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What Defines Music in Staunton? How About... "Eclectic"?

The second part of our series on the arts scene in Staunton focuses on music.  And WMRA’s Luanne Austin takes us there.

Nearly any night of the week, live music is happening in downtown Staunton. From hard rock to jazz to choral, there are genres here to suit most musical tastes. The venues vary, too, including restaurants, churches, museums, parks, and even the streets, thanks to the city’s liberal busking policy. Let’s go first to Marino’s Grill, where musicians have been jamming on Tuesday nights for three decades.

DUANE KNOWLES:  When we first started in the 80s and 90s, it was pretty much just the regular people, but since Facebook and all that happening they come in from all over. Well, actually, they came from all over the place when they heard it. But we’ve had just all kinds of people walk through the doors.

Duane Knowles, who is 65, plays guitar and dobro, and sings. He describes the music at Marino’s as folk or Americana. One customer describes it online as, quote, “a robust acoustic jam ranging from bluegrass to old time to country to western swing to whatever, depending on who shows up.”

KNOWLES:  Sometimes—of course the place is small—and there’s as many as three bands playing in here which is unbelievable. There’s one up front and one here in the back and there’s a little smoking patio outside and they’re out there playing on a good summer night. Sometimes there are more musicians than there are people who listen.

Another long-standing tradition is Wednesday night jazz at the Mill Street Grill. That tradition was threatened in January when another downtown restaurant, Emilio’s, was served with a lawsuit from Broadcast Music Incorporated for copyright infringement. Concerned the same could happen to Mill Street, owner Terry Holmes put a halt to jazz nights while he worked out a deal. Lew Morrison, the man who makes jazz happen in Staunton, says the music was up and running again in a few weeks.   

LEW MORRISON:  Terry is paying a lot of money to ASCAP and BMI. And we are not going to pay the other copyright owner. We’re going to avoid their music. We’ve got—you know, with ASCAP and BMI—we’ve got more than a million possible tunes. So we’ve been going through our music that we normally play, and making sure that what we play will be owned by ASCAP or BMI, and anything else, we’re just going to avoid it.  But we still have a million tunes.

On most Wednesdays, Mill Street is packed. But even customers who go every week never hear the same music twice.

MORRISON:  What I do at the Mill Street Grill keeps it spontaneous because I have different guys every week. I’ve had well over 200 musicians at the Mill Street Grill.  I go out of my way to put guys together that haven’t played together. Like I had a Hammond organ player from Charlottesville Wednesday night, and I put him with a guitar player from Columbia, South Carolina, and mixed in a drummer, you know, and I do that all the time. We get some great spontaneity like that.

Staunton really comes alive with music in the summer. Gypsy Hill Park hosts concerts four nights a week, including the Stonewall Brigade Band, which starts its 127th season there this June. The Wharf area is host to the weekly Shakin’ at the Station and events at the new Sunspots Pavilion. Summer is also the time when classical music struts its stuff. The Heifetz International Music Institute brings young musicians to Mary Baldwin College for intense training and offers public concerts throughout the six weeks. Then in August, the Staunton Music Festival presents 20 concerts of chamber music over 10 days. Last year, 5,000 people attended performances by musicians from around the world. Jason Stell is the festival’s executive director.

JASON STELL:  I think it’s a very interesting time to be involved with it because the story tends to get batted around that classical music is on the demise, seems to be dropping out in some of the bigger cities in certain ways, symphony orchestras going under, and we have experienced—at least in the time that I’ve been involved with the festival, which has been since 2005—nothing but steady growth each year. And that means not only growth in income and number of events, but also more and more people coming each year from further and further away.

When John Huggins moved to Staunton 10 years ago, he brought with him his desire to share with others the music he loves best, blues. This August, he’ll be putting on the 7th annual Blues and Brews Festival at the Frontier Culture Museum. Huggins has been promoting other music events around Staunton and Augusta County and started a Saturday morning radio show with local musicians playing live in the studio.

JOHN HUGGINS:  My gift is promoting. That’s what I’m good at and musicians have got to have someone to promote them to make it, so I feel like I’m just as much a part of it as they are. I just like to see people relax and have a good time or dance some or, you know, all that good stuff.

Again, Jason Stell.

STELL:  What I think happens in Staunton that maybe is part of what makes it distinctive or recognizable is that you have this rather compact town center, in which, during those summer months if you come down for the festival, you can every day hear live music, but there’s other music going on in restaurants, on street corners, actually, in some cases. So you find that people are coming, not only the locals, but people from out of town, and they come and they are able to experience a real mix of musical styles.

Luanne Austin was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.
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