Myrtle Beach Music: This portrait of Blues musician Drink Small is part of “Story, Song & Image” and exhibit which runs through Dec. 30Among the many things South Carolina is known for, a rich musical heritage ranks high on the list of qualities which make the Palmetto State special.
But with so many different styles of cultures of music throughout the state it can be hard to pin down exactly what it means to be a South Carolina musician.
Luckily, a new exhibit at the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum takes the more than 30,000 square miles which make up the Palmetto state and condenses it into a set of paintings called “Story, Song, and Image: A merging of Musical Heritage and Narrative Painting.”
More inviting than its name may suggest, “Story, Song and Image” takes key figures in southern music and immortalizes them into colorful painted portraits which bring to life a narrative on the history of the state’s musical culture.
“One of the key things I want people to realize is that everything in this show is based on an actual real life,” says Glen Miller, the artist behind the project. “It’s a narrative set of paintings that — while it draws from the history of South Carolina — is still very alive with real people that have days jobs and are still quite instrumental in making our music what it is.”
Put together by Miller and musicologist John Fowler, this project opened in the Upstate in 2009 and now is on display at the beach through Dec. 30.
“Story, Song & Image” focuses on 10 musicians — folks such as legendary “Blues Doctor” Drink Small, singer Hope Nunnery and the Brotherhood Gospel Singers — who represent different genres of roots music that are important to South Carolina’s regional musical traditions.
In addition, a listening station at the museum, filled with recordings by Fowler lets you experience each artist’s work and hear the history of the region for yourself.
The story behind 'Song & Image'
We spoke recently one of the two minds behind the project, Glen Miller, to learn a little more about the exhibit, see what inspired him to take on such an ambitious project and get his take on what it means to be a musician in South Carolina. Here’s what he had to say.
Myrtle Beach Music: Artist Glen MillerSo first off tell me a little about your love of music. What were you raised on and how did influence you wanting to do this project?
I grew up in East Tennessee and there’s an old joke there that to get your driver’s license you have to play a banjo or fiddle or something. So needless to say I grew up in a culture where there was a lot of local and regional music tied to the culture of the area.
I also worked my way through college playing in rock n roll bands, so I had a diversity of experience in music and it was always there for me, despite the fact that I was primarily interested in becoming a visual artist.
But that’s really where my interest in this project began was with finding music that is regionally tied to the culture of certain areas.
How did you and your partner decide to take on something this ambitious?
Well my partner, John Fowler is more constantly connected to music than I am, because he is a musicologist, a historian and a DJ at UNCW. He had worked with a lot of these traditional musicians over the years and had connections to them.
It was actually a Contra dance — he was playing and I was observing — that we got together afterward and he said he’d like to do a project of some sort and it brought to mind a porject I had done in the past of just fiddlers. First, we considered just trying to pull together work we already had and to do a show on Upstate South Carolina local musicians, but as we got to talking about it expanded and the whole thing really just grew out of that one conversation.
But his interest was mainly in bringing the regional and cultural aspect of this into play and mine was really based on the fact that these people are still alive and they still have great stories to tell. And to be able to cover such a great span of South Carolin from segregation to the Ineternet was really a special opportunity.
How do you define what “traditional” music is? Is it a specific genre or is it more of a loose label used to group certain musicians together?
Explaining that can be a tough thing to do, but for us “traditional” music was really just music that grew out of the culture itself and really stayed with a certain group.
For example, the Gullah tradition of Lowcountry South Carolina still has influence and there are still people performing this Gullah style of call and response music. And that influenced greatly the Blues music that came out of the Coastal South Carolina region and gradually merged with the country music scene that was developing in the Lowcountry and eventually that sort of morphed to become Piedmont Blues.
In other words, traditional music grows out of the geography and is tied to that and the culture which grew out of a certain geography.
Would you consider Carolina Beach Music is a traditional form of music for our region here at the beach?
I think it’s becoming that. I mean, I’m speculating a bit there but I think yes. If it becomes tied geographically to your area over time, but it almost as though we don’t see that because it’s almost as though you can only notice it from a distance and right now not that much distance is there yet.
But I think that it’s probably going to happen. It has the merging of all these South Carolina styles with the Blues influences and the vocal harmonies that can be traced all the way back to Africa. Plus the Beach music scene has all these influxes of new culture that has come into the area as well.
How did you find musicians to represent the different styles you were looking for? Or was it a more open process of not knowing exactly what you were looking for?
We knew where we wanted to start, because we were aware of the history and the fact that the port of South Carolina is where a lot of different music entered the United States to begin with. It was the basis for a lot of different styles.
So we knew we wanted to find a Gullah person and we knew we wanted to find the oldest Piedmont Blues musican we could find and same with the Jazz connection. So we narrowed it down that way first and we went to the South Carolina Arts Commission and found who was registered for the awards for traditional S.C. Folk and Blues, and that gave us a list of names.
And finally, we just started searching out some folks and John went to visit a lot of different musicians he had worked with and it all just came together.
About how long did it take you to travel and document all this?
Well, as we narrowed down the idea from this big broad thing, I knew that I needed to write it up and find a place to open the exhibit, because otherwise it’s too much money, time and risk to put into it. So I wrote it up as a project to be done in two years and took it to the Pickens Museum, which is very supportive of this sort of project.
Myrtle Beach Music: South Carolina Folk music legend Nick Hallman.How challenging was it to take all the raw material and experiences you had during this time and craft it into something the would tell the story you were trying to tell?
Their board agreed to do it, but said they’d only do it in one year and so we had a shorter time to pull it all together and John immediately hit the road. He was traveling as an artist-in-residence and so he’d try and line up the musicians and I’d quickly follow behind and do my part.
But the whole show came together quickly, I started visiting in fall 2008, started painting in spring 2009 and the show opened in December 2009. I think some of the paintings were still a little tacky when it opened.
In addition to being a visual artist I do teach and I was doing so then, but I was very fortunate to be able to get focused on how this would work and pulling it all together.
I was able to put limits on myself such as only being able to use specific conversations that I’d had with a musician and to use the info that I’d gathered in my folder on each artist to represent them in the painting.
It was challenging, but at the same time for some reason it all just seemed to fall into place like some things do. I think there were only two paintings I had to do over and for me to be able to get 80 percent the first time is pretty miraculous for me.
For the most part, the stories themselves were so inspiring that they just sort of led me there.
So having done all this work, what is the overall story you were trying to tell? How would you characterize what it means to be a musician in South Carolina?
I think maybe that in all the differences there are a lot of similarities.
It was very interesting to sit at the opening and watch these musicians interact in person and realize that if they had a chance they would play behind each other and work together. Totally different kinds of musicians from totally different backgrounds but amazingly enough I think thir stories are similar and that narrative is similar.
A lot of them have come from poor areas and gone from playing on the street to playing in the local clubs and venues to playing festivals and things that are more public than commercial. Because a lot of these people are not commercially successful at all, but they have become sort of legendary in what they do and in that they share a commonality.
They really share a history more than they share a genre. To see them all together was extraordinary in that sense because they all see themselves as part of the same thing, as part of South Carolina.
Was there anything you weren’t able to accomplish with this project that you wish you could have done?
Since it’s opened I always stumble across people that say “Wow, this person would have been great...” and that’s the hardest part.
I definitely don’t regret using any of the folks that we did, but I wish it could have been larger to tell you the truth.
Though I think we covered most of the historical genres, there’s a lot of variations within those that we could have explored as well.
Want to go?
: Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum, 3100 S. Ocean Blvd. (near Springmaid Pier)
: Tues.-Sat., 10 am. to 4 p.m.; Sun., 1-4 p.m., closed Mon.
: Admission is free. Donations appreciated.
: 843.238.2510 or