published Friday, March 4th, 2011

Phillips: Celebrating an unknown singer/songwriter, venue

Last weekend at Rhythm & Brews, local singer/songwriters led by former Tennessee Rounder Channing Wilson celebrated the birthday of the Man in Black at the ninth annual Johnny Cash Birthday Bash.

The Bash is always a blast, so I was equally excited when local singer/songwriter Martha Ann Brooks reached out last week to tell me about a tribute to another country legend: Townes Van Zandt.

The (perhaps less catchily named) Celebrating the Songs of Townes Van Zandt will take place tonight at Charles & Myrtle’s Coffeehouse, 105 McBrien Road at Christ Unity Church.

About 20 regional songwriters, such as Channing Wilson, Travis Kilgore, Butch Ross and John Lathim, will be on hand to sing Van Zandt classics such as “Poncho and Lefty,” “Tecumseh Valley” and “Blaze’s Blues.”

These artists share a mutual admiration for the chronically underappreciated Texan who, despite a lack of commercial success, was considered a true “songwriter’s songwriter,” influencing everyone from Lyle Lovett to Steve Earle. In fact, Earle admired Van Zandt so much he made him the godfather and namesake of his son, Justin Townes Earle, one of my favorite artists.

The celebration will also serve as a fundraiser for Charles & Myrtle’s, which is as overlooked by most Chattanoogans as Van Zandt was by the general public. All the proceeds will be used to help fund booking a marquee national act down the road.

Frankly, I don’t see why Charles & Myrtle’s isn’t better known. Every experience I’ve had there was uniformly memorable, thanks to free homemade cookies and an incredibly intimate setup that has artists all but playing in your lap.

For her part, Brooks said she discovered Charles & Myrtle’s while searching for listening rooms suitable to bring her young son to after moving to Chattanooga from Atlanta in 2004.

“It’s a great place, a wonderful place,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s such a well-kept secret. We’ve talked to people who have lived in Chattanooga all their lives and have never heard of it.”

Andrew Kelsay started the coffeehouse about 15 years ago, basing its pass-the-basket concert design on the Hungry Ear, a similar monthly concert house based out of Atlanta’s Northwest Unitarian Church.

Even if Charles & Myrtle’s gets lost in the weekend entertainment shuffle, Kelsay said musicians have uniformly expressed appreciation after playing there.

“An artist told me a long time ago that, ‘We know we don’t make a lot of money playing for you guys, but it’s one of the few places we know people will actively listen [and] everyone is excited about the music,’” Kelsay said. “People always come back. Everyone becomes family after a while.”

If there’s a more appropriate celebration than that of an overlooked musician at an overlooked venue, I don’t expect it any time soon.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation is $10, but in keeping with tradition, everyone is encouraged to pay what they can afford. And as always, the cookies will be both free and delicious.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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