News Column

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), Colin Campbell column

July 19, 2013


July 19--The Triangle's big outdoor venues pull in plenty of big musical acts this time of year, but not many bands can persuade me to part with $50 and battle traffic to Walnut Creek.

I'd rather hang out in a dimly lit bar with a cold craft beer, tapping my toes to some musician I've never heard of. We've got more local acts than venues to support them, and a quick YouTube search can establish who's worth hearing.

With so much talent and competition, many Triangle musicians -- particularly solo singer-songwriters -- don't get the attention they deserve. Sometimes my wife and I will turn around and realize we're literally the entire audience.

That happened recently at the Pour House Music Hall in Raleigh, a venue with room for hundreds. It was 5 p.m. on a Tuesday -- not exactly prime time for live music. But the low turnout didn't deter the two musicians on stage, whose energy never flagged despite our awkward two-person rounds of applause.

Durham songwriter Spencer Scholes chatted with us afterwards. He's a former truck driver who's trying to make a living playing original tunes. Right now he's driving across the country in his Camry, crashing on friends' couches and playing at any venue that'll have him.

A few months after we met, I caught up with him by phone from Austin, Texas, where he's having a blast and trying not to go broke.

Sharing his music, he says, is "one of the best feelings, and when people are feeling it, it's like being electrocuted with love. It's incredible."

But a national tour ain't easy when you don't have a record label or a manager. He has pitched his music to dozens of venues in each city, and he's lucky if a couple will book him. Sometimes he rolls into town without a performance on his schedule.

"A solo guy with a guitar isn't on the top of everyone's list," he said. "I pound the pavement literally."

Sometimes he'll use social media to link up with local bands; other times he drops by open-mic nights to play for free. But some cities have a thriving acoustic scene, and Scholes can get gigs for six nights straight without any name recognition.

"I have this illogical belief that it can reach a stage of sustainability where I can make a decent living," he said.

Scholes nearly turned around earlier in the tour when he was stuck in a Utah basement with the flu. One thought was hard to shake: "I should have gotten a job three weeks ago."

Scholes in due back in North Carolina for an Aug. 1 show at Durham's Motorco, and he's mulling a part-time job to pay the rent. But the music won't stop. He'll soon release his first full-length CD with money raised on Kickstarter, and he hopes to tour again in the future.

"I do believe in what I'm trying to do -- that it's valuable and worthwhile to share this music with people," he said.

Back home, Scholes hopes to see more places emerge for locals to share their talents outside of 11 p.m. bar shows. "Music has been increasingly shuffled off into a vehicle for alcohol sales," he said, which makes it hard to reach non-night owls. He wants to see live music offered in more public places, from parks to gas stations.

I certainly wouldn't mind being serenaded at the pumps. But I'll show my support with a late-night pint, too -- whatever it takes to keep folks like Scholes pursuing their music.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter


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