Everybody’s welcome on Country Dan’s stage

by Jordan Green

The bartender at the Garage strolls over to the booth where Country Dan Collins sits and hands the open mic host a portable phone. On the other end of the line is a derelict musician, calling 15 minutes before show time. Typically, Collins starts taking calls at 4 p.m. and by 4:05 the slots are filled. As it happens, a teenaged garage band has had to pull out because of a parent’s second thoughts, and the latecomer is in luck.

“Come on up here,” the host says. “Get your ass up here around ten. We’ll work you in somewhere.”

A 55-year-old sports writer for the Winston-Salem Journal and lifelong Hank Williams fan, Collins started the open mic at the Garage in June.

There’s a little bit of the cowboy poet in Collins, a bespectacled and bearded man of loquacious speech and ample girth. A writer, sure; a story teller, for certain – Collins’ outlook puts old-fashioned camaraderie before erudition and competition. He takes a democratic approach as emcee, taking the time to learn something about the musicians and giving each one an enthusiastic introduction.

There’s a microphone rigged up at a table in front of the stage. Collins had surgery on his foot this summer and the remote setup saved him the trouble of climbing on and off the stage. His foot’s healed now, but he decided to keep the arrangement. He calls out to the first performer, a GTCC entertainment technology student who’s running through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” for a sound check.

“You’re from Lexington, right?” Collins asks.

“Thomasville,” the singer and guitar player corrects him.

Then in a booming voice, Collins intones, “Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and welcome your friend and mine… the Thomasville Flash… Mr. Benji… Martin… !!!”

Martin strums an acoustic guitar plastered in stickers with deliberate care and sings a handful of original songs in a voice pleasing and sensitive.

“I don’t ever want to get into a situation where people say, ‘Oh, that’s a country scene,’ or, ‘That’s a rap scene,'” Collins says. “If someone wants to saw away at a cello with some Rachmaninoff, that’s great.”

He continues with a reflection on the blessing the gig has bestowed upon him.

“I always get a really good slot,” Collins says. “I get the last solo slot before the band. I get cold beer for free. I get to hang out with my friends. I always go in with a great attitude. I say, ‘This is my time. Everything’s gonna work out great.’ I try to keep the vibe good for everybody.

“As an aside, I had been listening to this NPR segment,” he continues. “This psychologist said humans have a need to play. That need never goes away, but for some reason it’s not acceptable for adults to do it. That screws up a lot of people. It’s my time away, baby.”

A lot of players get their moment in the spotlight on this Wednesday night. Many are songwriters who throw in covers – everything from Bad Company to the Decemberists gets a nod. Most of the acts pair an acoustic guitar with a voice. Sometimes the cover renditions offer surprises, such as a Creed-style take on the haunting Appalachian standard, “O Death.” Sometimes they play in pairs. At least two boomer-aged bands perform.

Jack Carter is one of the standouts.

A 20-year-old man with a boyish face who wears an untucked dress shirt and a long maroon tie, Carter attacks a guitar and banjo with passionate, explosive energy and wails on a kazoo, summoning the horsepower of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath on archaic instruments. He sings about despair and addiction in a voice that modulates from reedy to squeaky to growling.

Carter, who teaches music at a Boys and Girls Club conservatory in Winston-Salem, later says he played in a cover band for a while, but bailed when the group started getting popular. He didn’t want to get boxed in as a cover artist. Now he shows up every week for the open mic, his sole performance outlet, and aspires to record a demo.

Later, Collins plants himself in a chair onstage with an acoustic guitar. He checks his sound with snatches of Hank Williams and the Carter Family, displaying a warbling vocal style that was the rage around 1949. He’ll sing an original song about the people in his mother’s line of the Cherokee nation who were forcibly removed to Oklahoma by President Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century. But first, he performs a rollicking original song written especially for tonight.

“Look out for each other, everybody’s friends,” Collins sings. “Nobody’s out, everybody’s in.”

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