Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to hear live music in Bluffton on a Saturday night, you'd pick up your guitar or sit at the piano at home and play. Maybe some friends would sing along. You could hear live music across the Intracoastal Waterway on Hilton Head, but not much here.
That was then.
When Bluffton's population ignited in the late 2000s and into this decade, live music in town slowly started picking up a beat. It wasn't a defining Woodstock-like moment; it was Bluffton, in its quiet progressive way, getting into the music scene that residents supported.
Bluffton is home to music stages inside and outside, music-specific listening rooms like the Roasting Room above the Corner Perk cafe and Music on Malphrus at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry. Some venues charge a cover fee, from about $10 and upward of $30; others don't charge anything.
Some provide solo artists as a complement to their restaurant and bar businesses. Musical acts range from solo musicians to full-swing bands, local musicians who perform cover songs, and sometimes regional and national touring bands that stop by to play a couple of original sets.
"The live music scene today is constantly growing and evolving with different musicians, different bands, different genres of music," said Ali Johnson, an assistant manager at Captain Woody's in the Promenade.
The popular casual restaurant books live music six days or nights a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then cuts back the schedule in the fall and winter. "Every now and again we'll have bands from Savannah or Hilton Head or Charleston," Johnson said. "They have such a good following that we'll book them to play again the following month."
Restaurants and bars that offer live music reap the benefits. "For the bars that offer live music, whether just on the weekends or one night a week, it definitely adds more business," Johnson said, "and it's entertaining."
She mentioned that on a recent thundering Sunday night in August, musician Harry Santana of the local band Not From Ohio played solo in the covered upstairs porch to a packed house.
"He was supposed to play until 9 but played until 10 because it was so busy upstairs," Johnson said.
Many locals mark their calendars on dates their favorite bands are playing, regardless of where. Tourists are more likely to pick a restaurant of choice and listen to whoever's playing while they wait for a table.
Bluffton's musical roots can be traced back to Captain Woody's, which was the first anchor restaurant built in the newly developing Promenade in 2009. It showcased live music sporadically. Corks Wine Co., which has booked live music twice a week for years, opened in 2008 but didn't offer music.
The recession that began in 2008 and lingered annoyingly for a few years slowed down new construction and the local music scene. In 2010, The Dispensary (now called Old Town Dispensary) on Calhoun Street opened and began showcasing live local talent on an outdoor stage, a practice that continues unabated today.
On any given night during peak tourist season - or warmer nights during the off-season - its spacious outdoor seating area with dining tables and fire pits is teeming with listeners.
Earlier this decade, Fiddlehead Pizza in Burnt Church Plaza had a makeshift outdoor stage but eventually closed, to be replaced by Cheap Seats Tavern 2 with its own brand of live music. The Dirty Martini in Kittie's Crossing, perhaps Bluffton's only true music and dance club, featured live bands on the weekends, but it too closed.
Vineyard 55 on Calhoun Street had a lively nightlife scene until it shut down, and its owners moved to the Promenade as the Calhoun Street Tavern. The Pearl Kitchen & Bar moved into Vineyard's old space, transformed the casual menu into fine dining, and hosts music on weekends.
Corner Perk owner Josh Cooke's dream of creating an acoustically sophisticated listening destination and bourbon bar pushed the music scene to an entirely new level in 2015 when he opened the Roasting Room. Nationally known singer-songwriter Angie Aparo, whose original composition "Cry" was a No. 1 hit for singer Faith Hill, performed on opening night Dec. 4 to a sold-out crowd.
The Roasting Room's monthly music calendar now is packed with local, regional and national acts. Listeners can tune in to performers in numerous genres, from blues to country, from indie trios to classic rock, from Americana to worship, along with pop, roots, honky-tonk and a little bit of anything imaginable in between.
For live music in casual environments, be sure to check out Wild Wing, Fat Patties, Peaceful Henry's cigar bar, Zeppelins Bar & Grill at Station 300, Family Seafood House and R Bar & Grill.
Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.