Why Darius Rucker and other favorite musicians come back to The Windjammer. By Susan Hill Smith. Photos by Mic Smith.
It was one of those Windjammer memories no one will for g et, including the man at center stage.
Darius Rucker took the microphone at twilight with a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean and a watercolor August sky. He launched into the lyrics for Tis, his 2010 hit about destiny, and looked out onto The Windjammer’s volleyball court, which had been turned into his backyard beach for the night. While he played here countless times as a young man, he had never done an outside show here, and in fact, few ever have. Looking out, he says, he recognized many of the smiling faces and knew that his wife and their two kids were watching as well. Smartphones tried to capture the magic while the high-dollar TV film crew ensured the performance would be shared with fans across the country.
He extended a hand to the audience, his Carolina Gamecocks ball cap tipped upward “...Tank God for all I missed,” the 49-year-old sang. “Because it led me here to this.”
Rucker’s native love for the Lowcountry guaranteed the 2015 CMT Instant Jam concert would be homegrown, not only showcasing the crossover star’s country and rock hits but also offering a tribute for Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.
At the same time, the concert broadcast the spirit of the legendary Isle of Palms bar where Rucker cut his teeth in the 1990s with Hootie & the Blowfish, before the band soared to international fame. While many connect Hootie’s early days with the University of South Carolina in Columbia, The Windjammer played an instrumental role in giving the band’s members a stage to test themselves and expand their reach, just as it has done for decades of other emerging musicians.
An emotional week
The concept of CMT Instant Jam is for a country music megastar like Rucker, who can pack a show with many thousands, to treat several hundred to a surprise pop-up concert in a more intimate setting, as CMT documents both the build-up and the event itself. Rucker wouldn’t give the performance anywhere else, he told the CMT cameras and close friend Bobby Ross, the man behind the music at The Windjammer since the early ‘80s.
By the time the band cranked up the Hootie favorite “Only Want to be With You,” the sun had set, and the sky glimmered in orange, purple and pink. “C’mon, Windjammer!” Rucker called to the crowd as they answered him in song. No question, the Isle of Palms and The Windjammer glowed in the sentimental spotlight.
“It’s exactly what I envisioned and imagined it would be. It was awesome,” Rucker says, looking back. “That is what music is supposed to be about.”
“The day worked out perfect,” recalls Ross. While he would typically run a big production at The Windjammer, he handed over control to the CMT crews, allowing him an unusual opportunity to take in the show uninterrupted. “I went over and sat behind the soundboard where nobody could get to me and just watched it,” he says, trying not to get emotional.
Back in the mid-1990s, Ross and Hootie’s lead guitarist Mark Bryan had a moment together outside the bar when they teared up at the realization that the band had outgrown The Windjammer. Ross didn’t know then that the members would come back anyway, together and as solo acts, just as other successful musicians continue to return, sometimes in creative ways. Rucker’s CMT splash was especially meaningful to Ross because of the friendship and shared memories. “It’s just a bond that we have from a long, long time ago,” he explains.
Isle of Palms hospitality
The Windjammer’s spirit starts with Malcolm Burgis, who opened it in 1972 with his brother James at what was previously the Sea Side and before that, the site of the original Surf Deck, a teenage hangout dating back to 1946.
The brothers came from a large Isle of Palms family that operated The Palms restaurant for years. James traded his share of The Windjammer a couple of years later to Bill Kulseth for a motorcycle. Malcolm, meanwhile, continued to be a guiding force and now shares ownership with Ross as well as Jack Alspaugh, a longtime employee who was recently brought into the fold. All three live on Isle of Palms — a golf cart ride away from work.
“It would not be The Windjammer without Malcolm,” says Ross, who describes Burgis as the “rock of the place” and credits him for putting money back into the business through the years, even as he lent a hand to many employees and others in the community. It is Ross, however, who is responsible for putting The Windjammer on the map for live music.
He first visited the original cinder block building as a customer in 1974, and distinctly remembers being carded. He had just moved to Isle of Palms from Savannah at age 18, the legal drinking age at the time, and he continued as a customer until 1980, when he started working as a bartender to pay of his tab. Two years later, he became a manager, and before long, started to bring in bands.
“There really wasn’t a place to put them,” he admits. He recalls building a makeshift stage that could be taken in and out, and squeezing it in by the shuffleboard table, which would hold the drum stool. “It was an experiment. I didn’t know if it was going to work or not.”
Ross didn’t sing or play an instrument, but he loved music. He subscribed to Atlanta’s Creative Loafing entertainment listing and started to pull in touring bands that were stopping through there and Athens, Georgia. Most played inside, though The Windjammer held a few daytime shows with bands playing to a beach audience from atop the fat building, shielded from sun by an old military parachute.
Back then, the Isle of Palms was more remote, and people were more likely to visit through the day and stay into the night. Volleyball and half-rubber games helped pass the time—The Windjammer hosted many professional beach volleyball tournaments back in the day—but it was bands like Spidermonkey that consistently pulled people to Front Beach. “That’s when I got turned on to live music,” Alspaugh, who moved to the Lowcountry in the mid-1980s and joined the staff in the 1990s, says.
Over time, The Windjammer developed positive relationships with musicians no matter where they were in their careers. “Bobby has always had a good rapport with all the bands that came through. He took care of them, fed them, set them up,” Alspaugh says.
Swept through the 1990s
Hurricane Hugo washed the old place away in the summer of 1989. The Windjammer re-opened nine months later in a new raised building that could ft standing-room-only shows of 500, and the music returned with a surge of talent that included relative unknowns from the Carolinas.
Greenville’s Edwin McCain lived in Charleston at the time and recalls pestering Ross until he let McCain play an acoustic set one Saturday at noon. “I either worked for tips, or he gave me like 50 bucks, but I was just so excited to play at The Windjammer. I would do anything to get in there,” McCain, who went on to hit the national charts with “Solitude,” “I’ll Be” and “I Could Not Ask for More,” says.
The Windjammer partnered with Charleston’s trendsetting 96 Wave radio station, producing Monday Night Jams so successful they started to cut into Ross’s weekend business.
McCain describes it as a fantastic learning experience, whether he was playing with his band, or watching others like Uncle Mingo or Hootie work the room. Ross would have made a great record label president, McCain says. “He always had a knack for figuring out who was going to do it, and who was in it for the long haul, and putting those people on stage.”
Musicians would often crash at Ross’ house when he was still single. “Staying at Bobby’s was the deal,” McCain, who felt like he was admitted to “the inner circle” when he was invited, says. “You were trying to get to that.”
Even after Ross married his wife, Shirley, they would have bands over for cookouts and other get-togethers. She loves the music as much if not more than her husband and helps make the musicians feel at home. “She’s got to smooth out Bobby’s rough edges,” laughs Sister Hazel lead singer Ken Block. He proudly recalls how Ross told him that he called Shirley three songs into the band’s first Windjammer performance and told her to come to come down to see the rest.
Everyone has “Bobby Ross stories,” says Rucker, who first got on The Windjammer stage with Hootie & the Blowfish in spring of 1991, when they played for $500. “Bobby was always the first guy to help you out. He’s one of my best friends in the world.” Rucker would also stay with Ross in the early days, and he had help from Shirley and Bobby in setting up a home when he returned to the Lowcountry during the hectic days of Hootie’s new celebrity. “They took care of everything.”
High fives and hugs
The New Orleans-based touring band Cowboy Mouth dished up its hard-driving “rock-n-roll gumbo” at The Windjammer for nearly a decade before Hurricane Katrina’s devastation left them stranded on the road in 2005. Ross immediately reached out to the band members and arranged for them to do a series of fundraising concerts on Isle of Palms with openers like Hootie, McCain and local favorite Blue Dogs. “It’s that type of community—that community spirit that Bobby and Malcolm have always fostered—that makes it just a wonderful place to go to,” Cowboy Mouth drummer and front man Fred LeBlanc says.
The band still returns twice a year and always packs the house. LeBlanc wants a Cowboy Mouth show to be “an almost communal rock ‘n roll church kind of thing, without the religion,” and The Windjammer’s rectangular room demands audience interaction. “It’s different than any other place that we play.”
Sister Hazel counts on high-fives and hugs when band members return. Their annual Windjammer visit into a three-day event that draws their devoted fans— HazelNuts—to Isle of Palms from across the Southeast and beyond. The HazelNut Hang includes daytime and nighttime sets as well as VIP activities like cookouts, volleyball and even Mad-Lib karaoke. (The 11th Hang is set for this year from June 10-12.) “You don’t even have to put your shoes on all weekend,” says Block. “It’s a great way to connect with our fans in a place where it all started.”
The Windjammer still makes room for newcomers, and Ross, who recently turned 60, says he is turning over his responsibilities for booking bands to someone else. “I just feel like a younger person needs to come and take it over.” However, with the success of Rucker’s CMT Instant Jam he may do more outdoor shows as special events, for example, with a guaranteed draw like McCain.
McCain typically plays once a year at summer’s end and by coincidence was scheduled to play two days after CMT came to town in August. Now in his mid-40s with a similarly-aged core audience, he started his sold-out show at 9 p.m. that Friday without an opening band, joked that it was “15 minutes past his bedtime” when he took the stage and teased a 20-something fan that he didn’t know how to use a selfie stick.
He quickly proved he still had the stamina however, climbing on top of the bar to sing “Love T.K.O.” by Teddy Pendergrass, and delivering signature songs like “I’ll Be,” enthusiastically keeping pace with requests. Just before midnight, McCain remained on stage with his guitar, deep into a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Your Eyes,” savoring the last minutes of the three-hour show. Shirley Ross soaked it in with friends, standing close to the stage, not surprised at how long he played. “He loves it here,” she said with a broad smile. After all, he was at The Windjammer.