If you want to find the unheard sounds of young, Southern musicians, the best place to do it these days is Birmingham’s annual Secret Stages Festival. The Bitter Southerner headed to the Magic City early this month, and today, we turn you on to three acts that knocked our red-clay-stained socks off.
Story by Chuck Reece / Title Photo by Kelsey Freeman


 
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I came home sore from Birmingham.

Sore as a boil, as my dad used to say, but with mission accomplished. I, a middle-aged music nerd with nagging back pain, had stood on my feet for 12 hours, two days straight, to watch about 20 bands play.

Folks like me, who have spent three or so decades prowling nightclubs and festivals in search of Music We’ve Never Heard, no longer relish the prospect of two upstanding days at a music festival. I blame the pain of age, in part, but I also blame the pain of sameness. With rare exceptions like North Carolina’s Merlefest and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the current festival circuit offers little in the way of Music We’ve Never Heard. I was not surprised this spring when The New York Times’ three music critics — Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff and Jon Caramanica — announced they would not cover the largest festivals, such as Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and California’s Coachella.  

“Their bookings used to be somewhat exciting,” they wrote, “if exciting means special and special means rare and rare means meaningful; they aren’t anymore. Each of these festivals … has its own essence, to some degree. But that essence has more and more to do with variations in clothes, drugs, topography and regional weather, and less to do with the sounds coming from the multiple stages.”

Your odds get even worse if you want to find Music We’ve Never Heard that comes from a specific region, such as the South, the place we concern ourselves with at the BS. Thus, it was a delight earlier this summer to receive the lineup for a little festival that’s been hanging on for six years in downtown Birmingham, Alabama — Secret Stages.

This is what it looked like: 60 acts, 54 of them from the American South, and of those, I had heard of only four and had seen none of them live. I asked Travis Morgan, 35, who has booked all six of the annual festivals, how he assembles a lineup of bands that might have loyal hometown fans but are otherwise not widely known. Morgan has spent his career in the indie music business, from working at record stores to owning an independent label.

“Just from my nearly 15 years in the music business, I’ve built up tons of contacts in other cities around the country and especially the Southeast,” he said. “I've worked in the Southeast more than anywhere else. I've got contacts at record stores. I've got contacts at alternative papers, music blogs, other record labels, people I happen to know who are pretty embedded into their own music scenes, then other bands, of course. I literally have a Rolodex in my computer that I have organized in such a way that I can reach out to these people every year … and get ideas. I listen to every single idea as much as I can. I go to a lot of shows and keep up with certain blogs that I trust. For the most part, these bands are only recognizable in their own cities, if even that.”

 
 
Photo by Tyler Woods
In short, he roots out hometown buzz about bands in almost every genre of music, then invites them to play in Birmingham on one of five stages (four in nightclubs and outdoors), all in a four-block area of downtown. Secret Stages supplies plenty of motivation to those who chase the Music We’ve Never Heard.

We spent the first weekend of August at the sixth Secret Stages, determined to bring BS readers news of up-and-coming Southern musicians. We saw at least partial sets by almost half of those 54 acts. Three of them blew us away — a 28-year-old rapper from Macon, Georgia, a still-in-college rock band from Memphis, Tennessee, and an unclassifiable, 28-year-old singer/songwriter from Durham, North Carolina.

 
Photo By CHuck reece
 
Photo by Chuck Reece

Here’s how you tell if you’re in the right spot at a music festival like Seven Stages. Acts few people have ever heard of play overlapping shows inside different clubs. If you arrive at the scheduled time for a particular act, almost inevitably you will see a sparse crowd. Ten minutes into the set, if you turn around and see the crowd has multiplied, you’re probably in the right place. The vibe of a great show sneaks out onto the sidewalk and draws people in.

A crowd of maybe two dozen people milled about in front of the Rogue Tavern stage as Macon rapper Floco Torres came on. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen a musician throw himself so completely into connecting with a small crowd. He cranked his energy dial up to about 11 from the get-go. The music? It felt soulful, grounded in the earth, making it clear that Torres’ partner, Macon’s DJ Shawty Slim, is a wizard who can readily call forth the musical soul of a place that produced musical icons like Otis Redding. Torres himself? You could call him a Southerner by choice. He grew up in southern New Jersey, but eight years ago, he set out for the hip-hop mecca that is Atlanta. He landed in Macon because his grandparents live there: It was as close as he could get. But over that time, he has made himself a part of Macon’s music community, and soaked up the soulful vibes of the city’s musical history. His raps radiate big heart, his messages continually circle back to the power of persistence, and every well chosen word from his mouth sounds like truth.

I turned around after about two songs, and the crowd had grown. By a lot. Torres is an irresistible personality on stage. I genuinely found myself thinking, “If Otis had grown up with hip-hop, this would be him.”

Photo By Kelsey Freeman

The highlight of his set was “Back Home,” the final song on Torres’ just-released “The Porsche EP.” As a slinky beat came in, he asked the crowd, “Don't it just get too electronic sometimes?” Cheers came back. “Sometimes, you just need that soul.” Shawty Slim then dropped in a sample of an obscure soul nugget from 1973 I’d never heard before, called “Welcome the Boys Back Home,” a paean to returning Vietnam War soldiers by Bill Moss & the Celestials, underpinned by Slim’s own booming bass line. Over this celestial, joyful noise, Torres unspooled a rap about, as he explained to me over the phone a few days later, the daily challenge that underpins everything he raps about: “Every day when I wake up, I have to go out and be a black man.”

Things change when you start catchin’ flights
And they notice that you ain’t hangin’ ’round on most nights
They don't know what to say when you walk into the room
The only time you got to leave the city was ya honeymoon
It's all cool, let me see the pictures
Selfie with ya wife in ya room at the Hilton
Couple fake smiles then I'm out with the quickness
Before they talk about race again
It's really only ’cause I'm they only black friend
It's like the whole culture I gotta defend
Same ol’ same every time I'm back
That's why you'll always find me where the whiskey's at.

Truth. You have to admire a man smart enough to understand the value of an occasional retreat to home, friends and whiskey.


 
 
Photo by Anne Marie Cartwright

The first thing I wondered when the five members of China Gate took the stage was whether they were even old enough to get into the place —  a basement hideout of a bar, called Matthew’s. Then, I heard the first jangly chords from Tiger Adams’ hollow-bodied Rickenbacker guitar, and I heard deep Memphis voodoo going on — voodoo of a distinctly 1970s vintage, echoes of that most mythic and revered band, Big Star. Big Star, if you are unaware, existed from 1971 to 1974 and left behind only three albums. Those records would prove hugely influential, the Rosetta Stones for the musical language created a decade later by bands such as Georgia’s R.E.M. and North Carolina’s dB’s.

And here were these kids, all of whom looked about 17 or 18 to me, sounding like a reincarnation of Big Star. Not a copy of Big Star, mind you, but something like a logical extension of their music. Near the end of their set, bassist Conner Booth stepped to the microphone and announced the band would do something it didn’t do back home in Memphis: It would cover a song by another Memphis band. Out rang the opening chords of Big Star’s “September Gurls,” a two-minute-and-47-second pop masterpiece few bands would attempt for fear of appearing lame. But China Gate rendered it perfectly, knocked it out of the park, leaving a gaggle of Big Star fans who’d found their way into the show to drool and stare cockeyed at each other, as if to ask, “Did that really happen?”

 
 
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It turns out these five young men — Adams, Booth, lead guitarist Walt Germain, drummer Kyle Neblett and his keyboardist brother Harry — are old enough to drink (barely) and come by their musical roots honestly. Adams attended the Memphis University School, the alma mater of two Big Star members, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel. In that school’s Recording Arts Program, Adams took a basic recording class that offered the kids rare source material to work with: master tracks from Big Star’s recordings.

“They just gave us the master tracks of ‘September Gurls’ for our first recording tracks,” Adams told me. “We would just experiment — like, take all the guitar out and try to recreate that sound ourselves.”

I suppose he couldn’t plug into the Big Star vibe more directly than that.

Until Secret Stages, China Gate had never played a live show outside the state of Tennessee. In 2015, their first year together, they released a nine-song debut called “Hunca Munca,” which is delightful. But Adams says the band plans to hit the road and spend time refining its new songs before finishing a second album at Memphis’ legendary Ardent Studios.

You know, where Big Star recorded.


 
 
Photo by Tyler Woods

Skylar Gudasz, a native of Ashland, Virginia, was one of the four acts I had heard of before Secret Stages. She first won attention in Southern music circles as part of dB’s founder Chris Stamey’s mammoth, touring re-creation of Big Star’s “Third” album, which included the likes of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and that band’s first producer, Mitch Easter. Gudasz got the nod to sing Big Star’s “Thirteen,” one of the most touching teenage love songs ever written, and she rendered it exquisitely.  

Out of that project, Stamey began helping Gudasz put orchestrations behind her own songs. The result is a lovely album, “Oleander,” whose tunes about the weirdness of love by turns whisper, then snarl, then make you wonder if Gudasz is the Joni Mitchell the South never had. The album is so lush, even to the point of orchestrations played by members of the North Carolina Symphony, it makes you wonder how Gudasz, with no budget to take a big band on tour, could ever bring these songs to life on stage.

In Birmingham, she crowded onto a tiny stage at Pale Eddie’s Pour House with only a bass player and drummer, and quickly brought a chatty crowd to rapt silence. Her lush voice, inventive melodies and insightful lyrics captivated the crowd, even in this stripped-down musical setting. Her songs rarely stick to familiar verse-chorus-verse arrangements, and as she moves from guitar to piano and back, Gudasz’s lyrics take sideways peeks into the intricacies of relationships. The subjects of her songs remain blurry, but her point of view is sharp. A prime example is “I’ll Be Your Man,” with these lines:

Don’t ask me if I believe in God, I believe in Gibson guitars
Don’t ask me if I believe in goodbyes, I believe in a fast car
And if you’re feeling sad, sugar, go down to the sea
And dream the dream that you dream of me.


Her lyrics often reflect such wry humor, and they do so in the most artful of ways. Such work is a tough enough feat for a young songwriter, but to see Gudasz pair her lyrics with such adventurous melodies and song structures is a marvel. It worked in a small setting, and on record, it sounds big enough to roll around in, like new grass in the springtime.