“Let’s hear a round of applause and testifyin’ for the man what brought the hawg!” announces Beth McKee in her bayou accent, amid whoops and catcalls from the crowd. A bearded fellow with BBQ sauce staining his shirt adds, in reference to the pulled pork on the paper plates, “That bad boy was running around the swamp a coupla days ago eating acorns.”
As McKee launches into some high-octane boogie-woogie on the keyboard, an audience member who recently moved here from Detroit shakes his head and audibly observes: “South Georgia—it’s a whole other planet, man.”
About 60-odd music lovers have convened in the “Old Time Pickin’ Parlor” for another installment of “Randy Wood Presents,” a bi-weekly concert series of acoustic and Americana music, with a reverential emphasis on bluegrass. Set in a low-slung building beside the Randy Wood Guitar Shop in Bloomingdale, about 20 minutes outside Savannah, it has showcased a long list of stalwarts, including Little Roy Lewis, Vassar Clements and Tommy Emmanuel, as well as dewy Newgrass acts such as the Grascals, Mountain Heart and Brand New Strings. Ronny Cox of “Deliverance” fame is another alumnus.
This show marks the second appearance here for The Beth McKee Trio, a Southern roots ensemble that just released a tribute album to the late Louisiana songwriter, Bobby Charles.
“If I were just passing through here and had no idea what this place was, it would call my name, and I would have to turn my car into the gravel driveway,” says McKee, a Mississippi native based in Orlando. “It’s just one of those charmed, magical places that are increasingly rare. It has all of the elements that make a community special—water nearby, friendly people, great food, fishing and music. Tonight, it’s our turn to bring the music.”
And bring it, they do. McKee unleashes her shiny, red accordion (“this finish is called ‘mother of toilet seat,’”) for a couple of cayenne-spiced zydeco numbers before conceding, “I know—a little accordion goes a long way.” The group wraps up with some bluesy Dixieland, and everybody leaves contented and full. The freshly butchered and smoked “hawg” was an impromptu gift from Wood’s neighbor to feed the masses at no charge—a distinctly Southern sacrament beneath the Spanish moss.
Wood, a longtime luthier to the stars, knows how to pack these pews. When he was a partner in G.T.R. in Nashville during the 1970s, he opened his original “Old-Time Pickin’ Parlor” on Second Avenue, just off Broadway. It became the de-facto lounge for marquee names.
“Kenny Rogers, the Eagles, Roy Acuff, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Whitlock—whoever was hanging around,” Wood says. “They knew they could jam there or just relax without being bothered by autograph hounds. They also could say and do things without worrying that it would get written up in the next day’s headlines! They could be themselves.”
In time, though, what started as a low-key guitar pull eventually grew into a 200-seat nightclub and “listening room” hotspot.
“All of the European and overseas tour companies billed us in the top-two ‘must-see’ attractions in Nashville—sometimes ahead of the Opry,” Wood says.
When he and his wife, Irene, retired to the Georgia coast, they did not plan to establish another concert hall.
“About six years ago, some friends of ours were passing through and wanted to visit but couldn’t really afford gas or a motel room—you know how tight money can be for musicians,” Wood explains. “So we figured, let’s give them an opportunity to make a little gas money. It’s grown from there. We try to book nationally known bands that happen to be passing through this area from, say, North Carolina to Miami, or something like that.”
Mountains meet the sea
In doing so, Wood effectively has introduced a bluegrass scene to the coast, where banjos and mandolins once were scarcer than hen’s teeth.
“A lot of people think that the entire South is just covered up with bluegrass music, but that just isn’t so,” he says. “Most of our audience members are people who might once have said, ‘I don’t care for banjo or bluegrass music,’ because of the hillbilly stigma. But they are acoustic fans who listen to a wide variety of music. Once we get them through the door, they generally like what they hear and leave with a love for bluegrass. And they come back.”
Five of the audience members at McKee’s show are Canadian; and one concert regular, Tamzin Freeman, traveled from Augusta. “Just to inhale the resin in Randy’s shop is worth the drive,” she says.
Adds Wood, “We have people on our mailing list who live in Seattle and Chicago but do a little business in Savannah. They schedule their business trips around our shows.”
In the spirit of jam sessions, the impresario of twang especially enjoys juxtaposing individuals who normally do not play together into all-star, pickup bands.
“The last show that Vassar Clements recorded before he died was right here, in a scenario like that,” Wood says. “I like to throw together outstanding, individual players into an unrehearsed band for some spontaneous music. If it’s done right, it makes for an adventurous show that challenges the musicians to flex and stretch their muscles, and the audience in turn gets a certain kind of electricity off it. You end up with a monster show that you wouldn’t be able to experience in any other venue in the world.”
And musician-crowd synergy is an important factor in Wood’s intimate auditorium, which seats about 100.
“The people are right up in your lap!” says Barry Palmer, The Bluegrass Alliance’s banjo virtuoso who has known Wood since 1975. “You’re making eye contact with the audience and feeling their energy. And you never know who’s going to be there—Tony Rice, Tony Williamson, Claire Lynch—they’re all regulars, as was Vassar before he died.”
Wood’s next goal is to film these “monster shows” for posterity.
“We’re trying to get the financial backing to make DVDs of every show, both to help the artists with their promotions and for archival purposes,” he says. “There’s a huge appetite out there for Americana, and our roots music is too important not to preserve.”