Rockin’ and Growin’

Columbia’s music menu expands

Photography by Jeff Amberg

The collection of music posters on the bulletin board in Drip coffee shop on Main Street can give a good sense of Columbia’s “music scene.” On any given day, the poster collection varies from bluegrass and church recitals to open mics and alternative rock. The venues where these performers play are as diverse as church halls, bars, university auditoriums and listening rooms. 

The musicians may be high school students or professional opera singers. Thus, these posters don’t feature just musicians coming to Columbia from out of town to perform; a large number are home-grown, building their passions and music careers right here in the capital city. Locals seeking good music around town can certainly find what their tastes demand.

It doesn’t hurt to have a large university right downtown according to David Stringer, editor of, a website devoted to Columbia’s music scene. “Lots of young musicians are hungry for an audience and for mentors who can help them hone their craft or just get a gig,” says David. He has run for nine years and has seen a lot of college students come and go across the stages of Columbia. 

“There’s always someone popping up –– college students getting used to a new environment and wanting to test their talent in a new place. This keeps our music scene fresh,” David says. “I have college students who email me before they even get to school about how to connect with the right people. There are a lot of people who are in the music scene here who are really helpful.”

Clearly the biggest music story to come out of the university, Columbia and Five Points is Hootie and the Blowfish. Their monumental success in the 1990s put Columbia on the map as a music powerhouse and set the stage for locally grown performers like Atlas Road Crew and Danielle Howle who have gone on to regional notoriety and national touring gigs. But today, Columbia’s music scene goes far beyond the bars of Five Points.

For anyone interested in exploring the city’s musical menu, Columbia has lots to sample. Trae Judy, partner at the Vista’s Music Farm, says bars, listening rooms, university venues, house concerts, large auditoriums and festivals all have a place in Columbia’s music scene. Many bands get their start playing in bars where patrons are typically listening to music as a secondary reason for being there. That’s a whole market in itself.

The Music Farm, Trae explains, is a music venue first. He strategically tries to book various types of music. “We’re not in a market where we can pick one type of music and stick to just that –– not with a club our size. The scene is different today than it will be tomorrow. We have hip hop one night and blues another night. Each scene kind of stands on its own. Our job is to be the canvas where musicians can tell their story to their fans. We hope to give all live music lovers something they can connect to.”

While the Music Farm often brings in well-known regional bands, they give local, smaller bands a platform to get in front of bigger crowds that like their kind of music. And the variety of places where different types of bands are in demand is only growing. Trae points to venues such as the Infinite Room in Tapp’s, Tin Roof, Main Street Public House, New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia, open mic nights, festivals and house concerts.

The musicians performing at these venues play diverse genres with a variety of motivations. Some are looking to make a living with their music, while others have “day jobs” with future aspirations to pay the bills with their gigs. Others just do it for the love of the music and the chance to perform.

The Mustache Brothers band plays bluegrass, classic country and rock and roll at smaller regional festivals, bars and private events like oyster roasts and fundraisers. Together since 2012, these five band members bonded in a living room over the shared appreciation for good music of all types, good friends, good food and bourbons, says Walker Daves, the band’s mandolin player. All five band members have day jobs, but they may play up to six gigs a month.

“As a native Columbian, I can really appreciate the active scene here from local, regional and international acts. Columbia seems to have a venue for all now,” Walker says. “The Mustache Brothers are just one rusty spoke in the wheel that includes great undercurrents of acoustic music, Americana, country, jazz and rock.” 

In a completely different genre, the members of Moon Moth also pay the bills with other vocations but spend their free time making “positive” music. “We want to take things we’ve learned in life and share on stage,” says Rupert Hudson, the band’s vocalist and composer of much of its music. There are 11 members in Moon Moth, but rarely do they all get to play at once. The band members met during college or shortly after and have been playing together for several years. Moon Moth is part of the Scenario Collective, a group of young musicians and artists who came together to create a showcase for local music and art. Moon Moth released its first album online in March.

Rupert struggles to put a label on Moon Moth’s genre of music. “It’s somewhat of a hip hop sound that puts out a message of hope, peace and love … like the Beatles.” At a February Mardi Gras festival, seven members of Moon Moth were on hand playing drums, ukulele, guitar and bass. One vocalist used tap dancing on a metal sphere to beat out a percussion accompaniment. 

Jeff Pitts, a Florence native, has been working in Columbia’s music scene since 2003. He and Jessica Skinner, a Woodruff native, make up the duo Prettier than Matt. They describe their music as a mixture of rock-and-roll energy and acoustic accessibility that allows them to play in many different places and events and still appeal to a wide audience. Plus they play in a rock-and-roll band called Deleveled with two other musicians. 

“I think this is a perfect town for a musician,” Jeff says. “You can find areas in the scene where you have those wanting to spend their time writing, and you have other areas where they want to spend their time gigging and making money. You can find a paying job almost any night of the week.”

Between the two bands, Jeff says he and Jessica are making a living in the music business playing in venues as diverse as Liberty on the Lake, Tombo Grille in Forest Acres and Michael’s on Main Street. Plus Jessica teaches voices lessons, and they perform at weddings and other events.

Jeff also points to the fact that there’s an open mic venue on most nights of the week in Columbia. Popular open mic venues include spots like the Vista’s Wired Goat Cafe, Delaney’s in Five Points and Kraken on Rosewood. Open mics draw songwriters and singers looking for a place to test their performance skills in a welcoming, friendly environment.

Ashley Hayes, owner of Pilates of Forest Acres, is dipping her toe into singing at several local mic sessions. “It’s nerve wracking at first, but I just don’t try to be perfect,” Ashley says. “People in the audience want you to succeed, and there are a lot of folks here who have been very supportive. Columbia has lots of potential for people like me with a day job who just want to get out and perform.”

There are ample opportunities to get a music fix in Columbia for those who aren’t into bars and late-night venues. Several popular music festivals have become widely anticipated annual events. The Jam Room Festival in November, the Southern Guitar Festival in June and the Krew de YaYa Mardi Gras festival all draw dozens of diverse bands and performers from Columbia and the Southeast. 

Then there are series such as Rhythm on the River at the West Columbia Amphitheater, First Thursday on Main, the new Icehouse Amphitheater’s summer music series in Lexington and the summer concert series at Finlay Park all giving Columbia residents and visitors the opportunity to enjoy diverse music options around town.

On the more traditional side, the Columbia Museum of Art’s Chamber Music on Main series and the South Carolina Philharmonic offer diverse programming pulling in more than just die-hard classical music fans. Plus USC’s opera program puts on a strong schedule every year, as does Palmetto Opera. 

Ellen Douglas Schlaefer is the director of opera studies at the USC School of Music and the founder of FBN Opera for Children. She says opera today isn’t what people may perceive as the stuffy, formal performances where white gloves and opera glasses are required.

“The tickets are inexpensive, and it can be a fun and unique date night,” Ellen says. This season’s productions have included a musical, a Mozart production and a comedy.

Diverse venues, performers and genres … Columbia’s music menu is doing nothing but expanding to appeal to the tastes of Midlands residents and visitors.