The Bands Play On

February 2017
Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

Myrtle Beach’s homegrown South by Southeast Music Feast bring the “best musicians you’ve never heard of” and showcases them in unique setting

Seth Funderburk remembers how frustrated his gang at the old Sounds Familiar record store used to get because the kind of Americana music they wanted to see live never made it to the stages of Myrtle Beach. Then a chance living room listening party about 15 years ago inspired them to take matters into their own hands.

This wasn’t the typical get-together. Bob O’Connor, guitarist and singer for local band The Mullets, used his connections to bring guitarist Jack Lawrence—who had played with the legendary Doc Watson—to perform at the only place that would book him at the beach—O’Connor’s house off S.C. 90.

To cover Lawrence’s fee, O’Connor invited 35 friends (including that music-loving gang from Sounds Familiar), charged them $20 each and asked them to bring a covered dish and some beer.

“It was so much fun,” recalled local Sam Hannaford. “And Jeff [Roberts, owner of Sounds Familiar] said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do the same thing?’ “We just decided to have our own little party [to bring the musicians to Myrtle Beach]. And it worked.”

Fast forward through several venues and lots of heart and soul by the organizers who work for free, and that humble house party has morphed into South by Southeast Music Feast, a non-profit dedicated to showcasing the “best musicians you’ve never heard of” that celebrated its 100th show at the historic Myrtle Beach Train Depot in December.

Organizers have taken the living room show that captivated them at O’Connor’s house and plopped it down in the Train Depot, keeping that intimate setting with the musicians, the potluck dinner and adding beers by local brewery New South.

“The whole thing has always been a house party on steroids,” said Funderburk, who helped launch South by Southeast with Hannaford and Roberts, who passed away in 2010. “We were all music people. That’s how we became friends in the first place. Music has kind of brought us all together anyway.”

South by Southeast puts on about a half dozen shows a year, each one featuring that potluck dinner and unlimited brews from New South, which signed on early as a partner. Tickets for a show cost between $25 and $30, which the volunteer organizers are always quick to say is one of the best deals in town for dinner, beer and a concert.

Turns out there’s a lot of music lovers who felt the same way as that group in the old Sounds Familiar music store off 38th Avenue North, craving a type of musical talent you couldn’t find playing live in Myrtle Beach. They flock to the shows, which for the core fans are like a family reunion.

“Once people find out and they come here, they are hooked and want to be here for the next show,” Fran Rickenbacker of Conway said before the December show, in between greeting other regulars with hugs as they walked through the train depot’s historic doors. “This is something special.”

Joan Boggs stumbled on an ad for South by Southeast shortly after moving to Little River about two years ago and figured she’d check it out. “And then we never stopped coming,” she said after giving Hannaford a card and a $250 donation before the December show. “We drove all the way down because we love it. The music—it’s just the music. It’s fantastic.”

This isn’t your typical concert. At these shows, crowds of no more than about 150 are focused on the stage and the music, feeling every note, every chord.

Just looking for a spot to talk and socialize through the music? This isn’t the place for you. “The people that come to the shows here have a passion for it,” said Roddy Graham, operations manager at New South. “People who come know the music is going to be incredible. It gets your toes tapping and your butts wiggling a bit.”

Making It Happen

After being inspired by O’Connor’s living room show, the trio of Roberts, Hannaford and Funderburk got to work. Roberts—who was known as the minister of music in Myrtle Beach—led the effort, using his connections to book bands and his personality to spread the word about the shows. Funderburk runs the sound at the concerts. They all scouted to pick just the right musicians to bring here; the shows have featured the likes of Verlon Thompson, Mike Farris, Reverend Billy C. Wirtz and Chatham County Line.

“We always try to catch people either on the way up or on the way down,” Funderburk said.

It became known as South by Southeast Music Feast—a nod to the legendary and influential South by Southwest music festival every year in Austin, Texas.

The location bounced around in the beginning before landing at the Train Depot about a decade ago, with the first show at the recreation room at the now demolished Aloha Motel that was on 73rd Avenue North in Myrtle Beach.

It scooted south for a show at the Royal Oak Tavern on the south end of the Grand Strand, then it hit a stride at New South Brewery, which hosted shows for about two years. New South is still the event’s official beer sponsor.

“We’ve just been on board since day one,” Graham said in between serving White Ale and Nut Brown beers at a show. “We’ve both grown together. It’s something we’ve always believed in. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun.”

Through the years, South by Southeast has built a following. The crowds kept getting bigger. Die-hard music lovers were hooked. Before they knew it, the shows were bringing in more money than they needed to cover the cost.

Making money was never a goal of the organizers—they simply wanted to bring the kind of music they loved to Myrtle Beach and introduce it to other music lovers. So they registered as a non-profit with the state, took the extra money the shows were bringing in and donated it to local music education efforts to get instruments in the hands of students. They’ve hosted instrument drives, helped get a special stand-up bass for a high school student and even paid to replace instruments that were stolen from the Aynor High School band.

“A student we help could be the next great one,” said Earl Sickles, who used to volunteer with South by Southeast and still is a regular at the shows.

Between the mission to support music education and the amazing live performances, South by Southeast was a natural cause for local classic rock radio station WAVE 104.1 to support, the station’s Scott Mann said.

“Why wouldn’t you? It’s a no-brainer,” he said.

Finding A Groove

The shows really found their groove at the Myrtle Beach Train Depot, which provided the perfect quaint setting with its wood floors, white string lights and old character.

“It’s a cool vibe in the train station,” said Randall Bramblett, whose Randall Bramblett Band has been a longtime South by Southeast crowd favorite. “It just feels like home. It is a unique listening place. It has a vibe you are just not going to get anywhere else.”

The partnership helped the restored depot as much as it did South by Southeast, said Richard Kirby, the city’s parks superintendent who was previously the special events and sports tourism coordinator charged with coming up with a plan for making the best use of the depot after the city restored it. South by Southeast lured folks to the newly reopened depot, prompting them to want to host their own baby showers, office parties and other events there, Kirby said. It’s now a popular event spot booked well in advance.

“All of that started as a result of South by Southeast, because nobody knew it was here,” Kirby said. “After a South by Southeast event on Saturday night, my phone would ring on Monday morning. The Train Depot needed South by Southeast as much as South by Southeast needed the Train Depot.”

Devastating Loss

Organizers faced challenges through the years, but their passion for music pushed them through the setbacks. Sometimes the crowds just don’t come. There was the show at the Pelicans stadium that by all accounts was spectacular musically but a flop financially after bitter cold kept the crowds away. That sent organizers into their own wallets to cover the loss.

But the biggest devastation came in 2010 with the passing of Roberts—the man who had worked the hardest to make all this happen. Hannaford was ready to hang it up. But others couldn’t let it go. “I don’t think anybody wants it to go anywhere,” Funderburk said. “It meant a lot to him.”

The board persevered. Everyone stepped up to keep it going, sharing scouting responsibilities for bands and trying to promote it—though all say Roberts’ personality as a natural promoter of the music he loved just can’t be duplicated.

But Roberts’ spirit seems to always be there, from his image on South by Southeast posters to the thank you toast to him Hannaford leads before the start of every show.

“I’m really proud of it, to be able to carry on Jeff’s legacy,” Hannaford said.

Passion Shines Through

Hannaford is still amazed at times that a group of volunteers who hold down regular jobs are able to pull off something as special as South by Southeast.

And who knew that living room show at O’Connor’s house would spark a concert series and effort to help get instruments in students’ hands that would still be going strong nearly 15 years later? “Those guys just ran with it,” O’Connor said.

Marking the 100th South by Southeast show at the Train Depot in December, crowd favorite Randall Bramblett Band—who Hannaford says also played the first show at the Train Depot—treated its South Carolina home with a high-energy rock-bluesy show (and extended jam sessions just for all the familiar faces cheering them on). The band feeds off the energy of the crowd and the spirit of the organizers who put so much into making South by Southeast such a special musical niche in Myrtle Beach, Bramblett said.

“The soul of the people and the spirit of the people putting this thing on and supporting this thing shines through in this place,” he said. “You get extraordinary shows because of that.”

South By Southeast Music Feast 2017 Schedule

When: January 28, March 4, April 22, September 30, November 4

Where: Myrtle Beach Train Depot, 851 Broadway St., Myrtle Beach, SC 29577

Cost: $25 to $30

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