Claddagh embraces talent in High Point

by Jordan Green

Claddagh embraces talent in High Point

Larry Johnson, better known to his fans as Larry J, perched on a stool beneath a flat-screen displaying Carolina basketball prowess and wrung the delicate notes of Willie Nelson’s jazz-inflected standard, “Crazy,” from his acoustic guitar, caressed the lyric with a weathered voice that balanced stoicism and hurt. A plain red-striped shirt and blue jeans draped his 77-year-old frame, but his neatly combed coiffure shone like the hood of a newly buffed and waxed Buick. Tyler Rhodes, a 24-year-old musician from north Alabama who hosts the open mic at the Claddagh Bar & Restaurant in High Point every Tuesday, stood at one of the high tables in the narrow section set aside for live music and darts, where he conversed with Robert Mann. The father sat across from his high-school age children, mohawk-ed Josiah and demure Jaime. A second son, Jesse, sat alone at the next table with a guitar case at his feet. He wore his hair long and, like his siblings, had a look of melancholy about him. After finishing a ballad (“A letter from mother sister and brother, praying that I would come home”) Johnson carefully worked his way across the floor, rested his instrument in the chair at his table, and squinted into the dimness to find his case, which turned out to be the one at Jesse Mann’s feet. “I drove all over the Southwest for two years with that guitar in the trunk, and ended up in Florida,” he said with a laugh. “I used to go down to Myrtle Beach. I never made any money, just played for beer.” A veteran of the furniture industry and a former Bible salesman, Johnson’s tastes predate rock and roll to a time before Little Richard and Elvis kicked aside the finely wrought ballad, before Dylan displaced straight-forward lyrical sentiments with absurdist poetry. He sings the cowboy songs and some Sinatra ballads, the titles of which are inscribed in block lettering in a small lined notebook that he carries with him. A man with broad and sophisticated tastes, he periodically makes the trip to Greensboro to hear college students play jazz at Tate Street Coffee and the Green Bean. A connoisseur, he rattled off the names of local musicians by the dozens. It was past 10 p.m. and he said he had been awake since 3 in the morning. Next on the bandstand was Josiah Mann, the kid with the mohawk. He played some of his own songs and some well-chosen covers. His playing was spare and percussive, his voice a little flat but inflected with feeling. The father and siblings didn’t talk much, listening instead with rapt attention. Robert Mann sang along with his son from his seat on one of the originals and daughter Jaime mouthed the words to another song. For his last number, Josiah began striking the rhythm to Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” looking to his father for confirmation. Robert nodded and pointed his finger: There, you’ve got it. Josiah’s voice didn’t exactly capture the bravado of Cash’s original, but his tone was rich and his pacing crisp, suggesting Billy Bragg. Johnson was soon conversing with the Mann family. “I just told him to keep up with that guitar,” Johnson told Robert Mann. “I hate to say it, but musicians don’t stay married long.”

“I’ve been married twice, and the music has always been the ‘other one,’” Robert Mann concurred. “I’ve been playing since I was sixteen, and I’ll soon be seventy-eight,” Johnson said, turning to Josiah. “When you get blue, get that guitar out and go in a room by yourself…. He’s right: That guitar’ll always be your friend.” Tyler Rhodes worked efficiently between sets. It wasn’t his style to give flashy introductions or tell jokes at the expense of the musicians. He gave them a wide berth — six or seven songs to sketch their vision. He came from Alabama to the Triad for college, trying one thing and then another before settling on a music-business major at GTCC. He dropped out, and started waiting tables to save money to build his recording studio. At 24 years old, he feels fortunate to be making a living full-time at music. He charges $25 an hour for his services at the studio in Kernersville, hosts the weekly open mic and returns to the Claddagh Bar on Fridays for his own set. Despite growing up in the backyard of fabled Muscle Shoals, whose studios once churned out hits for Aretha and the Stones, and in the north Alabama landscape that forms the mythology of the Drive-By Truckers’ music, Rhodes has found a more fertile scene in the Piedmont Triad. Jason Holdaway, a High Point tattoo artist wearing a teardrop drawn below his left eye and a black cowboy shirt, plied his songs — tender ballads of fallen heroes and wry tales describing defiance of authority. Holdaway has been working from of a honky-tonk idiom, delving ever more deeply into the feeling. He stretches his vowels a little like Randy Travis. “I try to get him in the studio,” Rhodes said. “I told him I’d record him for free. Most of them would be beating down my door.” Later, he added, “He’s got a really powerful voice; he’s a mediocre player. I’ll tell him that to his face. He doesn’t play that much, so he should be a mediocre player.”

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Tyler Rhodes, left, hosts an open mic every Tuesday beginning at8:30 p.m. at the Claddagh Bar & Restaurant, at 130 E. Parris High Point. Call 336.841.0521 for more information (photo by JordanGreen).