Making the Scene
Bingham Barnes is turning Murfreesboro into a center of musical activity
Music scenes are difficult to understand; why they shift and relocate is a social puzzle too complicated to fathom. In the case of Nashville, all we know is that when Lucy’s Record Shop closed its doors over two years ago, the nexus of the city’s indie scene disappeared. Those tenacious fans of independent rock ’n’ roll were left without a place where everyone knew their names.
When a viable music scene loses a home, with any luck it’ll reemerge somewhere else. So it’s no accident that a scene with all the youthful energy and bonhomie of Lucy’s yore has steadily been building down the road in Murfreesboro.
During the waning days of Lucy’s, Murfreesboro bands were still emigrating to Nashville shows in force; the strong Recording Industry studies program at MTSU drew a wealth of young musicians and fans to the ’Boro, and those young musicians started forming and recording bands. But in the years After Lucy’s (hereafter: A.L.), Murfreesboro bands stopped making the drive to Nashville and planted their roots closer to home.
Bingham Barnes was one of these musicians. He had played at Lucy’s several times, in the bands Daphne’s Operation and Glossary. Upon graduating from MTSU in 1998, he got a job in the industry—the pool-installing industry and, later, the bartending industry. He worked for a while at Sebastian and Diana’s Brew Pub, and after he got fired, he took a music-business job in Nashville. But then, last fall, his old boss at Sebastian’s, Mike Skor-dallos, asked him if he’d like to begin booking the bands for the bar/club.
Barnes was clearly the man to do it. He knew all the bands, played in one of Murfreesboro’s best, and was just damn friendly. He zealously took over the job. His first call was to friend Sam Powers, bassist for Nashville/Knoxville-based indie-rock heavyweights Superdrag. He booked the band for Oct. 29 and scheduled his own group Glossary to open. The night was a complete success: By Bingham’s and Sam’s estimation, about 200 people packed into Sebastian’s that night.
From there, Barnes started making a list of everyone he wanted to play at Sebastian’s; he then went through the list of band and label contacts he’d made over the years. In April of last year, for instance, he’d helped set up a show at the Sutler with Ladybug Transistor and Of Montreal, both of whom were represented by Tough Guy Booking. When he took over booking at Sebastian’s, Barnes made good on his Tough Guy connections to set up shows by Chicago’s Aluminum Group, New York’s Two Dollar Guitar (featuring Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley), and Of Montreal, one of the many bands that make up the sprawling Elephant 6 collective. Tough Guy knew that every time Barnes set up a show, the bands made money, sold their loot, and came away happy.
To his credit, Barnes isn’t only interested in filling Sebastian’s calendar; he wants to offer alternatives to other clubs’ shows, to showcase different types of music and help new bands he likes. He knows he could book the next month at Sebastian’s in about an hour, but he’d rather take his time and make his shows great. He wants to make sure that the club’s musical offerings are diverse; once or twice a month, Sebastian’s hosts a jazz show, and Barnes names several blues and country bands he’d like to book into the venue as well.
If booking incredibly cool bands were all Barnes did, it would be work enough to earn him deserved attention, but he keeps busy every waking moment. Early in the new year, his schedule had become pretty demanding: He worked at his industry job in Nashville, he booked shows in Murfreesboro, and he was busy coordinating the release of Glossary’s second CD, This Is All We’ve Learned About Living, on his bedroom record label, Champ Records.
Champ started the way most indie labels start: Barnes wanted to put out records by his own band. In 1997, he had a 7-inch pressed and wrote the name ”Champ Records“ on each copy; there was little more to it. He sent a copy of the single to Illinois-based indie distributor Parasol to see if they’d carry the record—which they did. After releasing another single, Barnes put out Glossary’s first full-length CD, Southern by the Grace of Location, in 1998; Parasol picked up 90 copies. This time around, as Glossary prepared to release its second album, Parasol requested 400 copies and offered Barnes an exclusive worldwide distribution deal for Champ.
Three months ago, Barnes quit his day job and returned to bartending at Sebastian’s, which has allowed him to spend more time on the label. Most days, he wakes up around 8 a.m. and starts working on Champ, screen-printing posters and T-shirts and sending out copies of Glossary’s new disc to radio and press. Out of the 1,000 CDs he had made, only 300 remain. He’s assisted with the label by bandmate Joey Kneiser and by another friend, Ben Strain. Around 8 p.m., Bingham goes to Sebastian’s and gets the bar ready for the evening and also handles the bands. (When Two Dollar Guitar came through town a few months ago, he cooked them dinner.) He tends bar through the show and helps work the door. Around 2 a.m., he goes home.
At 26, with only six months’ experience under his belt, Barnes has booked Cat Power, the Essex Green, Masters of the Hemisphere, Barcelona, and the groups mentioned above. On his wish list are Modest Mouse, Lambchop, Beulah, DC Berman, Apples in Stereo, and Wilco. A publicity firm is helping to promote the Glossary record, and his label has secured worldwide distribution for forthcoming releases by Moses Mayes and Ol’ Liberty. (You’ll soon be able to order Champ records on Amazon.com.) And when Barnes isn’t working at the bar or on the label, his band has spent the last month playing with the likes of Essex Green, G. Love and Special Sauce, and Sarah Dougher (who plays this Thursday at Sebastian’s).
As some steakhead once remarked, ”Build it and they will come.“ Bingham Barnes is just helping build it—because that’s how music scenes are made. In this first decade A.L., Nashville and Murfreesboro need more people like him.