Every thriving music scene has a handful of movers and shakers who make things happen, and for Columbia, South Carolina, Bentz Kirby is one of those whose efforts have them shaking all over town. From his original music open mike songwriter’s nights, dubbed, “Right Bank Rails,” to a series of well-received tribute shows to both individual artists like Dylan, Neil Young, and Jerry Jeff Walker and all-day affairs like the recent Spirit of 68 festival, Kirby has managed to aid local musicians with exposure and gigs while entertaining a wide swath of the local music fan base.
This week the spotlight shifts to Kirby’s own band, Alien Carnival, and the release of their debut album. The songs on the album are a reflection of Kirby himself—loose and ragged at times, but with their heart in the right place even if the notes sometimes aren’t. After all, the headline on his Myspace profile says, “pretty music is OK, but I like mine real.”
“Dave [Michelson, local musician and producer of the disc] and I were very aware of that idea when recording these songs,” Kirby says. “It’s a shame that many people who are considered the Gods of music would never get recorded today–I mean, where would George Jones and Buck Owens fit in today’s music industry? They’d be independent, I bet.”
Locally, Kirby is certain that there isn’t a problem finding “real” music.
“I think real music is here on our local music scene for sure and the problem is digging a little deeper on the ‘big stage’ to find it because the radio won’t play it,” Kirby says. “That’s why I read Uncut and Mojo from the UK, they cover this real music in America better than any US magazine.”
Kirby’s constant networking with and assistance to local musicians came in handy this year when it came time to record his own album, he says.
“I think that people know I am doing this for the love of the music and that I actively work to create opportunities for them to play their own music,” Kirby says. “Dave’s solo work is one of the best kept secrets in this town, plus I think he has a bright future as a producer–if I could have afforded the time to apply more of Dave’s ideas, he could have taken this album to another level entirely.”
Not that Kirby is dissatisfied with the level he has already reached, that of local musical mentor and facilitator.
“Everyone who plays on this album or with Alien Carnival must play for the love of the music,” Kirby admits, “When we play it is with as many as eight to ten people and we clear about $0 to $10 a person, so I can only figure they do it for fun and because they know I’ll do my best to get them or their band opportunities.”
Amazingly enough, as much as one sees Kirby’s name around town he’s not even a full time musician. Lawyer by day, songwriter and singer by night, is his mantra, and he has been around the Columbia music scene as a fan and audience member long before playing a note on stage. His long perspective affords him a unique viewpoint, but he confesses that he’s learned as much about music from them as other local musicians have been learning from him.
“I am amazed at how much some of the younger bands and musicians know about music from my times and before,” Kirby says, “I think we have a well educated music scene on the whole, I think the real difference is just where we get on board–for instance, a lot of these folks don’t necessarily know Woody Guthrie’s music, but they hear it through Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the like and you can hear it in their music. You can hear echoes of Woody in the music of Justin Smith and the Folk-Hop Band, for example. So, I think it’s just what influences get them started that makes them different from me. Plus, these young guys and girls are turning me on to more modern musicians, like Robbie Fulks and Todd Snider.”
As an active participant in the local music scene, Kirby is bullish on Columbia’s talent.
“I think the biggest positive we have in Columbia is the quality of the musicians and songwriters,” Kirby states. “Danielle Howle, Josh Roberts, American Gun, David Adedokun, Chris Smith (Sunshone Still), Fossil Record (Chris Compton) and Devils in Disguise have all released great albums, and people are just starting to find out about Rob Lindsey, Dave Michelson’s solo work, The Dubber, Josh McGill, Papa String Band, DNR, and the excellent songs they have written. Brodie Porterfield and Liesl Downey are not even known and they are as good or better than many who get a lot of local press.”
One musician who did get a lot of local coverage also had a profound affect on Kirby in the short time they knew each other was the late Chris Conner, whose battle with lung cancer is the subject of the song, “Country Boy,” on the new CD.
“I met Chris after seeing him play solo and opening for Danielle at the Riverfront concert series,” Kirby says, “They came up to my show at the Red Tub later that night. I was blown away by Chris’ song ‘Highway 17.’ The theme of chasing the perfect song and unwise living was perfect to me, so I was fascinated with his songwriting from the moment of meeting his music. Then I saw the South and was blown away with his stage presence and the quality of his voice.” The discovery of Conner’s music was closely followed by making a personal connection after he got sick.
”I wanted to write him a song to encourage him to fight and hang on,” Kirby says. “I don’t think people realize how sick the chemo and treatments made him–I also wanted to express to him that he was spiritual long before he ever recognized it in the hospital. Just listen to the lyrics of the Sourwood Honey songs and the cover songs he chose. Basically, it is a thank you to him and a way to preserve my memory of a very good man who was a very good friend for a too short period of time.”
Just as Chris Conner had a profound effect on many people, some he knew and many he did not, Bentz Kirby has in his own way had a positive influence on the local music scene through his promotional efforts, concert hosting, and now, with his own musical contributions.