Whiskey Pines

Whiskey Pines filmed by Sean Bergersen for a 2020 promo.

Local musicians are taking to the stage again as Moore County’s bars, restaurants and theaters open their doors to increasingly larger crowds.

Restrictions on capacity and curfews are easing, and some live music venues have booked performers for the entire season. Musicians are just as eager to fill their calendars with shows, especially those who were left unemployed by the pandemic.

“To say that he had a tough year is quite the understatement,” said local musician Bobby Hancock of Whiskey Pines, first place winner of the Pilot’s “2020 Best of The Pines” award for a musical group. “Not only were we bored out of our minds, we were broke, felt empty from the lack of self expression — and gratification — one gets from playing music in front of hundreds of people.”

While Hancock had a daytime job, his partner Tim Stelmat relied on unemployment benefits. It was pennies to the dollar of what they normally earned, said Hancock. At the start of 2020, the band had been gearing up for what promised to be the most successful year of its career. Suddenly, cancellation calls came in by the hour.

“Luckily, our reputation kept us afloat. Several individuals, and venue owners alike, kept us on regular rotation for small events, solely to keep us afloat and help us financially. To those people we are eternally grateful,” said Hancock.

A year later, Whiskey Pines has now filled its entire 2021 calendar with performance dates, some of which will be local shows. And the calls are still rolling in.

Others artists are returning to the scene more slowly. Brothers Ryan and Justin Harris of Mckenzies Mill, another popular local act, had a similar year. Unlike Whiskey Pines, its only performances have been online fundraisers. The band is tentatively booking a few outdoor events for 2021.

Faith Bardill is a Moore County-based artist who has been a bit luckier. “A lot of people had a hard time, and I’ve been very blessed to keep performing since late May, early June mostly in the North Myrtle Beach area.”

Many of these concerts were outdoors, said Bardill. There were some restrictions on capacity, but the South Carolina beach towns offered much more opportunity and freedom to perform. Bardill has played a handful of times back in Moore County, for example at The Drum & Quill.

The best part of the pandemic has been the opportunity for writing and recording, said Bardill during an interview, echoing a few other local musicians. She has used the extra time to hone her craft and produce new songs.

“But I do love playing in a packed place, with people jamming out and having a good time,” admits Bardill. “I miss looking around and being able to say, wow there are a lot of people here to see this show.” Playing locally again on a regular basis is an exciting prospect for her.

Many local venues, especially bars, breweries and hotels are eager to make that a possibility. During the past year, places have come up with creative ways to host music; some strategies have been more successful than others. Curfews and capacity restrictions have been two of the biggest obstacles. Venues struggled to break even after paying performers and dealing with show expenses.

“People would literally ask for COVID rates,” said musician Bobby Hancock, referring to venues that booked them.

The Jefferson Inn in downtown Southern Pines closed its Tavern this past winter for that reason. In the spring and summer, the hotel’s patio area offered a better venue for distanced listening that was safer for patrons, said hotel owner Curtis Dean. While the Tavern normally held up to 150 guests, with the limited number of tables it was not unusual for the hotel to have only 50 at a time. “It doesn’t make sense to go to all the trouble,” said Dean. Because of the winter shut down, the Tavern has lost many of its employees and struggled to get back on its feet.

But now that the restrictions have lifted, Dean is excited about hosting live shows again, and believes they will have plenty of customers.“The interest will definitely be there. It’s been so apparent, no question about it, people are to resume their normal lives,” he said.

Curfew was the main obstacle for The Bell Tree Tavern, said owner Con O’Mahoney. As the period of time following dinner, which was devoted to music, shrunk, so did the length of the shows. The demand was high, but with a 9 p.m. closing time, the time and space was too limited.

“In the end, it was very hard to control the amount of people, and it just didn’t seem fair with people lined up outside the door, paying a cover charge to hear a short show.” Like the Jefferson Inn, The Bell Tree has started hosting live music again this month and is optimistic about the response from people.

Some venues that rely more heavily on entertainment, such as pubs and breweries, have had to be creative. Hatchet Brewing Company in Southern Pines, for example, never stopped hosting live music. It served beer through windows while musicians would play to a small audience in line. On social media, Hatchet would livestream the performance and receive virtual tips for the musicians. When the building did reopen, it started hosting small performances from 6-9 p.m. Saturday nights. That’s still happening but with a larger audience.

“We wanted to reopen the music mostly to support the local musicians,” said Hatchet’s owner, Mike Carey. “Many reached out to us during the shut down but we really saw the need when even more contacted us because of the live streaming. It became very beneficial for all involved.”

But not all performance spaces see imminent opportunity. Janet Kenworthy, owner of The Rooster’s Wife in downtown Aberdeen, possibly the only local venue devoted solely to live music performances, has taken a different approach altogether, by completely closing the doors to her performance space in Aberdeen. In all likelihood, she will not be opening again until 2022. The venue has a max capacity of 100 people, she said, and at half capacity, that means only 50 patrons, which is hardly enough to support both the venue and artist.

This is especially true when the venue hosts touring musicians. Artists, says Kenworthy, can’t get from point A to point B while on tour, because they don’t make enough to balance out travel costs. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kenworthy has only participated in a few live streams to support musicians and various nonprofits.

“The Rooster’s Wife has always been about the music,” she explained. “It’s about keeping the musicians safe and employed. Until it’s undeniably safe, it doesn’t look like a great prospect to me.”

The one thing that is clear in Moore County is that local venues, patrons and performers all care about the safety and success of musicians, said Erin Ceneske, another artist gradually returning to the stage.

“People in the community understand what we had to go through,” said Ceneske, “and are trying to help out anyway they can.”

Contact Mary Moore at mmoore@thepilot.com.

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Leigh Thomas


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