It's a casual Folly Beach evening at Rita's Seaside Grill on Center Street. Two dozen regulars and out-of-towners sit at the bar, glancing at the week's football highlights on the overhead TVs. A local trio called the Hawkes gathers in the corner across the room, plugs in, and bounces into a swingin' blues number. Heads turn toward the band. One curious patron looks away from the screen and eyes the lead guitarist, who stands like a statue while blazing through a complex but fluid solo. He leans toward the bartender and asks, "Who's that little thing?" The bartender grins and replies, "Oh, that's Sarah."
They're referring to petite and confident guitarist and vocalist Sarah Cole, a hometown talent who can wail on the six-string and sing like a badass. At the mere age of 18, with only four years of professional experience, she's already on the brink of greatness and success.
The ability to soar, solo, and emote is a commodity Cole already possesses. Influenced by such blues and rock greats as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, she'll soon be hailed for some trademark fretwork of her own.
Her phrasing is steady and elegant. There's a measured soulfulness and richness in her singing (imagine Lucinda Williams crossed with Gladys Knight). It's moving to hear such a smoky voice coming from a young woman. She stands almost perfectly still, but her efforts draw a certain steaminess out of her elder bandmates — and others.
Music is her life. "I love it, I work at it, and I try to play out as much as I can," she says. "From the time I started playing blues, I knew it was what I really wanted to do.
"I've put a lot of effort into it, but it's also a God-given talent. It just came to me at some point," she adds. "It's not so much about practicing; it's about playing with feeling. Once you learn how to play, you just play what you feel. That's how I've been doing it lately."
Cole turned 18 in October. As she shifts from the high school routine and the lifestyle of a teenager to the independent and responsible role of a young adult, the novelty value of her age will fade away as well.
"A lot of people have no idea that I'm so young, but mainly, the people I meet at shows are much more into the music part than the age part," she says.
She first picked up a guitar at the age of 11. Encouraged by her guitar-playing father, she began taking lessons on an electric six-string from local teacher Sly Harris at Avalon Music Studio. Harris nicknamed his student "Stone Cold Sarah Cole" for the contrast between her expressive style and her quiet personality and nearly neutral facial expression.
In the fall of 2004, when she was 12, Cole's father took her to see Louisiana blues-rock singer/guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd at the Plex concert hall in North Charleston. It was her first major concert experience, and it was almost overwhelming. Arriving early for the show, she had a lucky opportunity to go backstage and meet Shepherd and his band before the set.
"I was probably the youngest person there," says Cole. "When we first got there, a stage handler noticed me and took me back to meet everyone, talking with them about playing guitar. When they went on, it was crazy and I loved it. I was smiling the whole time. Loved it. That's what really sparked it."
Watching and hearing Shepherd's fierce take on the blues and rock 'n' roll inspired Cole to dig into the genres on her own. She immediately immersed herself in her dad's album collection, started connecting the dots between contemporary and classic blues, soul, and R&B acts, and searched for recordings, instructional videos, interviews, and old concert footage. The more she learned, the more she wanted to learn.
"I started playing a lot and teaching myself. Before that, I was just into what all my friends were listening to on the radio — new country, pop, rap," she says. "I don't really listen to any of that now."
Cole was 13 the first time she performed with a band. It was a surprise encounter during a Scott Holt Band gig at A Dough Re Mi Pizzeria in Mt. Pleasant. Cole was there with her father. At one point, Holt (Buddy Guy's longtime guitarist) suddenly walked off the stage and into the crowd to randomly hand his guitar to an unsuspecting fan. He picked her. A bit star-struck, she started soloing in the right key, which shocked Holt and the audience.
"My dad talked to him before the show, telling him that I'd started playing the guitar and was getting to the blues," Cole says. "He walked over and put his guitar in my lap. I started playing off of the basic blues scale and started doing some of the coolest blues riffs I'd learned from Stevie Ray Vaughan. He liked it."
The next time Holt and his band played the club, the guitarist invited Cole on stage for a jam on Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." It was the beginning of one of many special musical relationships Cole would develop within the national blues scene.
A group of like-minded players and local blues fans formed the Lowcountry Blues Club in 2006 and started meeting at A Dough Re Mi every Tuesday for jam sessions. Cole attended the sessions regularly, and her hot chops created a buzz.
"I first heard Sarah play at the Blues Jam at A Dough Re Mi," remember local guitarist/photographer J.R. Getches, a regular on the circuit and a member of the Louie D. Project. "She was playing a white Fender Stratocaster with a '70s-style headstock, just like the one Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock. I had my camera with me, and I think I took about a thousand shots, mostly of her. She had lots of gravity. She sang 'I'd Rather Go Blind' by Etta James and quite literally brought me to tears. I called a friend of mine in the music business in New York and told him that he would be hearing about this girl."
Others took notice, too. Ultimately, the Blues Club get-togethers led to Cole connecting with future bandmates and allies.
"[Local singer/guitarist] Tommy Thunderfoot was actually in the audience the night Holt asked me on stage for that Hendrix tune," Cole says. "He introduced himself and invited me to play with his band the Accelerators the following weekend. I did, and it went really well."
Thuderfoot and his bandmates urged Cole to come back and play at any gig. She ended up as a member of the band.
"She was freckle-faced with braces and as shy as she could be at 13 years old," Thunderfoot says of the Scott Holt gig. "I thought she had great musical instinct — when to play, what to play, and when to listen — so I invited her to our next gig at the downtown Kickin' Chicken. She showed up with her guitar and amp and played all night with us, and the crowd instantly fell in love with her — a trend that has never ended.
"She originally wanted to play like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, but developed her own style over the years," he adds. "I wouldn't compare her to anyone at this point because she really is one of a kind. Her strongest skill as a guitarist would be her timing. She has great chops, tone, and emotional connectivity with her guitar, but she manages to put it right where it belongs, when it belongs — and that's something you notice right away."
Cole spent two years performing with Tommy Thunderfoot and the Accelerators. The experience taught her how to deal with the expectations, responsibilities, and mental and physical challenges involved in playing in full-band situations.
"When Sarah played with the Accelerators, we played blues festivals all over South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, so she was in a fairly professional band way back then," says Thunderfoot. "She has played some high-profile gigs along the way, and she's sure to be a force of her own in the future."
Cole put time and effort into other side projects, too, including a performance at the National Women in Blues Festival in Wilmington, N.C.
"When I started playing more often with bands, my mom was really protective over me, and my dad was always there, encouraging me," Cole says. "They'd both come out to see me play, and they thought it was awesome. They were both very supportive and making sure I was safe and all that. It was cool."
Thunderfoot looks back at the time he and his band spent with Cole with pride and love. "To me, Sarah represents the best musical time I ever had in Charleston, and the players who passed through my band are also a huge part of that, but she's the center of it," he says.
In 2008, Cole joined forces with three other high school musicians — bassist Chris Cool, guitarist Nate Merli, and drummer Tanner Cooper. Merli and Cooper had been jamming together since their middle school days at the Charleston County School of the Arts. Cole and Cool were classmates in West Ashley.
They formed a quartet called ColeTrain and assembled an impressive set of '60s and '70s standards and obscurities — from classic rock faves to vintage soul and funk. Their heaviest material came from the psychedelic guitar-hero rock of Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and the Doors.
Cole stepped up front sans guitar as the lead singer for half of the band's live set.
"Vocally, she's as good as or better than most of the singers I've heard around, and I think for someone who sang her first song only a couple of years ago, she has quickly proven herself on stage," says her old bandmate Thunderfoot.
Last year, ColeTrain ran out of steam and came to an amicable end. Merli and Cooper started a new group called Hey Rocco. Cole moved to Folly Beach and started performing fill-in gigs with various local acts.
"Nate and Tanner wanted to move in a different direction with more modern music," Cole says. "They were always kind of opposed to doing real blues stuff. We got mad at each other last year, around the time we were supposed to play at a blues challenge in Memphis. It ended under mutual agreement, and we're all friends."
During her final years at West Ashley High School, Cole didn't care for the classroom environment or the social dynamic of her classmates. She wasn't eager to continue her academic education at college, either.
"When I was 16, I started slacking off a little bit with my school work. I was playing gigs late at night, so it was hard to wake up a few hours later for school. It was hard. But music was more important to me than my studies," she says. "Once I got out of high school, I don't think my parents liked it at all, but they were still supportive of my decision. They knew it's what I most wanted to do."
Live music is prevalent on Folly Beach. The island's tight-knit bar scene along Center Street makes club-hopping easy. On any given night, there's at least a half-dozen gigs happening, too. Cole enjoyed the musical commotion and took advantage of the opportunity to check out bands and solo performers.
The Hawkes only recently acquired her as an official bandmate. Drummer Jim Donnelly and guitarist/fiddler Jesse Prichard have been the core of the Hawkes for years. Named after their former Dunzip bandmate Hawke Morffi, who died in 2004, the Hawkes kicked into action a few years ago.
Like Dunzip in the early 2000s, the new combo is a live music staple on Folly. Their rotation usually includes bassist Jake Holwegner, guitarist Kris Woodrum, harmonica player Mark Davis, bassists John Kennedy and Jeff Houts, and others.
"The first time I saw the Hawkes was in the summer at Lazo's [now called the Folly Beach Shrimp Co.], and I thought they were great," says Cole. "The second time I saw them was across the street at the Drop In, and they asked me to come up and sing a song with them — Junior Wells' 'Little by Little.' It was really cool."
Donnelly fondly remembers their first encounters, too. "She'd been playing with Howard Dlugasch. Then Kris met her and we asked her to sit in with us at the Chill and Grill," he says. "She's like an old soul. The fact that she even knows who Little Walter is at her age is amazing. That's a little bit out of the realm for most 18 year olds."
Although they approach things from different styles, Cole and the Hawkes quickly found common music ground. Cole's riff-heavy technique is based on electric blues, soul, and classic rock, while the Hawkes lean toward a more Bohemian, finger-clicking blend, with elements of Western swing, rockabilly, gypsy jazz, and Latin rhythms.
When she played her first full gig with the Hawkes at Snapper Jack's on a full-moon night, everything smoked and hummed nicely.
"It was a great crowd that night," Cole remembers. "Mark leaned over early in the set and said in my ear, 'Yep, you're our new bandleader.' It was awesome. Right after that set, we all knew that we should be in a band together. They're great musicians who are easy to play with."
The musicians with which she's already collaborated considered Cole an equal to be treated with the respect and directness of any other established musician in the scene. In many circles, players and fans comment more about her guitar licks, amp tones, and stage presence than her age.
"She is maturing rapidly as a guitarist," says Getches, who regular catches her with the Hawkes these days. "The sense of harmony and melody that she uses to such great effect vocally is percolating into her guitar work. I think she is trusting her instincts and the deep feelings inside her to drive her fingers. Her style is aggressive and intense.
"As a guitarist, her strongest skill is her sense of chord color," he adds. "She knows how to breathe life into the traditional blues structures by adding harmonics and inversions. As a singer, her strongest skill is her ability to connect with her pain and to make the listener feel it in themselves. Many musicians play because they want to, but Sarah sings because she must. She is a deep well of emotion."
Cole sticks mostly to her Fender-made guitars, including several Stratocasters and a Telecaster. She also keeps a St. Blues and a G&L Strat-style on hand, occasionally switching to a 1962 Gibson acoustic as well.
"I've really tried to work on my tones this year," Cole says. "With ColeTrain, I sang more than I played guitar, and I always had a really clean sound on the Fenders. I still play with a Strat, but my tone is a little dirtier these days."
Donnelly says they recently changed the band's name to Sarah Cole and the Hawkes — a moniker the young guitarist seems reluctant to promote. "I just wanted to keep it as 'the Hawkes,' but the guys insisted on changing it," Cole laughs.
"Her timing is impeccable for somebody so young," Donnelly boasts. "She never rushes stuff. When she solos, she never gets ahead of herself. She really holds it down."
This fall, Cole and the Hawkes have conducted several weekly gigs on Folly Beach, with a full band lineup on Thursdays at the Chill and Grill, and as a trio on Monday' at the Drop In Deli and Wednesdays at Rita's Seaside Grill.
"The trio is a little more low-key, and we pull out some of Jesse's jazzy stuff," Donnelly says. "With a fuller lineup, things get a bit louder and heavier. We somehow meet in the middle, and we've ended up with a hard-rock/blues things happening in the vein of older Zeppelin and the James Gang or something. We're heading in that direction."
Donnelly runs his own recording studio at his place on Johns Island. When he finishes his latest session with local band James Justin & Co., he says Cole and the Hawkes will spend most of January tracking some original pieces arranged by Cole and Prichard.
"Jim has a great place, so we're going to write, record, mess around, and try to put a good demo together," Cole says. "We want to get out and perform some big blues festivals. We want to tour and make some good money. We want to get out there, definitely."
The goal is to get some of their strongest material together for a debut release. Cole's first original, a mid-tempo swinger titled "The Sun is Gonna Shine," is a soulful tune that will surely make the final cut.
"I predict that Sarah will write and record a breakthrough song that will end up in a movie soundtrack, television show, or commercial," says Getches. "It will lead her to a wider audience and lay the groundwork for a long and successful career as a blues artist."
Cole's low-key determination is solid. She's ambitious, driven, and wise for her age. Great musical success could be just down the road for her.
"She's always deserved the attention, even when other players said she hadn't paid her dues," says Thunderfoot. "She has a long exciting career in front of her, so those same musicians can now say, 'I heard her way back then.' "