Fifteen years ago, Graham Whorley found himself standing in two feet of snow in his hometown of Lynchburg, Va., calling his sister on Folly Beach. When he showed up in Charleston to crash on her couch, he had nothing but a guitar, a trash bag of clothes, two dogs, and his boots. He was barely 18 and had lost his license, his job, his apartment, and his girlfriend.
"I was telling her my hard times, and she was like, 'Well, we're going to the beach. It's 85 degrees,'" he recalls. "I said, 'I'll be there in eight hours,' and I hitchhiked the whole way."
Today, Whorley lives a comfortable life with his wife, Keli, and two children. Their cozy home on Folly Beach is adorned with guitars, drums, and stacks of vinyl albums. His music supports the family, but requires that he play as many as nine shows a week to keep up rent, birthdays, braces, and so forth. Keli handles his booking, publicity, and website.
"I'm blessed to have these beautiful children and a wife who's so supportive," Whorley says. "I'm not a rich man, but I want my kids to have everything I didn't have, and I want them to appreciate it at the same time. I love music to death, but there are nights when you have to ice your hand when you get home. Last week I couldn't even fit this ring [his wedding band] on my finger."
But he's not complaining. Fresh off a couple of solo gigs back in Virginia, he's busy burning and critiquing copies of his performances to archive. Whorley's a true master of looping technology, using play-back-in-reverse features and multiple pedals to create layers of back beats and sometimes-haunting sound effects with his acoustic guitar.
It's a far cry from his first days on the Charleston scene when he worked at a clam farm and played a few gigs a week, oftentimes for $50 and dinner. Or less.
"I had pawned everything, and my guitar was the lowest grade C.F. Martin you could get," says Whorley. "My guitar didn't have a pick-up, and I put together a P.A. out of speakers from a home stereo system. I probably slept in 100 houses on Folly Beach. I was barely keeping fed."
After Keli became pregnant, she pushed him to start booking gigs every night of the week and treat performing like a real job. He made a gritty four-track cassette demo and used it to start building his schedule, then put together the Graham Whorley Band, gradually building a regional reputation as a solid, inventive act.
Between his band and solo gigs, now Whorley plays up to 320 gigs a year. He's established enough on the scene that he's jammed and organized shows with Tim Reynolds, Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.), and members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
The toughest part, he says, is getting bar owners to understand that music is his job — not just a "weekend warrior" hobby. "I was blessed to be able to finally have Charleston accept me, and even now I'm not where I want to be, but I have a nice root in the ground that feels good," Whorley says. "I know that I'm doing the right thing, and there's nothing that can really stop that." —Stratton Lawrence