Striking the Right Chords

February 2018
Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

From cover artists to up-and-comers, explore the Grand Strand’s diverse local music scene

PHOTO: Tru Sol performs at 2001 Nightclub in Myrtle Beach, one of the last concerts before the venue shut down at the end of 2017.

Under stage lights of sapphire and green, six-member band Oracle Blue sets off a slow jazzy funk jam that captivates the gathering of patrons sipping their beers and mixed drinks on this cold Saturday night.

Some fans flocked to Dead Dog Saloon to keep their eyes and ears on this up-and-coming local band that has aspirations of playing on much bigger stages than this one. Other patrons were there to enjoy the food or their friends and the view from the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk—the band’s funkified covers of the Jackson 5, Whitney Houston and others simply the background music of their evening.

It’s a scene you can put on repeat in restaurants and bars along the Grand Strand.

Locals and tourists have lots of options for catching live music here. It’s a must for many businesses in this tourism-driven town where vacationers want to dance and sing along to the songs everybody knows—think “Margaritaville” and “Brown Eyed Girl.” Stroll along the MarshWalk any given evening and you’ll hear a guy with a guitar belting out his best Jimmy Buffett, some funky jazz rock emanating from Bubba’s Love Shak and a cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” rockin’ out from Wahoo’s.

Most patrons don’t think much about the stories of the bands providing the soundtrack for their night on the town or their beach vacation—they’re too focused on having fun. But behind the music, these bands—some thriving on playing regular local gigs, others with the goal of playing bigger cities—are putting in the rehearsals and juggling day jobs or side work with their nighttime performances. They are all fueled by the same thing—a passion for music.

“We just love it,” said Sheryta Samuel, a founding member of longtime local band Tru Sol. “It’s the only thing that we do that makes sense.”

The Scene

Myrtle Beach’s music scene is like the place itself—a bit quirky.

“People say that it sucks, others say it’s great, others don’t know what to make of it,” said Conner Mills, who grew up in Myrtle Beach and plays keyboard and saxophone for local band Paperwork. “We live in a weird place for live music.”

It comes down to whether you’re looking for great covers, original music or a mix of both.

Want to find a spot to hear all your favorite sing-along cover songs? You’ll find it on the Grand Strand. Musicians who enjoy pumping up a crowd and playing hits made famous by other artists have it made with so many restaurants and bars showcasing that live jukebox style. Paul Grimshaw, Tru Sol, The Mullets and others have perfected this crowd-pleasing performance, leading to long-term success as regulars on the local circuit.

Grimshaw, who is also a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Grand Strand Magazine, never goes into a show with a set list; he plays what the crowd wants to hear, taking requests each night. “We mix it up,” Grimshaw said. “No two shows are ever the same.”

With so many venues, local musicians willing to cater to the crowds with covers can enjoy a steady stream of gigs year-round, playing six or seven nights a week and multiple gigs a day during the busy summer season.

“Myrtle Beach, the Grand Strand, is probably one of the best places for musicians to live and work,” Grimshaw said.

Craving some new original music from bands aiming to tour and hit it big? Well, that could be a bit trickier to find along the Grand Strand. Most restaurants and bars are more likely to book the bands that cater to the tourism-driven demand for covers, though some, such as Pawleys Island Tavern and Bourbon Street Bar & Grille, are more likely to showcase original local music.

“It would be cool if it was a more original scene,” Mills said. “It’s a weird market but it’s a cool one.”

It wasn’t always that way, with many music fans and musicians wishing for the days in the ’90s where you could catch more original acts performing at packed venues that regularly showcased local talent.

“It certainly isn’t what it used to be,” said Drew Voivedich, who grew up in Little River and plays with the Drew Anthony Band. “There used to be a lot more originality in the music scene than [there] is now. It’s looked at more as a business than an art form.

“There’s a lot of talent around here for sure but a lot of it goes unnoticed,” he said.

Musicians find it frustrating that their original music isn’t embraced as much as the covers that have the crowds singing and dancing. Because it is a tourist town fueled by demand for covers, “The original music sometimes gets pushed to the side,” said Liz Kelley-Tavernier, lead singer for local band Oracle Blue.

The Grand Strand has produced musicians such as Cayley Spivey of Small Talks who played Vans Warped Tour and Sweet Sweet that played Bonnaroo—both nationally known events. But locally, artists like them aren’t even household names.

“They are in the corner singing to an empty bar, but look them up on YouTube and you’ll see them performing to thousands of people,” Kelley-Tavernier said. “There are a lot of hidden gems in this town.”

Take Oracle Blue on that Saturday night at Dead Dog Saloon. Several patrons clustered around the tables and at the bar ventured out on the cold December evening just to see the band, including their unique spin on cover songs.

“They turn it into their own song,” said Chris Mahn of Murrells Inlet. “They are all super talented. It’s not the same old tired covers.”

While there was a decent crowd that night, Mahn wishes a band with the talent of Oracle Blue could pack the place every time.

“This band is as good as it gets and there’s no one here,” he said.

But Oracle Blue, happy to hone their craft in local bars as they have their sights on touring bigger cities, aims to make the most of the cover-driven local scene. They put their unique spin on covers that will satisfy the crowd while mixing some originals into their sets to satisfy their creative desire to share their custom tunes.

They’ll also reach for songs they call “functional crowd pleasers” that still get the crowd going but aren’t your usual covers. Imagine a funky version of “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child or an old-school Al Green track that channels the band’s roots as a jazz ensemble at Coastal Carolina University.

“It’s always give and take,” Kelley-Tavernier said. “You can still be creative playing other people’s music.”

Oracle Blue is working on recording its first album, Gilded Kingdoms, in Nashville, with plans to launch the new music in the spring.

Tru Sol, a fixture along the Grand Strand for 13 years, is known for getting the party started with dance tunes that get the crowd moving. But the band is still working on original music and aims to release the songs during its anniversary concert in November.

“It’s time to let them see what we can really do,” Samuel said.

Push Play

There’s no set path for musicians to break into the music scene along the Grand Strand. Some were born into it, others started as Coastal Carolina University students who stuck around, while others ended up here ready to play after careers elsewhere.

Grimshaw, after working in the music business in Nashville, came to Myrtle Beach for what he thought would be six months—that was 21 years ago—and decided to give performing here a try after catching another musician one night.

“Well, jeez, I know I’m at least that good,” Grimshaw said.

He learned the popular covers and convinced a friend to give him a shot at a gig at a River City Cafe near 74th Avenue North (not the same one there today).

“I started seeing people around town play and I figured I better learn some Jimmy Buffett and ‘Brown Eyed Girl’—I had never played ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ until I moved here,” said Grimshaw, who now has hundreds of songs at the ready to perform.

Fast forward two decades, and Grimshaw is a regular performer along the Strand year-round, including every Wednesday night at Dead Dog Saloon. During the summer, he’ll play 30 gigs a month, often pulling two a day. But he doesn’t just perform in bars and restaurants. He’s a regular at community events such as Taste of the Town at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center during the fall and Brookgreen Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles around the winter holidays. Then there are the private parties, weddings and conventions that pass through town.

He was even picked to play in Murrells Inlet and other spots across the state for Marco Rubio when he was a presidential candidate.

Grimshaw has been around so long, he’s outlasted several of the venues where he was a regular, including Hard Rock Park, Blarney Stones at Broadway at the Beach and Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant’s Thirsty Thursdays.

“Gigs come and go. Places open and close,” Grimshaw said.

Others performed while students at Coastal Carolina University and simply wanted to keep the fun going. Members of Tru Sol, another regular performing band along the Grand Strand, sang in gospel and a cappella groups at CCU. After graduation, they realized they weren’t quite done with music.

“Well, shoot, we can keep doing this,” Samuel said. “We realized it was something that sounded good and we could keep it going.”

They weren’t sure at that time if that meant heading to New York to meet P. Diddy or hitting the local scene. But soon they were regular performers along the Strand, then picked up weddings and private parties. You’re likely to catch them at local festivals and events such as Brookgreen’s Nights of a Thousand Candles.

“Everything took off so quickly,” Samuel said.

Another band moving through the local circuit also is a product of CCU. Oracle Blue—with horns, flute and piano adding a jazzy funk sound to the usual guitar and drums—formed in 2013. The band won the DownBeat 2016 Student Music Award for an Outstanding Performance in the Blues/Pop/Rock Group category and toured in Europe with performances at jazz festivals.

Then there are musicians who grew up in the local music scene.

Voivedich is from Little River and has toured with country artist Kellie Pickler. But the time on the road became draining, so he’s now back on the Grand Strand playing local venues and performing at The Carolina Opry.

Mills of Paperwork remembers watching his dad Steve Marino Mills play guitar and sing in the 1980s at spots such as the Breakers and Sea Captain’s House. It seemed natural that he would follow in those musical footsteps. Now Paperwork, which formed five years ago, is spreading its own brand of “futuristic funk” along the Grand Strand, with aspirations of regularly playing bigger cities with vibrant music scenes such as Atlanta and Jacksonville, Florida.

CCU and the area’s live theaters bring high-caliber musicians to the beach that help feed the area’s music scene, said Grimshaw, who has written extensively about local music.

“There’s a lot of work for musicians here,” Grimshaw said.

On the Side

While musicians have plenty of places to make a living performing along the Grand Strand, most juggle day jobs, too.

“Everybody has stuff they do on the side,” Mills said.

Many use their musical talents by day, too, giving private lessons.

Even though Voivedich works a full day at The Carolina Opry, he couldn’t go without his gigs. Despite the long days at the theater then gigs until midnight or 2 a.m., he does it “for the love of music.”

“I have to have an outlet,” Voivedich said. “I’d go crazy if I didn’t get to play.”

One member of Tru Sol paints houses, another does hair and one is a teacher in Horry County Schools. Some members of Oracle Blue work an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in insurance or at a bank, then turn around to play a gig that evening until midnight or 2 a.m. They get up the next day and do it all again. It’s a schedule most couldn’t keep if they didn’t love what they do.

“Oh, gosh, it’s definitely passion,” Kelley-Tavernier said. “It’s a testament to how much we want this to work.”

Coming Home

The Grand Strand will always have a special place for these musicians, even those who aim to tour or play their way into bigger cities.

“I will always play in Myrtle Beach,” Mills said. “No matter where my music career takes me, because it is rewarding.”

Kelley-Tavernier said the Grand Strand has embraced her band—and that’s something they will never forget.

“Myrtle Beach has been so amazing to us and we’ll always be coming back,” she said.

Tru Sol isn’t going anywhere. Excited about recording their own music this year, they’ll be spacing out their local live performances because, in part, they attract a bigger crowd that way and “we are not trying to wear ourselves out and wear people’s ears out.”

“We are living the dream,” Samuel said. “It’s a journey every day. We enjoy it. This is something I’ve always loved doing.”