On a stuffy and warm spring evening, Bentz Kirby --attorney by day, troubadour by night-- loads in the P.A. and other musical accoutrements that a one-man music impresario like him needs to ply his trade. Heâ€™s his own roadie, his own manager, his own songwriter, his own guitar picker, and this is another night of doing what he just might love best: making live music.
Story by James D. McCallister
Kirby is more on this occasion, however, than a one-man music road show. Tonight itâ€™s true that heâ€™ll be the center of attention, but only as master of ceremonies, and in another sense as the pro who vamps and warms up the crowd before the shy and/or accomplished get up to make their original voices heard. Itâ€™s an otherwise ordinary Monday evening on Rosewood, but at the Cock Nâ€™ Bull, itâ€™s almost time for Right Bank Rails, which is what Kirby has christened his singer-songwriter nights. Now all he needs is a few good people to share that open mic with him.
As he turns up his â€œcheap Washburnâ€ guitar --again, heâ€™s not merely the host, but also a featured musician-- he laments the early dinner crowd currently occupying the scattered tables inside and out. â€œI hope theyâ€™re here to check out the music-â€™cause thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re going to get.â€
Marty Fort, an influential Columbia music personality and booking agent, has high praise for Kirbyâ€™s commitment and drive: â€œThereâ€™s a lot to be learned from Bentz in regards to hard work, promoting to the fullest and delivering a quality product. If every musician in this town cared and promoted as hard as he does, Columbia would be the next Athens or Nashville.â€
By day, Kirby attends to his civil law practice, but in the last few years, his nocturnal interest has been captivated by writing songs, performing, and fostering an environment designed to stimulate both artists as well as the music-loving public, which in Columbia is often a daunting prospect. He laments the difficulty music clubs have had in surviving the areaâ€™s fickle, ticket-buying public.
â€œFor whatever reason, I donâ€™t know if people are jaded, or maybe thereâ€™s just too many options for people anymore,â€ he says. â€œOne theory is that with the Internet, video games, and that type of thing there are just easy options for people to stay home. When I was a young man, I wouldnâ€™t miss a chance to go out and catch music.â€
Like millions of people his age-mid-fifties, a true American baby boomer-his interest in music goes back to the first hearing of iconic tunes by artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Byrds. â€œI can remember the first time I heard Mr. Tambourine Man [The Byrds version], I guess in about the fifth or sixth grade,â€ he recalls. â€œI was in the lobby of the YMCA in Easley playing bumper pool, and it was just a very strange and different sound.â€
His interest was further stoked by recordings like Sgt. Pepperâ€™s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as a once-invaluable resource on which the Ipod-generation of today no longer relies in the quest to discover interesting music: the radio waves. â€œAn old FM station, WQOK, had a lot of influence on me,â€ he says. â€œIn one hour you could hear the Beatles to Patti Page to Sinatra to Motown soul music to Johnny Horton and country music on the same station.â€
As an older teenager, his introduction to large-scale live music included several famous concerts of the era. â€œI canâ€™t for the life of me imagine why my parents let me go, but in November 1969 me and two guys got into a Corvair with an 8-Track tape player and drove from Thomasville, Georgia to West Palm Beach.â€ The West Palm Beach International Music and Arts Festival featured superstars Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones, as well as relative unknowns such as King Crimson and Grand Funk Railroad. Kirby beams at the memory: â€œOn Sunday [the third day of the festival], the Vanilla Fudge played, then Johnny Winter, then Janis-then they all came out and jammed.â€
That next summer, he journeyed to two important events in Georgia: First, a daylong Atlanta concert called the Cosmic Carnival, where he saw acts like Frank Zappa and Traffic, as well as newcomers the Allman Brothers Band. A month later came the â€œSouthern Woodstockâ€ known as the Atlanta International Pop Festival, where along with getting to see titans like Jimi Hendrix, he cultivated a growing admiration for the ABB. He takes pride in photos he kept from the Festival being used in the eventual 2003 CD release of the bandâ€™s performances from that weekend. â€œThey released it on my birthday, too,â€ he says with a smile.
While his interest in listening to music never waned, his current hobby-turned-career as a performing musician didnâ€™t come about until fairly recently. â€œAbout eight or nine years ago, the people in church asked me to be in a praise and worship band because I had a guitar, so I started learning how to play better, and to sing.â€
He demurs somewhat when asked if growing up attending church had fostered an interest in gospel. â€œNot really gospel,â€ he says. â€œI grew up in the First Baptist church, and I remember reading through the hymnals, all the Fanny Crosby songs . . . standard church music.â€ He also developed an affinity for country music from watching the variety shows of the era. â€œI remember watching Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton, so I have a tolerance for country music that a lot of my contemporaries donâ€™t have.â€
For all his youthful interest in the art form, there was a long lapse between his current endeavors and his initial fantasies of writing and performing music. â€œAs an adolescent, I wanted to be a rock star, not a lawyer.â€
Heâ€™d done some singing with the church choir, getting his bearings by listening to the other voices. An early experience in which he had difficulty tuning a guitar, however, was a blow to his confidence-afterwards he decided that he was tone deaf. (Having a brother with perfect pitch didnâ€™t help.) â€œI spent 30 years in the desert,â€ he says of his lengthy musical hiatus, â€œworrying that I couldnâ€™t hear the notes.â€ Kirby goes on to explain that he has â€œrelative pitch,â€ which is not so bad because â€œyou can train it and get better and better.â€
Even though as an adult heâ€™d begun singing songs of praise with his fellow United Methodist church members, it was a talent show held there that changed everything for him-along with an email-correspondence with an honest-to-God rock star:
â€œI was planning to do Bob Dylanâ€™s â€˜Every Grain of Sand,â€™ and right about the same time I had been trading email with Roger McGuinn,â€ one of the voices from The Byrds whoâ€™d so captivated his nascent musical intellect. â€œBut then I decided I was losing my nerve and didnâ€™t want to do the song.â€ Expressing his reluctance to McGuinn, the musician wrote him back with words of encouragement, declaring that any chance to perform music for fellow human beings was â€œeither a good thing, or else a chance to learn something, so either way itâ€™s a good thing,â€ Kirby recalls. â€œSo I did the song.â€
Having crossed that milestone, it wasnâ€™t long before he began hosting open mic nights, especially at the much-beloved but now moribund State Street club known as the Red Tub. But then he took another bold step: A solo gig of his own. â€œI made the mistake of contacting an old friend from Camden named Jeff Norwood, and I offered to open up for him sometime. As it turned out, he had a cancellation, and the next thing you know, there I was stepping out from the wings.â€
He next hooked up with local banjo picker Elizabeth Cameron, with whom he jammed at Billâ€™s Picking Parlor, as well as the Red Tub. â€œBill [the Red Tub co-owner] heard us playing and asked us to play a benefit.â€ Soon more bookings came, both at the Red Tub as well as CafÃ© Strudel, and other musicians began showing up to jam with Bentz.
By 2007, Kirby was either playing or hosting nearly 90 gigs a year, and at that time decided with the burdens of his daytime attorney-gig to drop back a bit, playing a bit less and doing more songwriting, an avocation heâ€™d first attempted in college and then set aside along with the rest of his musical ambitions. â€œIâ€™m still playing a few times a month. It still adds up to probably 50 nights a year.â€
Of the dozen original songs (out of over twice as many that heâ€™s written in the last few years) he plans to record as a demo, only one dates from earliest attempts at composition during his school days. â€œThe rest of [those songs] you could call experimental. Itâ€™s probably best that theyâ€™re in the dustbin.â€ While no recordings survive, he does still possess his early efforts at songwriting. He bemoans the loss of one stream-of-consciousness tune â€œabout a hoboâ€ that he says he wishes had been recorded, but that moment, alas, is lost.
His current songs express strong emotions about aging, his family history, and even about music itself, especially in the case of â€œReal Music,â€ which excoriates the industry machine that cranks out stars but not artists: â€œYou can take your songs that sound the same/pitch corrected singers like Shania Twain/Clear Channel demographics, itâ€™s insane.â€
Another country tune, â€œRidinâ€™ In My Car,â€ expresses his desire to commune with one of the greats: â€œIf I meet Hank Williamsâ€™ ghost/I hope we can be friends.â€ Other songs reflect a wistfulness for past, youthful road adventures, still others name check more music greats, both famous and otherwise, with whom he has shared experiences.
For the moment, though, he appears content, if not determined, to share in his creativity not with superstars, but local artists on their way up. His singer-songwriter nights, he hopes, have helped up-and-coming talents to get further bookings. â€œThereâ€™s some great songwriters in this town,â€ he says. â€œA lot of them are also very accomplished guitarists-Josh McGill, Hannah Miller, Scott Brodie Porterfield, Greg Bates, Dave Michelson, James Ponce.â€
McGill, who in addition to the eponymous band he fronts also plays lead guitar in Alien Carnival, sends the love back Kirbyâ€™s way: â€œI think Bentz is the most important person to the local music scene.â€
So letâ€™s add another name to add to that list of fine local artists, an easy one to remember, especially if youâ€™re one who appreciates hearing good music played well: Bentz Kirby, a humble, creative spirit, is not only one of the engines keeping Columbiaâ€™s music scene thriving-he just might be single-handedly keeping it real.