Performers at open mic night form community
Performers of all genres welcome at open mic night
By ZACK HAROLD
DAILY MAIL LIFE EDITOR
Unity of Kanawha Valley has only canceled its monthly open mic night two times in the last 17 years.
Once was during a blizzard. The second time was in February, during the chemical leak that left hundreds of thousands of people without potable water.
“Both times we had people show up,” said Ron Sowell, the church’s music director.
Held on the second Friday of each month, the open mics have gained a devoted following. But they remain a low-key, low-pressure venue for aspiring performers.
And that’s how Sowell — who also is the band leader for West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage — likes it.
“When I started my career early on, there were a lot of people who provided open mics and open stages. That allowed me to develop as a performer. I just wanted to give back in that way to the community,” he said.
“We thought we would just try it for a few months. We got such a strong response we just kept going.”
The format is much the same as it was 17 years ago, featuring performers of all ages and ability levels.
That includes young performers just getting their start to older musicians who have never played before a live audience, along with professional musicians like Andrew Adkins of Fayetteville and Charleston’s John Lilly, who regularly stops by to try out new material.
Everyone gets two songs or 10 minutes, whichever comes first. And make note: 15-minute epics like “Inna Gadda Da Vida” and “Alice’s Restaurant” do not count as one song.
The open mic is mostly devoted to folk music, but the acts that perform are as varied as the genre itself. On a typical night, you’ll hear everything from James Taylor and Mark Knopfler covers to Celtic jigs and reels.
Last month’s open stage began with J.B. Hudson, who dedicated a love song to his wife before ripping into an acoustic blues number featuring Sowell on harmonica. Hudson shoved a screwdriver beneath his guitar strings to make it a makeshift dobro.
Next up was “Total Meltdown,” a group of guys in T-shirts, ball caps and jeans that appeared to be a fairly standard bluegrass group with a fiddle, acoustic guitar and upright bass. But then percussionist Kevin Swafford strapped on his homemade drum kit, made with coffee cans, soup cans, pot lids and other jangly metal objects.
The group launched into an instrumental cover of the Jim Croce song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” followed by a cover of Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and the traditional fiddle tune “Shady Grove,” which the band mixed with John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind.”
Chick Maddox read jokes before each of his songs — including one about a minister and a mule — before leading the audience in “The West Virginia Hills.” Mike Arcuri performed two original songs including “Hole in My Soul,” Arcuri’s tribute to the introspective art of songwriting.
But it was Don Ashworth who stole the show. Ashworth suffered a traumatic brain injury as a young man, and while he now suffers from memory loss, he still remembers every word to the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio.
He and Sowell duetted on “Puff the Magic Dragon,” before Roger Rabalais helped him sing “Greenback Dollar.”
Some performers were at home on stage, while others were clearly nervous in front of a crowd. But the audience listened intently to every song and applauded earnestly after it was finished.
“What we want to do is provide a really nice environment, a welcoming environment,” Sowell said. “There’s nothing more frustrating than pouring your heart out on a song and have people ignore you.”
The monthly events also help connect local musicians. Everyone chats during breaks, whether they are comparing guitars or snacking on the baked goods available in the kitchen (everything is 50 cents and is sold on the honor system, so bring change).
Sowell said many of the regulars become friends, and some wind up playing music together.
“It’s become a community and that was our goal,” Sowell said.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.