CONSTANT REINVENTION, CONSISTENT EXCELLENCE

by BILL THOMPSON

THOUGH HE IS CERTAINLY not a French lyric poet, Carroll Brown embodies all the qualities of a classic troubadour, and then some. He is a traveling musician of rare gifts, whose compositions are as diverse in genre as they are soulful.

One of the most enduring of South Carolina-based performers, Brown is equally at home with folk, Irish, country, honky-tonk and rock. He is a longtime fixture in the Charleston area, where, apart from performing works from his numerous albums, he also started a recording studio.

Charleston Recording would become the largest studio in lower South Carolina, with Brown producing more than 60 albums for regional and national acts, some under his own label, Oceansong Records. He sold the studio in 1997, and years later opened two restaurants that, for a time, helped promote the local music scene: Hounddog’s Guitar Bar downtown and Oceansong Café on the Isle of Palms.

But it is as a singer-songwriter that Brown has made an indelible mark and endeared himself to audiences throughout the Southeast.

“I started doing gigs full time in 1981, at age 23,” says Brown, whose home base is a fourth-generation family farm near his hometown of Elgin, South Carolina. “I never really intended to remain full time in performing, but it worked out that way. Mostly, I was just supporting my family in whatever way was best
at the moment. It has always been a challenge and required constant reinvention.”

A 1977 graduate in media arts from the University of South Carolina, Brown made the rounds in Nashville and New York, seeking a record deal—at one point opening a Nashville-based music publishing business—before paving his own way as an artist. To date, he has recorded 18 albums and in the neighborhood of 150 songs, with 30 more original compositions in various stages of completion.

Currently, he is working on a new album, tentatively titled Songwriter, Too. He’s also busy programming the fourth-annual Lowcountry Irish Festival (February 23) at the Charleston Music Hall, a fest he originated with his wife, Cherrie, and Joe Kersey.

“Today I’m working as much or more than ever, averaging up to 240 play dates a year. In time, I hope to cut those in half. But for me, there will be no such thing as retirement. Apart from private gigs and festivals, right now I’m looking to be on this Irish pub’s circuit, and I’ve also joined the national house concert network Listening Room. It’s more favorable to people who have a little grayer hair on their heads, like me,” he says.

The Browns, who have two sons, met in college. They have been married for 43 years, an impressive feat considering how often he is on the road.

“There’s a lot of trust involved when I’m away from home so much. We have a very strong, old-fashioned marriage, and Cherrie, who also works full time at USC, is my partner in everything I do,” Brown says. “Most of my gigs are within seven hours of home. Almost all are solo, like my Wednesday night performances at Tommy Condon’s, except for country gigs once a month at Dunleavy’s on Sullivan’s Island with Bob Sachs, John F. Kennedy and Roger Bellow. I also do a Christmas tour with a band.”

When it comes to his favorites in his own work, Brown says it’s different albums for different reasons, with Roots and Wings, Songs of Ireland, Sweet Savannah Nights, The Old King Edward Box and Songwriter topping his personal charts.

Like all writers, he eavesdrops on the world for ideas. “I still write a good bit, a song about every month or so,” he says. “Not because I feel the need to, but as the feeling strikes, mostly a theme idea or a great line that drops from the sky.”

Bill Thompson covers the arts, books and design.