The Charleston musician says the coronavirus has people missing—and appreciating—live music like never before
When you’re looking to talk about Charleston’s music scene, locals will almost always point you to Charlton Singleton. He’s a Grammy Award-winning trumpet player, often the ring leader of whatever band he’s putting together lately, and a self-professed talker.
Throughout Singleton’s career, he’s performed in every coffee shop, concert hall and club in Charleston and, what’s more: his talents have carried him far beyond the South Carolina city to stages throughout the world. But he always loves to return home to Charleston.
Singleton co-founded and served as the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. On Sundays, he can be found at St. Patrick Catholic Church, where he serves as organist and choir director. He’s the Artist in Residence Emeritus at Charleston’s Gaillard Center, where he also leads a Summer Youth Jazz Orchestra Camp.
Less than five years ago, he gathered four of his local musician buddies he’d known for almost 20 years for what he called “a little project.” Percussionist Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, guitarist and vocalist Clay Ross, and vocalist Quiana Parler. The crew used to play together in a local coffee shop in the mid-90s, when Quiana was just a high schooler.
“We decided to start playing together some,” he said. “Well, it’s like we hit magic.”
They called the band Ranky Tanky, and created music inspired by the culture of slave descendants from Gullah, a region of coastal islands that stretches from the Carolinas to northern Florida. Their dynamic musicianship drew a large, and diverse fan base seemingly overnight. Before long, Ranky Tanky was touring all over the world.
“We took this Gullah music and gave it a contemporary style. From then on, it felt like a snowball picking up momentum. And it just culminated with Jan. 26 going on that stage and accepting a Grammy,” Singleton said.
The band’s album, “Good Time,” was named the Best Regional Roots Music Album of 2019.
Now, with a slew of performances canceled because of the global health crisis, Singleton is still hopeful. He says there’s still plenty of sunny days ahead for Ranky Tanky and his other ensembles. He believes musicians, and artists in general, will come out of these uncertain times stronger than ever.
“I think there will be a resurgence. With even more support for arts organizations and for performers and just everybody in the arts community,” Singleton said. “We all know now to appreciate what we have, and music — live music — is one of those great things.”
Artistic Fuel recently caught up with Singleton at his home in Charleston. We talked about Charleston’s rich music culture, how he’s revamping his performances, and what’s next for independent artists. Here’s what he had to say.
Q&A with Charlton Singleton
A|F: How would you describe Charleston’s music scene?
Singleton: First of all, there’s a wide variety. It’s very eclectic…Charleston has always been a very artsy place. Its history and its location right on the water really inspires a lot of artistic expression. Musicians would come to Charleston to go on vacation and when they would be on vacation and have that jones to perform. Then they would line up some sort of gig at a local small hole in the wall to test out new material.
So kids here grow up hearing great live music, whether they’re at the coffee shop or a neighborhood restaurant. And that sparks something early on in them.
I think because of that, Charleston has this unique way of producing artists that end up touring all over the world. It’s been the place where big names came and grabbed their musicians from. There are so many big acts that have a musician from Charleston or at least from South Carolina. I’ve got friends of mine that are from the Lowcountry here in the Charleston area that play with everybody from A$AP Rocky to Mary J. Blige to D’Angelo. And it’s in every genre. I know Charleston musicians who are gospel singers, country artists, classical music conductors. It’s just really an interesting dynamic that happens around here.
A|F: How are local musicians weathering the pandemic?
Singleton: There are a lot of musicians here in Charleston that play local gigs six nights a week. That’s their job; it’s their careers. So a lot of them have done livestream concerts on Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. And they invite folks to leave them a virtual tip by way of Venmo or PayPal, so that helps. I know a lot of musicians are using this time to write music and record music. A lot of them are just trying to be as creative as they can, looking for ways to financially survive.
The local newspaper here, The Post and Courier, is doing a cool thing to help musicians out. They call it No Intermission, and they invited local musicians of all genres to come in and record a short set. They post each recording on their YouTube page and it also listed information on how you can help that musician with a virtual tip jar. Little things like that really help. You know, now you’ve got this new video that’s out in the world, introducing your music to a new audience.
A|F: How do you think Charleston’s music scene — and independent musicians in general — will come out of this?
Singleton: Honestly, I think it’ll be stronger. In my belief, I think that any adversity you come out of makes you stronger because you have weathered that storm. And now that everybody is being forced to think differently about how they live, about how they work, about how they perform, about how treat each other. You appreciate things more when they’re gone, you know?
A friend of mine asked how I was doing the other day. You know, financially. They were concerned. I said, well, there’s really nothing coming in…Some people look at musicians and say, ‘oh, they’re just a musician, having fun playing music. You know, I’m using this to pay my mortgage and pay for my car and support my family and all of that stuff. And now people are appreciating the fact that I — and other musicians — entertain for a living. That I was good at what I was doing, that I was being paid for what I was doing.
When we come back from all of this and are able to open up clubs, I think there will be a resurgence. With even more support for arts organizations and for performers and just everybody in the arts community.
People have missed it. You know, there’s nothing like live music or being at a live event. You can watch it on TV all the time, but it’s just a different experience when you’re right there in person.
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.