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The Courtroom is the Heart of the Rock Hill Music Scene

Gardeners at Dumb Sweater Fest 2019. Photo: Alexis Howard

This past weekend marked the third annual installation of Dumb Sweater Fest at The Courtroom in Rock Hill. The fest took place over two nights, and boasted a lineup of 12 different Rock Hill bands playing back-to-back, with a local artists market set up in the lobby. We were lucky enough to catch the second night of Dumb Sweater Fest, which featured Rock Hill bands ZAINO, Old Fighter, Quasar Hustle (now Space Daddy & The Galactic Go-Gos), Rosewave, Chase Warren & The Homewreckers, and Gardeners.

The Courtroom in Rock Hill is located upstairs in the historic Getty’s Art Center, located on East Main Street and managed by the Arts Council of York County. The building itself was built in the 1930s and once served as Rock Hill’s Post Office and Courthouse. Nowadays the building houses classroom spaces, art studios and galleries, and of course the old Courtroom, which is now an event space and the central location of the Rock Hill music scene. It is the only venue in town that consistently hosts live, original music, and when there’s a show going on it’s a favorite hangout for Rock Hill’s creative community. In addition to the yearly Dumb Sweater Fest, the Courtroom also hosts its summertime counterpart Don’t Sweat It Fest, as well as several regular shows per month, dubbed Concerts at the Courtroom.

Behind the entire Concerts at the Courtroom series is Mike Gentry, a local musician and creative who has been involved in the Rock Hill music scene since 2008, and started playing in a now-defunct punk rock band called Candy Jerk in 2009. Mike is a Charleston native who ended up in Rock Hill after attending Winthrop University. He was running sound at Dumb Sweater Fest, and his P.A. is the one that anchors all the Concerts at the Courtroom shows. Mike handles all the booking for Concerts of the Courtroom, and also plays in the Rock Hill band Motel Glory, who performed on the first night of Dumb Sweater Fest.

Mike Gentry with Motel Glory. Photo: Alexis Howard

On Sunday morning, in the hazy aftermath of Dumb Sweater Fest, I caught up with Mike Gentry in his living room. Mike lives within walking distance of The Courtroom, and we sat down on his couch to discuss his involvement with the Rock Hill music scene, how Concerts at the Courtroom got started, and how he plans to continue cultivating the scene going forward.

Our conversation started back at the beginning, when Mike first moved to Rock Hill and got involved in the music scene. This was before Concerts at the Courtroom, when the scene was made up entirely of house shows.

“There was a Rock Hill music scene, a DIY punk scene for sure. There were a lot of people my age who were doing it that I didn’t meet until right at the end of college, or right after college,” Mike recalls. “I started getting into the scene because of these house shows. There was just non-stop parties and playing music at the time. I guess that’s just when Facebook was getting started. That’s how you heard about shows, that’s how you found new people. That was what you did.”

When you take into account the DIY nature of Concerts at the Courtroom, it makes sense that house shows are where it all began. According to Mike, some of the most prominent house show venues in Rock Hill ten years ago were 1107, the Bop House, the PAF house (Punk As Fuck), and the Sweat Lodge. The Sweat Lodge was special, though, because that’s where Mike lived right before he started hosting shows at the Courtroom.

“The Sweat Lodge was amazing. It had huge ceilings. There was a little bump-out bay window where we always put the drummer. We put mattresses on the wall, we had so many hardcore bands. Laura Stevensen played there. She’s affiliated with Bomb the Music Industry and she’s gone off and done her own shit. She’s got an amazing voice. A lot of hardcore bands have played in the Sweat Lodge. That was like the heydey of hardcore. Me and my roommate were booking it. I was booking more of the indie rock, punk stuff, and my roommate was booking all the hardcore stuff.”

Chase Warren & The Homewreckers. Photo: Alexis Howard

According to Mike, Concerts at the Courtroom first started in June of 2010. Around that time, the hallway outside the Courtroom was an art gallery called Gallery Up. One day there was an art exhibit at Gallery Up that happened to have two bands playing in the Courtroom, and Mike thought to himself, “If they can can host a show there, then I could host a show there.” Since Mike was an employee of the Arts Council of York County, who manages the Getty’s Art Center where the Courtroom is located, Mike reached out to them about the idea, and they agreed to let him book a show in the room.

“It was 3 bands for 3 dollars,” Mike says. “We didn’t sell any alcohol or anything, but people were starving for a place for that at the time.”

From there, the Concerts at the Courtroom series continued to expand. Mike started to host semi-regular shows there, and as he made more connections and met more musicians, the scene started to grow. Eventually the Arts Council allowed him to start selling beer, which allowed him to start saving up money in what he calls “the Courtroom Fund”. The money saved is used to repair sound equipment and promote future shows.

In addition to allowing Mike to host shows in the Courtroom, the Arts Council also gave him a grant that he used to buy the P.A. that is used for every Courtroom show, and they continue to provide financial support by covering additional costs like insurance whenever they can.

Motel Glory. Photo: Alexis Howard

The Rock Hill creative community goes even deeper with a local arts collective called W.A.M.A., which stands for We Also Make Art. W.A.M.A. was started by Josiah Blevins of Motel Glory along with a few other Rock Hill creatives. What started as a way to facilitate collaboration in the community has evolved into a full-fledged collective that publishes its own zine, hosts events that bring people together, and overall helps the artists gain notoriety both individually and as a collective. W.A.M.A. was heavily present at Dumb Sweater Fest, and it was clear how instrumental the collective is to Rock Hill’s artists and musicians.

“When you’re alone out there trying to do something like be a musician, or be a visual artist, or be a writer. It’s hard to get to know people and to get anyone to care about your work,” Mike explains. “Well, now W.A.M.A. releases zines and everybody’s got a feature in the zine. Then they’re published and that’s good for their resume. And then they have a community who supports them who also wants to listen to what they have to create, or say, or make.”

W.A.M.A. Zines. Photo: Alexis Howard

The next major period of growth for the Rock Hill music scene came when Mike’s friend Nathan Matthews moved in from Greenville around 2013-2014. Nathan brought with him a project called “Band From a Hat”, which has become very instrumental in spurring growth in the scene. As the name implies, the project involves Rock Hill musicians putting their names in a hat, along with what instrument they play. The names are then randomly chosen from the hat and thrown together into random bands, and the newly-formed bands have two months to come up with 10-15 minutes of music.

“Now, bullshit happens and people don’t always work out, but the first year we did it we had 10 out of 12 bands perform. Which was insane,” Mike says. “We’ve hosted that 3 times, now. Bands that got made from that are GASP, Chase Warren & The Homewreckers, Quasar Hustle, Mall Goth (& more).”

Gardeners. Photo: Alexis Howard

At this point, Mike is starting to consider the future of the Rock Hill music scene. Perhaps the main thing on his mind is opening a proper music venue in Rock Hill. The Courtroom is a great place, but it’s not very public. If you didn’t know about the Courtroom when walking past the Getty’s Art Center, you might not even notice when there’s a show going on. It does not look like a music venue, and you can’t even hear the music from outside. In order to attend a show at the Courtroom, you would have to know about it in advance, which keeps the scene in Rock Hill underground.

In addition to the underground nature of The Courtroom, there are also several logistical hassles that have to be dealt with every time Mike hosts a show. The Courtroom is not always a music venue, but rather a general event space that hosts gatherings of all kinds. That means the P.A. needs to be set up and broken down at the end of the night, and the room generally needs to be completely reset, which takes time and is the last thing anybody would want to do after running a show, especially when it needs to be done every single time.

Then there’s the obstacle of running sound in the Courtroom. The room itself is very loud and has a ton of reverb, which makes it difficult to have a mix that does justice to the music. The in-house sound equipment is extremely limited, which means that every band needs to load in before their set and load out right after so the next band can setup their gear and play. That takes time, and doesn’t always allow for a proper soundcheck. Mike has been dealing with this for a long time, and he has it down to a system, but an actual music venue would make his job a lot easier.

“My hope is to have a regular music venue at some point in this town. Something that thrives on the local scene, but I don’t know what it looks like yet,” Mike says. “I don’t know if it’s a bigger venue so we can start booking bigger acts and then local bands can play on a higher scale. I can’t see a venue running like the way I run the Courtroom. It’s awesome, but it’s also stressful. I have a feeling if ever I open a venue a lot of that shit is going to change.”

The wheels are turning for Mike in regards to what kind of music venue that Rock Hill needs to reach the next level of growth, but the scene isn’t quite there yet. One source of inspiration for Mike’s musings about a venue comes from a historic dive bar in Charlotte called The Milestone. According to Mike, The Milestone is the place to play in Charlotte if you’ve never played a show before. They’re always booking new bands, and it’s a meeting ground for the underground scene in Charlotte much like the Courtroom is for Rock Hill. Their skull and crossbones logo is actually what inspired the logo for Concerts at the Courtroom.

Gardeners. Photo: Alexis Howard

Overall, Mike is happy with the place where the Rock Hill music scene currently stands. There is a strong community of people living in Rock Hill who reliably attend just about every show. Touring bands come through every now and then, and Mike is happy to book them as long as there’s an established local band who is excited to hop on the bill.

“Honestly, booking The Courtroom, I don’t care where you’re from, if I don’t get a local on the show then it’s gonna be a waste of my time,” Mike says.

That’s because most of the touring bands who are looking to book a show at the Courtroom are not well-known enough to bring a crowd on their own. That’s typical of music venues in small, tight-knit scenes (like in all of South Carolina), and it’s what allows the musicians and the scene to drive the type of sound that gets booked at a given venue. Since the Courtroom is the only venue in Rock Hill, the scene revolves entirely around it and the musicians that play there.

“I’m trying to let bands guide shows they want to play, at some point. Not when they’re first starting out,” Mike concludes. He says that when Rock Hill bands are just starting out, he’ll put them on a few bills to give them a chance to meet people and establish their space in the scene. “But bands like Chase & The Homewreckers, Motel Glory, Gardeners, I want them to be excited about the show. If the local band isn’t excited about the show, then there’s no point in me doing it.”

Attending a Concert at the Courtroom should be on everybody’s South Carolina music bucket list. Not only will your attendance support the Rock Hill music scene, but you’ll also get to experience a show at a unique South Carolina music venue that is on its way toward evolving into something greater.

Check out Concerts at the Courtroom on Instagram to keep up with what’s happening in the Rock Hill music scene: @thecourtroomrockhill. As a bonus, stream below the live album recorded at Dumb Sweater Fest 2018, featuring all Rock Hill bands.