Where are the firestarters?

by Ogi Overman

Ogi Overman (left) and Tom Philion, getting down to business. (courtesy photo)

Around the turn of the century I started writing a book on Americana music. While the project never got anywhere near completion, one of the chapters that did was on Texas music. I did quite a bit of research but also drew a bit on my own band’s experience of naïvely trying to break into the country-rock business by taking a tape to the burgeoning mecca of Austin in 1974. Move over Willie, Waylon and Jerry Jeff.


They didn’t budge. A decade or so later it dawned on me that my talents might lie in writing about it rather than playing it. By the late ’80s I started developing a theory about what it would take to turn the Triad into Austin, Texas. Lately, I’ve been massaging that theory and attempting to figure out if we are any closer to becoming a nationally significant music crucible than we were 20 odd years ago. Just a few years ago my answer would’ve been no, that we’re fragmented, spinning our wheels, stuck in a coverband environment. Oh, we weren’t exactly flatlining; there was a pulse, but our breathing was labored and our vital signs unstable.

One of my contentions was that the Triad had many elements in place that made for a thriving local scene but lacked the cohesion necessary to become any kind of national player. There was then and is now a plethora of talent, but that’s not the issue. It’s never the issue. Any city of any size is going to have enough talent, but talent alone doesn’t drive the market. It needs help and lots of it.

Help has recently arrived in the form of Tom Philion. The former executive director of the Eastern Music Festival left to take a similar position with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra four years ago, but was recently lured back to take the reins of the United Arts Council.

Now, some might take umbrage with the contention that Philion saved the EMF from financial calamity by opening it up to a much broader, non-classical audience, but his track record speaks for itself. It was he who initiated the Fringe Festival and the Piedmont Jazz Festival, and helped get ArtBeat off the ground. If one were looking for firestarters, the search would start with him.

“For me, coming back to town is a real opportunity to kind of be a catalyst,” he said. “What I do basically is connect the dots, get people excited, help figure out the possibilities of what can be done.”

While his role with UAC is primarily fundraising (he just secured a $25,000 matching grant from the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation), Philion is the type who needs to be involved in the creative end of things as well. He understands the importance of the arts to a town’s well being and knows that nurturing the creative class is one and the same with developing economic prosperity.

“We need to figure out a way to do something fabulous here,” he said. “We need to find our niche and do something here that doesn’t exist anywhere else, something that makes performers want to come here. Whatever that thing is, we’ve got to find it.”

The good news is that there are more people who will help him look for it than there were when he left. There are some recent developments in the local music scene that are cause for genuine encouragement. Here’s a sampling:

• Videographers like Harvey Robinson and Sean Coon have added the visual element to the music and given artists a way to be seen as well as heard.

• An original music scene has emerged, the one element that separates the Seattles, the Athenses and the Austins of the world from the local yokels like… well, like Greensboro. And, amazingly, it has happened organically.

• Non-profits have been founded to aid and nurture musicians in times of need and lack of insurance, money and/or inspiration. Folks like Kristy Jackson and Nathan Wainscott are two of the prime movers behind them.

• Music promoters and band managers like Neal Davis have located here, which is always a good sign. Davis has taken the wonderful female trio Amelia’s Mechanics from playing restaurant gigs for tips to a national tour opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Cadillac Sky, et. al.

• A host of veteran artists and groups too numerous to mention are screaming for attention on a national stage. An already high talent level has actually gotten better lately, and there is a colossal crop of up-and-comers poised and ready to make their mark. But will it be here or somewhere else?

It will take not only a firestarter but perhaps a hundred more to kindle the blaze. Who among us is able and willing?