, the Mt. Pleasant native and Citadel graduate had made his way up the ladder to become general manager -- a position he still holds.
"I had just graduated and was looking for a job before getting into grad school when I answered an ad in the paper looking for a bouncer," Webb remembers. "Within a few months, I went from being one of the bouncers to heading up the security team. Two years later, I became a manager. And years later, I'm still at it! People assume I'm in it because I'm such a big music fan, but, honestly, I'm in it because I enjoy the interaction, whether it's settling a $20,000 contract deal with a band at the end of a big night or plunging the toilet in the ladies' bathroom, or whatever, it's the daily operation and interaction that I like."
Webb contributed to the operation and booking of the club with a steady, hands-on approach and a forward-thinking attitude that led to a string of successful nights.
"We had some amazing shows -- David Byrne, Helmet, Run DMC, Phish, Meat Puppets, Pavement, Cracker, Counting Crows, Uncle Tupelo ... the list is long," remembers Wadley. "I think it brought some national attention from the booking agencies, which in turn provided Charleston with more opportunity to book more and diverse bands."
By 1998, nearly seven years in, both Wadley and McMillan were feeling the fatigue of running a busy bar and music venue. They'd booked, watched, and hung out with most of their favorite bands in the world. They'd established a rapport with some of the best musicians and scenesters in town. They'd nurtured local bands alongside like-minded local shops, radio stations, and media outlets. They'd made their impact and finally decided to step aside.
"From day one, Kevin and I were in the same boat and I don't think we ever considered going on without both of us being involved," says McMillan, currently the vice president and events booker with the Ventura Sports Group. "The day-to-day stuff just got old. Instead of getting excited about every show, there were fewer and fewer that I looked forward to. It became real work, keeping up with which band was hot and drew a crowd and which band had a new release and all that. For the longest time, we just did it because that was the thing to do. We didn't know any better. And the bar-backs, bartenders, door folks, bookkeepers all did great work and were on the front lines dealing with the customers and the business night after night after night. I found myself spending more time in the office than spending time out. I still enjoyed it, but I just didn't have the energy."
After one last show with Cracker -- a regularly featured act at the club -- in June, they said a quiet goodbye to their facility and staff.
"I remember David Lowery and the Cracker guys telling us how much it meant for them to be there that night," says McMillan. "Kevin, Woody, and I went up on stage to introduce the band ... shortly after that, I proceeded to physically get thrown off the stage by Fred LeBlanc of Cowboy Mouth, who made the effort to be there on a night off. It was kind of an emotional night for us. Thinking back at all the fun we had, it was just a blast all those years. There's not a week that goes by that someone's not walking up to me with a memory of some show, meeting some musician, and all sorts of things that went on. There are so many memories."
Former investment bankers Craig Comer and Riddick Lynch (currently of Shoreline Productions and the ChazzFest staff) teamed up with songwriter/ex-internet serviceman Yates Dew (formerly of the '90s rock band United Hotcake, currently a solo artist, real estate agent, and West Ashley Bait & Tackler) to step into the ownership slot and shared management responsibilities with longtime manager Jimbo Webb. It was the beginning of a new era that kicked off with the team's first official show on Aug. 21, 1998, featuring The Blue Dogs.
"It was a great room in a great part of town," remembers Dew. "Without a doubt, props need to be given to Kevin and Carter for their vision. With Woody Bartlett at the helm at 96 Wave as their tag-team wrestling partner, the Farm was unstoppable in generating a hurricane of buzz. They were surrounded by loads of local up-and-coming talent and had the ability to leverage that in a way that helped local bands break through to the big leagues."
Things picked back up to a familiar pace for the Farm in 1999 and 2000, although there were some obstacles in booking national and international acts through the years.
"One impediment was that we weren't a major market and couldn't charge major market prices," says Lynch. "And we're a bit off the beaten path of the typical East Coast touring route. Having said that, those facts were mitigated by the fact that bands liked coming to Charleston and the Farm had established a solid reputation and track record.
"To me, the biggest challenges were actually maintaining the safety and security of the patrons, which was closely tied to not overserving and not serving to underage kids," Lynch adds. "Always concerned about someone getting hurt ...that's why I always cringed when Fred LeBlanc from Cowboy Mouth would exhort the crowd to climb up on the bar and dance. At times, dealing with egos and demands from bands and tour managers, especially those whose expectations were not in line with the type of venue they were playing. Also, as a service business, you're regularly dealing with unhappy customers. It's impossible to please everyone all the time."
In the late '90s, some locals considered the Farm to be a haven for "jam bands" -- despite the diverse mix of styles on their monthly listings. Looking back, the schedule had a variety of indie-rock, reggae, international, and hard-rock stuff. The most popular touring bands -- bands who just who happened to be prominently featured on JamBase.com and in the Homegrown Network literature -- hit the Farm hard during these years.
"As much as any club owner's heart is in the music, the business side primarily dictates the run of bookings," says Dew. "Give the people what they want. We tried it all. We took risks. Sometimes, the economics worked in our favor and other times they didn't; we learned our lessons through trial and error. I never felt like we got pigeonholed into one genre. Looking back at our era, we did well with rock, jam, reggae, indie, bluegrass, country, local, regional, and national bands. Every category had its share of ups and downs, often dependent upon numerous variables. But we had sellouts and flops within each of the genres and categories mentioned above."
"We heard plenty of those 'jam band' comments and I think they were somewhat unfounded or exaggerated," says Lynch. "Simply put, it is and always has been a live music club. It's a club with a pretty illustrious track record and on a regional, and to some extent a national level, it is a well-known name. Inevitably, it was partly reflective of our tastes and preferences -- although they went well beyond any one genre -- but mostly, it was reflective of the times and what was working well for us. What we quickly learned was that jam-band fans were an extremely loyal bunch and generally great customers for us. Some would come to two, three, or more shows in a week if we had bands they liked. Frankly, you can't really say that about fans of other types of music. If you look at the track record it is very diverse -- hard rock, pop, indie, bluegrass, reggae, jam, jazz, blues, hip-hop, R&B, etc. ... and we had some stuff that was pretty far out there, too, like some theatrical rock like GWAR and The Genitorturers, and the space/futuristic rock of Man...Or Astroman?"
It wasn't just the big-name traveling bands who got down and funky on the Farm's big stage -- plenty of local groove bands jumped into the fray as well. Some were jazz-fusion ensembles with hot chops and technique while others were goofy novelty acts dressed in costumes and armed with a list of disco or Top-40 hits to which fans and college-aged kids could dance sloppily.
"No doubt, the Music Farm has been an integral part of how the local scene has evolved over the years," says Lynch. "It afforded the opportunity to a lot of bands to play a very legitimate venue and in some cases open up for some big national acts. It wasn't always the best spot for a new or unknown band -- if you weren't capable of drawing at least 150 to 200 people, it could feel very empty and cavernous. It's a big room. Like a lot of things in life, the music scene is cyclical. Our predecessors had the good fortune to be able to ride a number of strong locals who could sell out on a regular basis -- Hootie, Edwin, Blue Dogs, Jump, Archetypes. We really had only one consistent draw like that -- Velveeeta. Sure, they were just an '80s cover band, and no one took them very seriously -- especially themselves -- but they were a godsend to us. They always packed the house and the crowd always had a blast. Having cute ladies dancing on stage was always nice."
"Jimbo Webb is the eyes and ears -- a pure veteran," says Dew. "Jimbo has seen it all. The local musicians all come to him for a Farm gig. He always has done a great job of being fair and giving them all a chance."
As one of the venue's ringmasters -- at the door, on the floor, and in the office -- Webb's connection to the local bands and regular patrons was as much a part of the club's success over the recent years as anything. Booking a smart lineup and keeping a reasonable schedule played into a functional situation -- a balance between huge sell-out nights and casual local events.
"When the Farm started out, the plan was to have live music five days a week," Webb remembers. "As large as we are, it became harder to do that, partly because of changes in the local music scene. We'd have national acts like two nights a week and then we'd fill in the rest of the dates with local acts. Honestly, college kids and music fans in general aren't as willing to go out and experiment with unsigned bands and new acts as they were before. It made it trickier. The Farm kind of morphed into a traditional concert venue. We didn't fill dates just for the sake of filling them; we focused on putting really strong shows together."
Making a big deal out of each show became the main approach for the club as it made the transition from the trio of owners to its new chief, Kurt Papenhausen, who bought the venue in the fall of 2001. Papenhausen and his wife Sara worked alongside Webb and his brother Stephen (another longtime member of the valuable security team) to maintain the contemporary mix of metal and grunge, alt-rock and alt-country, indie and major label, cover and tribute, national and local. He started his career in music in the mid-'90s as a guitarist with the Karl Shuman Band in Morgantown, W. Va. They toured the East Coast and played through the Carolinas for years before eventually relocating to Charleston in 1998.
Papenhausen got a job managing the old Millennium Music spot on King Street (where The Gap now stands), and helped set up the record store's Mt. Pleasant location in Towne Centre in '99. He assembled and coproduced four of Millennium's hefty local band CD compilations in those early years. He regularly bought local bands' discs and sold them on consignment -- a valuable experience for a new club owner.
"Putting the compilations together required wading through stacks and stacks of local demos and stuff," Papenhausen says. "Between that and playing out every week, I felt I knew the ins and outs of the local scene and knew most of the musicians in town."
To the local acts hoping to set foot on the big Farm stage, Papenhausen maintained a rational approach: "Show me that you draw a crowd in some of the smaller capacity clubs. If your band is pulling a crowd, we'll take notice. If you work your way up the system, and then contact me ... you'll be welcome at the Farm."
Papenhausen and Webb regularly booked such local band events as "Free Farm Fridays" (with four or five Charleston acts on one bill), benefit shows, album-release parties, "battle-of-the-bands" events, indie label showcases, holiday-themed events, and, occasionally, big weekend headlining slots. As with the touring major-label bands, it depended on the draw, name recognition, and date availability.
"It has become more difficult to try to cultivate bands and get them into headlining status at the Farm," says Webb. "If a local band is playing for free at a small bar one night, and again the next week for cheap at another bar, trying to charge a ticket price for them on a weekend becomes difficult. We try and make a big deal out of every show.
"Charleston is a mid-market town and we're taking the big nationals when we can get them, which is usually on a weeknight. Trying to fill dates with bands who've played a number of times during the month at other venues in town already makes it tough to build them up to headlining status. A band like Number One Contender, for example, will stay out of the local market and make a commitment to playing with us. They had a plan to play only every eight weeks or so, and that's why each show is such a special event. That's important these days, with so many other live music spots."
While random rumors on the street have suggested some sort of behind-the-scene personnel or financial troubles ("Have you heard? The Farm's closing down!") in recent years, Papenhausen simply dismisses them with a shrug.
"We hear things, too, but we just laugh at them," he says.
As one of the bigger "destination" rooms in town, securing a gig at the place still stands as a major goal for most rookie Charleston rock bands (i.e. you've "made it" if you've played the Music Farm).
"I think the scene is healthy now and probably more diverse than before," says Lynch. "There are more places for bands to play; it used to really just be the Farm, the Jammer, and Cumberland's. And certain venues are carving out niches for themselves, like the Pour House with jam bands, the Village Tavern with indie rock, and even spots like FIG with jazz. I think that's a good thing."
Looking back over the last 10 years of City Paper's "Best of Charleston" editions, one wonders how the spirit and attitude (and physical condition) of the club today compares to younger Farms of 1997 or '91. Some staffers came and went. Others, like audio engineers Todd Saverance and Andrew Higdon and bartenders Silas Harrington and Margaret Moore, have contributed their effort and time to running sound from the booth or slinging beer and bourbon from behind the main bar. No matter who's running the show in the room, or how dented or grimy the tabletop or railing might be, the heart of the club remains intact.
"Everyone who has owned or managed the Music Farm has had a passion for good music," says Wadley. "From the very beginning, we talked about creating a venue that focused on what is best for the bands. From my experience playing in a band, most clubs focused on serving drinks to customers and the band wasn't the center of the equation. The Farm has a tradition of striving to bring the best music to town. If you are looking for the best live performances, chances are that one night during the week, there will be something you enjoy at the Music Farm.
"I think it needs a good bath ... and the toilet in the men's room is missing," he adds.