Iconic Bluegrass Hotspot Highlights Expanded Musical Offerings with Amphitheater Showcase

Saturday at West Columbia Riverwalk Amphitheater
By Kevin Oliver
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Bills Pickin’ Parlor | photo by Jordan Lawrence

For almost 30 years, Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlor in West Columbia has been the Midlands’ hub for all things bluegrass. But while it’s still a haven for banjos and mandolins, the venue has been widening its musical net since Willie Wells took over the operation after his father, Bill Wells, the shop’s founder, passed away three years ago.

He has maintained the venue’s long-running Jam Session and Open Stage on Fridays as a pure bluegrass experience, but he has also added a songwriter’s night on alternating Tuesdays and a classic country night on Saturdays. The latter series began as a once- or twice-a-month affair, but grew into a weekly occasion earlier this year. This Saturday, the country night heads to West Columbia’s Riverwalk Amphitheatre as part of this year’s Rhythm on the River music series. Bob Strickland and Freestyle will be the featured band, and various guests will drop in to sing and play both country and bluegrass.

“We’re taking it to the river, doing our country night down there,” Wells explains. “The bluegrass jam session is legendary. I wanted to get some attention for our classic country offerings.”

Those Saturday nights at Bill’s now feature a rotating lineup of three different country bands playing all the classics, and they are drawing a crowd.

“If people want to come and listen to good country music, maybe dance a bit, we offer a family atmosphere,” Wells says. “The strongest drink we serve is Blenheim’s Ginger Ale.”

What: Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor Jam Session
When: Saturday, May 30, 6 p.m.
Where: West Columbia Riverwalk Amphitheatre, 1006 12th St.
With: Bob Strickland and Freestyle
Price: Free
More Info: rhythmontheriversc.com

In addition to the regular live music and jam sessions, Wells touts the shop’s busy music instruction department and repair services. These aspects make Bill’s far more crucial than a mere music room. The shop is connected to the instruments many of its musicians are playing, and in more than a few cases, its teachers had an important role in shaping their technique.

“I have a certified luthier that works with me, and instructors like Jim Graddick,” Wells says. “Jim just graduated from [the University of South Carolina], but he has been coming to Bill’s since he was just walking around playing air fiddle. Now he teaches fiddle, mandolin and guitar here.”

It’s that kind of long-lasting personal connection that one hears again and again when talking with those who frequent Bill’s.

“Coming to Bill’s is like going to visit your family,” offers Cynthia Lampley, who first braved the open mic at Bill’s in 2008 and now sings with a group of women who call themselves The Ladies Of the Pickin’ Parlor. “We all share a love for the music, and everyone has a talent and is willing to share, so we learn and grow from each other.”

Larry Klein, a local bluegrass DJ, Dobro player and a member of Wells’ own bluegrass band, Blue Ridge Mountain Grass, has been frequenting the parlor since its beginnings at the original State Street location; Bill’s moved to its current spot on Meeting Street in 1987. Klein stresses the importance of the musical opportunities the shop continues to offer.

“It has been a place to meet local musicians and seasoned pros,” Klein says. But he also emphasizes the continuity of family ownership. For him, it’s the Wells’ spirit and enthusiasm that makes this shop special.

“The stamp of Bill Wells and his family make it a unique place that has earned a national reputation as a go-to place for the real thing,” Klein adds.

But the shop’s impact isn’t limited to the events within its walls. Tom Coolidge, a regular presence in the acoustic music scene around Columbia, is grateful for the opportunities that Bill’s has helped him attain.

“Only at Bill’s would I have the chance to jam with a touring great passing through Columbia in the after-hours,” Coolidge says. “It’s still the friendliest and easiest place in town to meet and play with like minded folks of all skill levels.”

Let us know what you think: Email music@free-times.com.

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