Rumor is Dan Henderson has a Lowcountry tractor beam. And maybe that's how he's managed to pull in lot of live shows by musicians who never before made it into Charleston. We're talking about artists like Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider, Chip Taylor, Carrie Rodriguez, and most recently, Hayes Carll.
It's the kind of music, Henderson is quick to tell you, that he himself likes: alt-country, blues, vintage R&B, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll, and the catch-all category that is Americana.
"I love music, and I was trying to fill a niche in Charleston," he says. "It's not about making money doing this. It's about bringing somebody to town and turning people on to music they might not have heard."
Henderson grew up in Spartanburg and caught the music bug early. In the third grade his parents bought him a Sears Silvertone guitar. Reluctantly, he decided his talents didn't lie in playing music. "But I always loved being around music," he says.
Like many working musicians, he has a day job. His is in commercial real estate. But music remains a fixture in his life, and often that's meant going on road trips to see shows. In part, he took up his role as a music promoter out of frustration over having to drive to Charlotte or Atlanta to stay in touch with the bands he loves.
It turns out, Charleston generally isn't on the radar for many touring musicians. They might hit Savannah and Charlotte or Asheville while working their way to Nashville and Atlanta, but they rarely make the eastward jog to the Holy City.
For Charleston audiences, Henderson's work is trailblazing.
The payoff? Dozens of shows over the years. From venues as small as a living room house-party in the Creekside neighborhood with 50 people in attendance to a sold-out performance with over 900 at the Charleston Music Hall to the mini-festival atmosphere at Awendaw Green, the rustic, barnside setting north of Mt. Pleasant where Henderson brought Hayes Carll to the Lowcountry for the first time.
What began as Henderson's hobby led, in 2005, to the formation of Suncoast Promotions. He and marketing guy Dave Hapner are able to bring in 10 shows a year.
Things have evolved quickly. Lately, they've been the ones fielding calls from agents to bring their acts to Charleston — a positive result of artists spreading the good word about Henderson's shows. "We want to treat the artist well," he says.
Henderson's most recent project is an offshoot of Suncoast Promotions called Suncoast Charities, a nonprofit formed to organize and promote shows whose proceeds will benefit charitable causes. A show slated for December at the Memminger Auditorium will feature Arlo Guthrie's daughter, Sara Lee Guthrie, along with Johnny Irion.
Ultimately, Henderson hopes to fulfill one ongoing aim. "The whole purpose of my doing shows originally was that I wanted an alternative to the bar scene. I wanted a non-smoking show, a listening room atmosphere. I wanted the show to start early." To that end, he's keeping his eyes peeled for a permanent venue: a nonprofit arts center with around 300 seats, modeled along the lines of the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, N.C.
In the short run, there's an ironic little hitch to realizing that dream. "The problem is — and I'm part of the problem — the prices of real estate escalated so much in the last 10 years in Charleston that it makes it really hard to [find the right building]."
Still, Henderson remains hopeful and undaunted. He sidled into the music business not to make a lot of money, but to make a difference. "I think the other promoters think I'm an idiot," he laughs. Clearly, that hasn't stopped him from putting Charleston back on the touring folks' map. That Lowcountry tractor beam is working overtime. —Jon Santiago