Standing along Pine Street in St. Louis, watching a pop-up bike lane in action, I struck up a conversation with a 64-year-old MetroBus...
Although The Blue Note has been importing some of the biggest names in music to Columbia, the city has proven that it can export talent as well.
The White Rabbits, for example, were formed in Columbia in 2004 and since that time have released two albums on Say Hey Records and toured nationally and internationally. The band, now based in Brooklyn, returned to Columbia for the filming of its first music video.
In addition, a number of artists who performed at last year’s Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Festival call Columbia home, including Deke Dickerson and members of Steeldrivers and Chump Change.
Billy Schuh, lead singer for local band The Foundry Field Recordings, said three elements of the city make it an ideal place for starting a band: a low cost of living, a supportive community and a central location that makes it feasible to tour on either coast.
Schuh, who is also the co-owner of Emergency Umbrella Records, described the Columbia music scene as “transitionary.”
“There is an ebb and flow to Columbia’s music scene,” Schuh said. “Five or six years ago, there were seven or eight bands that were really dedicated. … Right now we have a handful but many more new bands.”
Although new bands regenerate the music community, KOPN radio host Kevin Walsh, a mainstay of the local music scene since the early ’80s, said he’s found excitement in the return of veteran musicians to Columbia stages.
Some musicians who were active in years past are finding more time to play music now that their children have grown, Walsh said.
“The best thing that’s happened to the Columbia music scene (has been) getting the kids out of the house and getting the band back together,” he said.
The key for the local music scene, he said, is connecting musicians from different generations. “There has always been a consistent musical tradition in Columbia,” he said.
Walsh and local musician Barry Hibdon said Columbia has a reputation for nurturing musicians who write their own songs.
When local musician Wes Wingate was attempting to secure the rights to put together a Bob Dylan tribute album, he contacted one of Dylan’s lawyers. As Walsh recalled, the lawyer told Wingate that when the music legend heard of the project, he said: “Missouri? They make their own music there, don’t they?”
Hibdon, who has lived in Columbia more than 20 years, said, “Young musicians doing something fresh, you can always find that in this town.” But he said music fans are paying less attention now than they were in years past.
Although events such as the Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Festival might be packed, Hibdon said he believes fewer people are paying to see music on a club level.
“You have to push a little harder to get that attention together,” Hibdon said.
The Blue Note and Mojo’s booker Peter McDevitt described the local music scene as thriving. Columbia’s student population allows for bands to develop a fan base while still going through their “growing pains,” he said.
McDevitt also said that he tries to be as supportive of local bands as possible when booking openers for headline acts in the two venues.
“By opening for touring bands that are coming to The Blue Note or Mojo’s, local bands get the opportunity to network with bands that might have a little more experience than they have,” he said. “It certainly never hurts a band to establish a friendship with a band that is based out of a different city.”
And local musicians, according to Schuh, relish the opportunity The Blue Note provides.
“To have that in your hometown… really helps out the local scene,” he said of the club and the importance McDevitt and owner Richard King place on helping local talent.
The advent of blogs and social networking have provided the local scene in cities such as Columbia with exposure they might not have found in years past.
The Internet allows bands to “spread like wildfire,” McDevitt said.
Hibdon said that when his band Ditch Witch toured with record label support in the late ’90s, it was reaching the end of an era. The model of a label taking the time to develop a band is over, he said, and has been replaced by music blogs, a medium that he said has almost as much power in publicizing a band as radio or traditional music press.
“I sort of feel like if you can’t do it from here, you’re probably not going to do it from anywhere else either,” he said.