Rhythm & Brews best place to hear the blues

Published on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Enlarge photo

Austin Brashier on guitar, Max Hightower, Mike Whitt on drums and Joe Jones on bass performed in a Blues Jam at Rhythm & Brews on Tuesday.

Bret Bishop Photos

Austin Brashier on guitar, Max Hightower, Mike Whitt on drums and Joe Jones on bass performed in a Blues Jam at Rhythm & Brews on Tuesday.

Enlarge photo

Rhythm & Brews is a natural venue for the Blues and musicians wanting to play and hang out with other musicians.

Rhythm & Brews is a natural venue for the Blues and musicians wanting to play and hang out with other musicians.

Enlarge photo

Max Hightower has given the Blue a local flavor on Trade Street.

Max Hightower has given the Blue a local flavor on Trade Street.

Enlarge photo

The sidewalk outside Rhythm & Brews is a venue upon itself for patrons.

The sidewalk outside Rhythm & Brews is a venue upon itself for patrons.


Admittedly, I am not a musician. My dad and my brother both play the guitar and drums, and my fiancee is a pianist, but I've just never gotten the itch. With that in mind, I'm a great admirer of music. I grew up on classic rock, that's how my parents raised me, and have been to many a bluegrass show. I don't, however, know a lot about the blues. I'm unfamiliar with the history of the genre, and the musicians behind it. Sitting down to do a little research, I discovered the blues comes from the phrase "blue devils," the concepts of melancholy and sadness. It originated in African-American communities (like all popular American music in the 20th century) of the "Deep South" over a hundred years ago, from the spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed, simple narrative ballads of the slaves. 

To overcomplicate a good thing, the blues can be subdivided into several subgenres ranging from country to urban blues, which have ebbed and flowed in popularity throughout the 20th century. The best known are the Delta, Piedmont, Jump and Chicago Electric blues styles. World War II marked this transition from acoustic to electric blues and the progressive opening of blues music to a wider audience, especially white listeners. In the 1960s and 1970s, a hybrid called blues-rock formed. Knowledge and wisdom, however, are two different things. I could read a whole book about the blues, but would that be understanding? I decided to go to the source. The blues can only really be understood when heard live, and the best place in the Upstate to hear the blues live is at the Rhythm & Brews in Greer.

There, all this history and all these different styles are merging. Billing itself as "The Hottest Live Entertainment Venue in the Upstate", for the past two months Rhythm & Brews has been putting on a Blues Jam every Tuesday, every Bluesday, with their Rockin' Tuesdays event. Rhythm & Brews is a hopping place, as I had never been there before and was surprised to find it packed on a weekday night. It was even hard to find parking. It's a small venue, a hall that goes straight past the bar to a wall adorned with electric guitars. The lights are low, and around the tables are pictures of famous musicians like The Ramones and Johnny Cash. By the door is a sign that reads, "No drinks beyond this point". Patrons smoke and laugh on the sidewalk. The energy is palpable, as in this spot the lines blur between the audience and the music makers. 

As I walk in, the mastermind behind this experiment in musical fusion, local musician Max Hightower, is tuning his guitar. Max and I sat down together last Thursday to get the lowdown on what Blues Jam is all about, and he was happy to oblige. He's a tall man, built like a brick wall, with a deep tan and penetrating stare. He looks like he's seen a lot of life. In so many words, this is a man that understands the blues. He's in a band, Plate Full O'Blues, with blues legend Mac Arnold, and has been giving back to his hometown these last few years, starting with the schools and now with the music scene. There's an automatic familiarity with Max, like you've been riding the bus with him to work every day for years and every day you pick up where the conversation left off, and he's not afraid to talk. This is a man that does not lack for enthusiasm, and obviously loves his work. 

Bart: Tell me a little about yourself.

Max: I play keyboards, harmonica, guitar, and vocals. My first introduction to the blues was listening to Muddy Waters (the "father of modern Chicago blues") when I was 12 years old. I'm from Greer, and my mom raised me. My parents were divorced, and I didn't see my dad much. I move around quite a bit, moved to Houston, Texas in 1991. I ended up back in Greer working various jobs, and playing through some blues, country and rock n’ roll bands. It was when I was working with a trucking company as a mechanic that I met Mac Arnold, who used to play with Muddy Waters, and things came full circle. 

Bart: How did you get started in music?

Max: I'm a self-taught musician. I've always been into the blues, since I was a kid. Muddy Waters started all that. Back when I was a kid I used to go to these Blues Jams in Spartanburg, and even when I was in Houston, Texas. People would come from all over, just to play. The first instrument I tried was the guitar. My friend's daddy had one of the first satelites I've ever seen, like you see at those big radio stations. Me and a bunch of guys were flipping through the channels, and I see this black guy singing about "Purple Haze". It was Jimi Hendrix. Nobody wanted to watch it, but I had never seen or heard anything like that. I went home and asked my mom, "What is Purple Haze"? She called my dad, and he said at my grandmother's there's an old Silvertone guitar, amp and everything, from the '30s or '50s. It had three strings on it, and they had been on it since the '50s. I sat there trying to play this thing, and it was cutting me. I didn't even know how to tune the thing. 

I got to reading about Jimi Hendrix and his influences, and one of them was Muddy Waters, and that name stuck with me. I went out and bought a Muddy Waters 8-Track, and listened to it until it run down. I realized the guitar wasn't happening, so I asked my grandma, "What is that sound in the music? Is that a harmonica?" So she went out and bought me a harmonica. The first time I ever played in front of anyone was a couple of years later, so I was all right by that time. Some friends of mine from school had a band, and we went to play at a blues club in Spartanburg. We got booed off stage! The owner of the club came out and told us to stop, but our bassist kept playing. He was crazy! He finished the whole song, and asked the crowd if they wanted to hear another. Actually, that experience of getting onstage, you can't get that at home. If that wouldn't have happened, I wouldn't have gotten serious. 

Bart: How did you meet Mac Arnold, and when did you form Plate full O'Blues?

Max: I was a mechanic, and he came into the shop one day. It's probably been 18 years. I had a Muddy Waters tape playing, and he came walking in singing it. I asked him if he'd heard it before, and he said yeah. He'd been out of the music business for a while, and he told me, "People don't listen to the blues anymore." And I said "oh, yes they do!" I guess there was a time in the '80s, part of the '90s, when it did take a nosedive. It took a backseat.

Bart: So how did you get involved with Rhythm & Brews?

Max: We've played in downtown Greer several times, and heard about Rhythm & Brews. We played there maybe four or five times over the years. We built up a relationship with them. The main reason I approached them is when we're not on tour, when we're not on the road, we get bored. Austin Brashier is on guitar and vocals, and Mike Whitt is on drums, and here they are with extra time on their hands. We have a new agent, and so we're playing bigger venues but we travel less these days, if that makes sense, so the guys were saying, "We want to work. We want to keep playing." So I said to Brad Blevins (the owner of Rhythm & Brews), "What do you think of doing a Blues Jam?"

Bart: And where did it go from there?

Max: We tried to set it up as a mid-week thing, and we settled on Tuesday. I said that's a little risky, but let's give it a shot. It's hard to get people out on a Tuesday. You have people that work regular jobs, and they get up there and do their thing. The first two times we did it, there wasn't many people. Then we put some posters up, and talked about it on Facebook, and spread the word. So anyway, the third week all the sudden all these people started showing up. A lot of old musician friends we hadn't seen in years. The fourth, fifth, sixth week it got even bigger and kept going and going and going. Last week was our tenth one, and I think it may have been the biggest. We've had some kids come in with their guitars. You might hear them at one jam, and then two or three weeks go by and guess what? They're better! Without the jam, where are they gonna play? You never really progress just playing around your buddies.

Bart: What is the music scene like in the Upstate?

Max: I don't know if Greer has ever been known for blues, for the most part. What's happening is...it's a blues jam, but...we're in Greer, South Carolina. We've got southern rock guys, we've got blue grass, all these different styles of music. When they come in and want to play, what are you gonna do? Tell them they can't play? What we started doing is started intertwining. We got this guy, Phillip Keene, a British punk rock guy, he's amazing. We got this rapper, Scram, went up there and started, I guess you call it "freestyling". 
We tried to schedule people at first, but it didn't work out. It's open mic, but it's a blues jam. When you're up there playing it's hard to keep everyone organized. I walk around and ask people what do you want to do? And they come to us. The fact that all these people are coming out and supporting this thing is what's important. It's turned into a big family. Every Tuesday we have regulars. Musicians want to hang around other musicians. 

Bart: What is your philosophy of the blues? How would you define it, for instance, for an outsider like myself?

Max: Like I told you, the coolest part of the jam is the blending. One night we had a flute player. Three guitar players, a piano player, me, and this guy playing flute. How'd that happen? I don't know, but it was deep. Even when Scram got up there, we were basically playing a blues melody, and he was rapping on top of that. All of this is happening, and I'm like, "What is this?" It can't be defined, but what the blues is is poking fun at a bad situation. You listen to old blues, they may be down, their woman left them, but even how serious it is you're getting through it. When I write a song, it helps me deal with a situation. You go through a slump, you can't let it eat you alive. You take something bad and turn it into something good. That's all music, not just the blues.

Bart: You started the "I Can Do Anything Foundation" for local schools. How did that happen, and why is it important?

Max: What it is, a couple of times we worked with Greer High School, Middle School, Elementary School, we did the Greer Family Fest. I bet we had 80 kids on that stage at one time. It's for the preservation of the music and the arts in the Upstate, and came as a result of the actions of the government. I'm not blaming those people, but there's just no money left.

Bart: And S-A-M (Sports, Arts, and Music) are the first things that get cut.

Max: Exactly. You know, for me, it's one of those things when you see a problem...I'm assuming here, I'm not a politician, but if there's a problem there's got to be a solution. That means, at least we can step up and do something about it.

We used to do Blues in the Schools. Back then there was money to support. Each school had a budget to bring in artists. When they cut that, we couldn't go back in the schools to perform anymore. 

We had written a song called "I can Do Anything", and from that song came the foundation. We got a guy named Clark Smith, he's the CEO of the "I can Do Anything" Foundation. He had been a part of other foundations. We thought if we could get this song into schools and have it played all over South Carolina, it might make a difference. It's not completely off the ground yet, but Smith has created a website...Mac and I were on the way back from Europe and we thought if a website could allow musicians to look and see what schools are in their area, and sign up to play there. Some people could volunteer their time, maybe for nothing, but there are others that are working musicians and there will be money in the foundation for those musicians. That money has to be spent, so if there's any left over it can go to the schools, maybe for instruments, anything to help. 

Bart: You have three kids. Is it important that they get into music?

Max; My oldest son, when he was younger I tried to sit him down to play the piano. He wouldn't listen to me, so I paid for some lessons. He didn't seem to be into it much. It seemed the more I forced it on him the more he got away from it. My five year old, when he was three years old, that was around the time Michael Jackson passed away. He saw Michael Jackson dancing, and he was all into it. All he wants to do is Michael Jackson. He watches the DVD over and over and over, doing all the moves. It got so bad, he would wake up in the morning at like 6:30 a.m. and put the DVD in and stand there and dance for hours. Now he's singing a bit, and beating on the drums. I don't know what he's gonna do. My little girl sings all the time. I'm gonna let them do what they're gonna do. Being a musician, I think my kids are so exposed to it they're used to it. Their friends come over and they're all surprised and want to watch, but my kids are around it too much. 

Bart: Has technology changed the music scene?

Max: Have you heard of Robert Johnson?

Bart: Yeah, there's the legend about the crossroads, and him making a deal with the devil. 

Max: Let me tell you my take on that. Well, Robert used to sit in with these older guys who only played one chord. Robert comes in and they don't think he's very good. He goes away for a while, he's still around but not playing venues, and he's listening to records. He listens to these records and he mimics them, he gets better, and he goes back to play for those old guys and he's playing three chords! It was professional jealousy, so to badmouth him they swore he must've made a deal with the devil. Technology, new records, changed the blues.

Now, everybody has their own opinion, but I think when you go into the studio you need to be careful. These days with all the auto-tuning [software used to alter pitch in voice and instrumental performances], it's too slick. None of us are perfect, and I think it's those imperfections that make the blues. 

Businesses mentioned in this article.

Rhythm & Brews


Related Photo Galleries

Leave a Comment

Trending: Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, Obituaries, Chon Restaurant, Allen Bennett Hospital


View All Events