SC bluesman hoes a hard row
The lights streak along North Main Street and Eastchester Drive in High Point on a recent Friday night, cars destined for movie theaters, bookstores and restaurants. Their passengers head for places like Bimini’s, a cheerful, well-lit, beach-themed seafood restaurant tucked discretely in a strip mall like practically all the city.
It’s mostly a family crowd, with a little singles action at the bar. Some graying couples, the men shunning ostentation and the ladies sporting an extra smear of lipstick and twinkle in the eye, fill the tables, followed by workaday, middle-class couples with children in tow. A dude by the name of Jeff Norwood tuning an acoustic guitar on the corner stage is up from Camden, SC. The 46-year-old bluesman wears his brown curly hair medium length, and rolls with heavy-rimmed glasses and a gray Kiss T-shirt. He notes the bite in the air since the sun’s gone down and he’s journeyed north roughly 175 miles.
A Palmetto State son of the soil steeped in the country blues of the Mississippi delta, Norwood first played the original Bimini’s in Myrtle Beach, and when it franchised into High Point, he followed, packing a handful of CDs with him to sell, along with a faded wooden Pepsi crate repurposed as a foot-percussion instrument. Since he first played Bimini’s in High Point last fall, Norwood has made the acquaintance of a songwriter named Davis Tucker, who in turn introduced him to Gary Redd, the blues eminence of High Point.
“It’s kind of happenstance, but it’s cool,” Norwood says. “Really nice people around here. Kind of a roots Piedmont scene.”
The diners don’t exactly look like blues aficionados but it seems to suit the journeyman blues stringer fine. He’ll interrupt a song with a “thank you, dear” as a grade school girl accompanied by an aunt or grandma drops some coins into the white tip bucket.
“Earlier you get a lot of families,” he says. “The common denominator is roots music. The kids like it. I’ll play an obligatory Jimmy Buffet song if they cross my palms with silver.”
It’s a hard time to make a living as a musician. Disposable income is scarcer and it’s harder to get people to come out for live music. Record labels, never exactly known for scrupulous business practices, have demanded more front-end investment from artists while the labels’ command of the market weakens. If you think blues musicians enjoy some kind of exemption from the malaise, well you don’t know much about the blues.
Norwood played in a band called the Headnecks – so named because one of his band mates noted that the country folk in South Carolina listened to Metallica and smoked dope but still drove pickups – “but we ended up being broke rock musicians,” he says, “and the whole thing kind of went up in smoke.”
He doesn’t envy bands their overhead and logistical challenges.
“I know these guys, God bless ’em,” Norwood says. “They’re out there every night busting their butt, playing for a percentage of the door with three or four other bands, trying to sell merchandise to get gas money to get back home.”
Of course, coming from a farming background, Norwood understands that anything worth pursuing is done for its own satisfaction, not for the money. He’s made his way in the world through several means, going to college mainly to get into a band, helping his dad with a farm in Chesterfield County for five-odd years, studying video and animation, switching his major to English with the thought of teaching British literature, doing public relations for an insurance company when fatherhood forced him to cobble together an income and eventually settling into the life of a journeyman musician.
The family farm is gone now.
“It has some parallels to the music business,” Norwood says.
His grandfather grew sweet potatoes and peaches, as well as lespedeza, a reclamation crop used in strip mines and interstate embankments to prevent soil erosion. His father took over the farm, and the grandson pitched in. To keep the farm afloat, the family had to keep borrowing from the federal government, which gradually wrested operational control away, dictating how to reinvest ever-declining revenue.
“One time my dad cashed a check for twenty-five thousand dollars,” Norwood recalls. “He told me to go to Timmonsville and buy some fertilizer. I was nineteen years old. I’d never had that kind of money in my pocket before. I guess it was kind of like taking your paycheck and spending it on crack.”
At Bimini’s in High Point Norwood drops into some droning, Mississippi-hill-country stomp, recreating a one-man Robert Johnson orchestra by simultaneously knocking out a steady bass line and an animal wail on the high strings. The music is stripped down, warm and raw, lyrically infused with sexual double entendres involving roosters and catfish and the like. After the first song, he checks to see if the volume is just right for everybody. Unlike in a Mississippi juke joint, this is not the guitar player’s party. The music is quiet enough to allow the diners at the front tables to carry on conversations without raising their voices.
“Someone said High Point’s the poorest little rich city around,” Norwood has observed, convulsing in gravely laughter. “There’s a Bentley dealership and then right behind it is the ghetto. This crowd’s kind of middle America.”
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