Spring break started last week with a show I booked at my own home court venue, Summit Coffee in Davidson, NC, a little coffee shop in the small college town I was born and raised in. Every performer needs a place to call home, somewhere they’re comfortable, a place you don’t have to worry about drawing a decent know crowd or have to wonder what kind of atmosphere the place holds. I used to play the open mic at Summit Coffee every Wednesday from right when I turned 14 until right after I turned 18. Every week I’d sign up as “Fountain Penn” on the #1 spot on the sign up sheet, I’d tune my guitar, give a nod to my fellow songwriting comrades and take the stage with my jet black Martin acoustic. “I’m Fountain Penn, I’m 14 and I’m single” was always the first line I’d speak into the mic before strumming myself into an acoustic, pre-pubesent, angsty chorus of metaphors for discontent and loneliness. I learned how to get up in front of people with a guitar, how to mess up and keep on singing. The older group of musicians took me under their wing, assuring me of my potential as an act. Their dissection of my lyrics encouraged me to shift my style from metaphorical to straightforward revelations and storytelling. They taught me about edict of playing shows, mutual respect between song-writers. Musically, I did most of my early development there at Summit.
On weekends I’d show up for the local shows and again be the youngest in attendance. I enjoyed spending time with the older guys and girls who’d play on Wednesday as they’d congregate around the stage, smoke cigarettes, drink beer and listen while one of their own gave a close, intimate performance upstairs above Main Street or outside on the patio. They stuck together. While my peers were off sneaking into high school parties, trying their hand at getting high or attempting to receive their first hand job, I’d be with the 30-somethings at the coffee shop. I’d listen as they’d sip coffee, critique the players in the Charlotte music scene, debate national political issues, harp on the follies of organized religion and discuss other topics I knew nothing about yet. Whether they knew it or not, their inclusion was gave me a sense of belonging I needed, not just as a rookie musician, but as a person. In the beginning my work as Fountain Penn was vastly regarded as “shitty” by my peers and often it, along with my small stature, high-pitched voice and strange mannerisms, would be the butt of their jokes. I felt very distant from my classmates in middle and high school. However, music, what once had further set me apart, was giving me an opportunity to be a part of a creative, nurturing community. If it wasn’t for this group of people, Chas Willimon, Chris Steude, Tex Santos, Mike Nolan, Don Eidman, Joe and April Diaco, Billy Jones, Zac McBee, Todd Farmer, HL Ruth, and many others, there’s a small chance I’d have continued with performing my original music.
As the years went on and the advice and critique of my mentors started to set in, my songs began to develop. My voice became listenable and my lyrics recognizable, even relatable. My friends started to enjoy my songs and passed my recordings on to others. When a younger crowd came out to see me on Wednesdays they brought with them other young performers around my age. I developed a reputation for writing sappy, acoustic, lovesick melodies that resonated with anyone that had experienced through puppy love heartbreaks. It elevated to the point where I’d get recognized as Fountain Penn by people I didn’t know when I was at Target or Wendy’s a few towns over. Some weeks, while on stage, I’d look out and see kids I had never seen before mouthing the lyrics to my songs. I’d get myspace messages from strangers, telling me how one of my songs impacted or comforted them. In my mind, this was an incredible triumph in contrast to how I was generally perceived only a few months prior.
This is when I started playing shows on weekends at other coffee shops around the local area, meeting younger musicians in bands who’d let me open for them. I branched out to Concord and Mooresville, Cornelius and Huntersville. By my junior year of high school I’d have months where my calendar was filled with scheduled performances, sometimes two or three in one day. All of that aside, it took me until I was a Freshman in college to finally get a headlining gig at Summit Coffee, something I’d been aiming toward since I started playing the open mic. It’ll stand as one of my first personal landmarks of my career.
Needless to say, I owe this venue so much of what I have become. From a bird’s eye view, a show at a tiny coffee shop in a tiny little town might seem like no big deal to a songwriter who plays coffeehouse’s on a regular basis, but I’m confronted with all of that history every time I get the chance to play there.
Last Saturday, I enlisted the opening support of my best friend Kevin McClary and his alt-indie-americana duo, Earl of Evenings, to be my opening support. Like always, I was blessed with a familiar, attentive and extremely supportive audience. As I sang the my arsenal of material to the abundant crowd, I heard myself out of a familiar monitor that has a nostolgic “Give Tex Santos a Dollar” sticker on the speaker. I felt blessed to truly be at home again.