BBQ and Alt American Heroes
For the last couple of decades, on a weekday around 11:30, you’d likely find me at the cafeteria sneaking an early bite in hopes of avoiding the crush of famished adolescents who descend upon the regular lunch period. But last Tuesday at 11:30, I was pulling into what my father-in-law Lee Tigner calls the omphalos of the barbeque world, Brown’s Bar-B-Que, right outside of Kingstree on North Hwy 52.
For our first anniversary, my wife Caroline bought us ticketsto a Steve Earle concert in Florence, South Carolina, a city on the move in an otherwise non-prosperous region of the Palmetto State. On a whim, we decided to take the back roads and have lunch on the way. The obvious choice was Brown’s.
Rice, roast beef stew, delicious tiny fried creek shrimp, fried catfish, mac and cheese, vinegary pepper barbeque (lean and clean), pork brusque, potato salad, coleslaw, desserts galore, including banana pudding, any condiment you could hope to have.
Overstuffed but satisfied, we continued our journey racing graffiti-covered boxcars as they rumbled along parallel to us on 52.
As the outskirts of Florence became center city, we slowed down in anticipation of making a right turn when we saw on the sidewalk coming towards us this quirky bespectacled man sporting red knee-length shorts, a ZZ-Top-like beard, and long shoulder length hair.
Yes, it was the man himself, Steve Earle, American treasure, brilliant songwriter, and eclectic producer of a various strains of Americana music – blues, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, Celtic hybrids. He’s also a published short story writer, novelist, and playwright. Probably, he was on his way to the Francis Marion Performing Arts Center, which was walking distance from our hotel and the Hyatt. I’m embarrassed to say it, but it was sort of thrilling seeing him as a civilian, sporting what my pal Jake would call a dgaf outfit.
Checking In and Out
The Hotel Florence is lovely and well staffed, and I don’t know why this happens, but when Caroline checked us in, they bumped us up to a two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen and two full baths, shades of our honeymoon when we were bumped up to the Presidential Suite at the Grove Park Inn. In both cases it was too much, appreciated, but under-utilized.
Despite the swanky digs, we weren’t in the mood to lounge around in our rooms. We needed a drink, so I googled “bars in Florence,” and the most interesting name that came up was “Downtown Southern Funk,” located eight minutes away in the warehouse of Seminar Brewery, Florence’s oldest.
While we were in that cavernous space, the Manager asked if we wanted a free ticket to the concert that night. We told him we were set, but he insisted we take the ticket and try to give it away at the venue. So we took the ticket, and as we were chatting with a bartender, I said,” Hey, man, you really ought to take the ticket and go.” He insisted he couldn’t because with Beto being there in a couple of hours, they’d need all the bartenders they could muster.
“Yeah, he’s giving a town hall meeting here at six.”
We ended up giving the ticket to another patron, whom we saw later at the show and who picked up our tab.
To Go or Not to Go
Back at the hotel, we contemplated. The town hall started at 6, the concert at 7:30, which would mean an Uber to and fro, but ultimately, we opted for the rough and tumble of American democracy instead of the serenity of the hotel bar.
We arrived at about a quarter to six, and the lack of security surprised me: no metal detectors, no riffling through handbags. I’d call it a modest crowd, mostly white. We grabbed a couple of beers and chatted with Beto’s South Carolina chair, a lovely, articulate woman in her late twenties.
After a brief introduction from a state representative, Beto took the microphone and delivered his stump speech, which focused on guns and immigration. Of course, he hails from El Paso, site of recent carnage, and I was somewhat surprised when he said the word “shit.” “We need to quit selling that shit,” he said, referring to assault weapons. Indeed, how absurd that it’s legal to buy weaponry not intended for hunting or self-defense but for rapidly killing human beings, whether they be elementary school children, patrons of movies or gay bars, or Walmart shoppers.
Some smug, ramrod-erect old man interrupted Beto, who goofed by handing him the microphone. The man launched into a screed claiming it was cellphones, not guns, that were to blame for the spate of American bloodbaths. No, these massacres are a by-product of educational dereliction, a consequence, he claimed, of society’s and government’s rejection of Yahweh and His Only Begotten Son. Aides attempted to get the mike from him and finally succeeded. Once Beto was able to speak, looking directly into the man’s face, he calmly mentioned that European countries also had high cellphone usage and were much less religious than the USA but rarely were the the scenes of mass shootings.
Once questions began, a young man with a baseball cap flipped backwards claimed that Trump was not a racist among a shower of boos as Caroline and I sidled outside to catch our Uber and hit the concert.
The Francis Marion Performing Arts Center
Florence, or FloTown as the hipsters call it, is enjoying urban renewal, and you could sense a genuine pride in several of the residents we talked to about the transformation. They said that before the Performing Arts Center, you wouldn’t want to be in this section of town at night. One actually compared it to Detroit. Now, it’s very peaceful, laidback, verdant.
Anyway, the area is now quite nice, and I agree with brochure we were handed when we entered the Performing Arts Center that “the unique facility offers patrons an unusual level of intimacy, paired with sophisticated acoustics.”
Steve came out and introduced the first act, the Mastersons, a husband-and-wife team consisting of superb guitarist Chris and exquisite fiddler Eleanor Whitmore, masters of technique and vocal harmony.
They also accompanied Steve and the Dukes throughout the concert, which featured several covers of Guy Clark songs and a generous sampling of Steve’s greatest hits, which, as I have already said, cover the gamut of various Americana subgenres.
I can’t provide a complete set list but songs included Clark covers “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “Dublin Blues,” and “LA Freeway.”
Among Earle’s hits, we heard “Guitar Town,” “Galway Girl,” “Fort Worth Blues,” “Copperhead Road,” and many others, including a car medley featuring Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets,” “Sweet Little 66,” and “Pink Cadillac.”
The Dukes sounded great, whether harmonizing a bluegrass number, plucking an Irish melody, or fuzzing dissonantly on one of his rockers.
We walked home after the show, and instead of going back to the hotel, we hit the rooftop bar at the Dispensary.
It’s fairly dark up there and seating consists of sofa sets and coffee tables. When we arrived, a couple of females nestled at a corner table, but that was it. About a half an hour later, a college couple arrived, and the male gave his date a sort of a mini tour of the skyline before snuggling down on a sofa across the bar from us.
As we got up to leave, in stepped the Dukes: the above-mentioned Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, Ricky Ray Jackson, and Brad Pemberton (sans bassist Kelly Looney). We told them how much we enjoyed the show, and Chris thanked us. I apologized for being intrusive, and he said, “Oh no, thanks for coming to the show.”
We hauled our glasses downstairs, the bartender thanked us, and that was that: a memorable post-retirement weekday, to say the least.