A Night with Black Iron Gathering, The Bushels, and... Mark Sanford?

What do the bands named above, Spoleto, the Appalachian Trail, psychoactive homemade liquor, and Sanford have in common? This blog post. Read on, friends. Read on

Toward the end of the Spoleto Festival, I decided to go off the beaten path for one show. Well, I should say off the citified asphalt strip and onto the beaten path that is bluegrass music. The sounds of Appalachia. Banjos, jugs of moonshine, and a bit of hollerin’.


Of the three bands playing, I’d seen and enjoyed local The Bushels several times at places like the old Seel’s on Sullivan’s. And I’d been told that even though I’m not a huge bluegrass fan, I’d enjoy Black Iron Gathering. The headliner, Nu Blu, though, was not a band I was familiar with.


Upon entering the Charleston Music Hall, I was struck with the thought that Nu Blu was the name of the hair coloring favored by many of those in attendance. While bluegrass is not the music of the youth (though Mumford fans might be surprised to find they listen to the music of the hills), it is rare that I walk into a concert and reduce the age average.


The presence of the wine-and-cheese crowd made me wonder how Black Iron Gathering would be received, as I’d been told they were punk with a bluegrass filter. As it turns out, that description was quite accurate. The only band of the night to utilize a full-time drummer, Black Iron Gathering drove home every song with the urgency of young rockers, though their instrumentation included two acoustic guitars, an upright bass, banjo, and the drums. While playing with urgency and a bit of aggression, their hill-born melodies cut through the room. Lead singer Billy Ray has too much wear and tear to his throat to be called a good singe; however, his voice oozes a rough backwoods character right in line with his tales. The group finished with a revved up, stomping version of Chris Isaak’s "Wicked Game."


The crowd was not as thrilled by The Black Iron Gathering’s music as I was. One of the younger groups in attendance made their preferences known. “How ‘bout some real bluegrass now!” one guy shouted. While the Bushels were taking the stage, his friend added, “Hey look, there’s a mandolin." To which the first replied, “Oh, and he can play it!” then let out a loud “Whoop!” He told his friends that he was giving a real bluegrass cheer, whooped again, then began teaching them the proper hillbilly inflection of a “whoop.”


As soon as the Bushels began, this cluster of fans began stomping a bit and letting out random “Whoops,” even though most of the crowd up front remained still. For some shows, it doesn’t hurt to have a little rowdiness in the crowd.

The Bushels started out showcasing a different singer on each of the first few tunes. Opening with a song about sweet tea, then another about cheap beer, they celebrated the simple fineries of life. The Bushels are much more down the center of that beaten path of Appalachian music, with great, well seasoned singers, understated but extremely competent musicians, and standard four piece arrangements. Plus, they tell good stories during and between songs. I couldn’t help but smile throughout their whole set, and the crowd’s appreciation built with each song.


In the middle of their set, as the Bushels were making me feel like I was sitting on a cabin porch with them, lo and behold I spied Mark Sanford a couple of rows behind me. How could I let that go? “Music fit for the Appalachian trail.”, “Off the beaten path.” I'd been thinking of those phrases earlier and assume it must have been my subconscious telling me that Mr. Sanford was in the room. I wanted to ask him straight-faced, what is the best playlist for a hike on the AT? But I deferred, and left him alone to enjoy a good show. If the guy was at a local band's show and not searching for a photo-op, he can’t be all bad.


The more the Bushels played, the more I smiled—it’s just so easy to feel good when they play. If you get a chance to catch them, I’d highly recommend it. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some sweet tea and vodka in a Mason jar while you do so. A rowdy group of hollerin’ fans will likely be in attendance and you’d be encouraged to join them.


I’d like to tell you about Nu Blu, but there were a few incidents (involving a group of people carrying a unique bottle of psychoactive homemade liquor, a rogue van driver destroying parking signs, and wayward musicians trying to chase down Mark Sanford for a photo-op) that caused me to miss most of their set. But that's okay—you’re more likely to catch Black Iron Gathering and The Bushels around here soon, anyway. Two different takes on a bluegrass sound—both defintely worth seeing again. 

As a side note: I wonder why the Charleston Music Hall was not being utilized for a series of Spoleto shows? It seems to me that the venue would be perfect for Spoleto to expand, with a full schedule of bands every day and night. It could be our mini South By Southwest. Just a thought, Mr. Carmody. 


Lead photo credit: Charleston City Paper