Short Takes: January 2021



Pontone Gallery

After a very successful pop-up exhibition over the summer, Mati Gibbs and Dominic Pontone opened the Pontone Gallery located in downtown Augusta. This satellite gallery will be open for six months to stage four different exhibitions featuring pieces from well-known and rising artists across the world. January’s gallery features work from several South Korean artists, stop by to see their unique pieces and to learn more about the artists. The Pontone Gallery is located at 1128 Broad Street and is open Tuesday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday’s by appointment only.


Newly Opened

A new Laziza location has opened up in downtown Augusta at 901 Broad Street. They offer a wide selection of delicious and fresh Mediterranean cuisine for a quick bite, delivery with Augusta ToGo, or event catering. Their new location downtown is open Monday – Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 10 p.m.


Locally Grown

Visit Roots Produce LLC, for locally grown, in-season, fruits and veggies that are certified organic and natural. Located at 703 North Belair Road in Evans, Roots also carries local honey, jam, jelly, and syrup. They are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, except for Wednesday and Sunday when they are open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.



As the winter months slowly melt away, consider taking a trip to Jekyll Island, Ga.

Established as state park in 1947, Jekyll Island is home to historical sites and rich, natural beauty that is kept alive through the island’s conservation program.

Where to Stay
With a number of family friendly hotels, Jekyll Island is a good place to take the kids for a weekend away from home.

If you’re looking for a more romantic trip without the kids, The Westin and Villas by the Sea Resort have beautiful oceanfront views, along with amenities to make you feel right at home, right on the water.

Where to Dine
With a wide range of dining options, from casual to fancy, there is definitely a delicious bite to please everyone’s palate. Considering the coastal location, seafood is a must have.

Zachry’s Riverhouse, Sunrise Grille, LOVE SHACK BBQ SHRIMP & YARD BIRD, and Driftwood Bistro, are some of the most popular restaurants according to Google reviewers.

What to Do
From horseback riding to sea turtle rehabilitation, there is an array of coastal activities that are perfect for warm weather. If you’re traveling without kids, stop and experience the Emerald Princess Casino, a 200-foot, Vegas style cruise ship offering different styles of gambling along with casual dining and cocktails.

Mezzanine – Venues, COVID and a Guy Walks Into a Bar
by Steven Uhles

Dateline: Soul Bar. Early evening. A weeknight.

There are only three of us — myself, the bartender and the Stranger. We huddle in one corner of the bar, our silence illuminated by the fading autumn sun in the front window and the Plexiglas-diffused light from the bar. It is my intention to spend only a few minutes — enough time for a single beer — in the downtown landmark before continuing on my way. But then, just like in a Kenny Rogers song, the Stranger began to speak.

Unlike Kenny’s stranger, my friend-for-a-few wasn’t a gambler, a least not in the strictest sense of the word. Rather, he was in show business. He wasn’t famous. Far from it. Instead, he made his living behind the scenes, working in the technical trade. His regular job was as part of traveling crews, the first-in-last-out riggers and roadies who make sure stages are properly set before an artist rolls in and stowed away after the last note sounds. But he hadn’t been doing much of that lately. Nobody has.

He told me he considered himself one of the lucky ones. He had a contract for a few weeks of work hanging lights at the new Columbia County Performing Arts Center. Soon, he said, he would head to San Diego on a similar short-term contract. He said these contracts paid less and were, ordinarily, less reliable than being on the buses with a touring artist, but he was grateful for the work.

That’s because he knew a lot of people who hadn’t been as fortunate. He also wasn’t sure when they would work again.

Of course, the Stranger is not alone. There are a lot of Strangers out there. And they aren’t just artists, technicians and venue professionals whose careers are directly tied to performance. Theaters, music halls and clubs across the country, most of which have been shuttered since March 2020, have been forced to clear out their cleaning crews, back away from their bartenders and likewise mothball these once vibrant and culturally important businesses.

The damage doesn’t end there. A successful venue is an economic driver. People who go to shows often precede the performance with dinner at a local restaurant or pre-funk with a couple of cocktails. Those locally spent dollars have disappeared. Likewise, the right act will entice the fervid fan to travel. Now, room nights at local hotels are gone. Local tax dollars from those T-shirts and trinkets sold in the lobby? Gone as well. Taxi and ride-service fees? Vanished. The deeper we dig, the more evident the damage. Clearly our performance spaces can’t open soon enough.

But there’s the rub. Many of the venues that shut down in March won’t make it to the day when we are again all standing shoulder-to-shoulder while artists entertain us. Quite a few have already called it a day. It’s understandable — even a business that isn’t operating costs money to run. Utilities, property tax, rent, insurance, payroll for those few employees who remain — there are a lot of outgoing costs for businesses with no income incoming.

As they always have, performers and performance spaces are fighting tooth-and-nail. The show, after all, must go on. The Troubadour, the famous West Hollywood venue that raised one of the earliest alarms, is now hosting online concerts from its stage. In Augusta, the Miller Theater and Augusta Symphony have continued with downsized audiences and orchestras plus a virtual ticket option. But with profit margins notoriously thin on live performances, and success often tied to food and beverage sales, this feels a little like kissing a broken limb and hoping it makes it better. Artists aren’t booking tours. Audiences aren’t comfortable with close proximity.

Many of us are happy to see 2020 in the rearview, but I think everyone understands that the chaos of last spring isn’t tied to any calendar or schedule. We are still feeling COVID-19’s effects and will continue to for a long time to come. So will venues.

That said, there have been glimmers of hope. The Save Our Stages Act, a federal program designed to help the struggling industry, has drawn attention to the problem. New experiments in socially distanced audiences — such as the Miller’s orchestral concerts and the few outdoor shows staged in more temperate times — have put a few concert professionals to work. But nobody is out of the woods just yet.

The most immediate solution, of course, is altruism. Sponsorships, donations, the purchase of branded T-shirts: It all makes a difference. In the long run, however, not everyone will make it out of this story alive. For some, more I believe than we want or expect, there will be no coming back. Curtains will close and lights will go out.

And somewhere in that darkness, if I may quote Kenny Rogers one more time, I do hope the Stranger finds a way to break even.

I hope we all do.

This edition of Mezzanine is brought to you by the reunited Augusta act Horsepower, murals downtown and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel.


‘Ramblin’ Rhodes – A Star Acknowledged
The world has rediscovered living legend Linda Martell, the first black woman to sing on the Grand Ole Opry
By Don ‘Ramblin’ Rhodes

Twenty years ago, in December of 1999, one of my magical musical moments was getting to sit at a small table at the McDonald’s restaurant in Aiken, just off Interstate 20, across from Linda Martell, the first Black female singer on the Grand Ole Opry.

Nobody then really seemed to care about Martell’s accomplishments or her historic role in country music, and she had become pretty much resolved that that wouldn’t change and was at peace with it.

She was earning a living then by singing part-time with an R&B band called Eazzy and working full-time as a bus driver for the Batesburg-Leesville High School, transporting physically and mentally challenged children.

Neither the school principal nor most of her fellow employees knew anything about her past life as a country music recording star who had been seen nationally on the Hee Haw TV show and who had performed on the Grand Ole Opry 12 times in Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

The McDonald’s was a good halfway place to meet that Christmas season, with Martell living in Leesville, S.C., and me in North Augusta.

About two years earlier, in February 1998, I had discovered that Warner Bros. Records was releasing a three-disc, boxed set called From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music.

It was the largest collection (60 songs) of Black country music ever gathered with an accompanying 60-page booklet detailing each of the recordings some going back 70 years.

The fifth song on the third disc was Color Him Father, Martell’s cover of the R&B hit originally sung by The Winstons.

The booklet notes opened my eyes to Martell being from Leesville, just up the road from Augusta and just southwest of Columbia.  The truth was, like most country music fans, I knew very little about Martell or her historic place in music.

It was fairly easy to track her down with a few phone calls in pre-cellphone and pre-online days.

It turned out she was born Thelma Bynem. Her father, Clarence, was a minister who loved country music, and her three brothers were all musicians.

“We started out singing gospel music at St. Mark Baptist Church in Leesville,” she told me.  “I also started singing with a pop band called The Anglos in Columbia when I was 12 and worked with them all around the Columbia area until I was 19.”

Her first recordings, in fact, were with The Anglos in 1962 for the Fire independent label.

It was Charles “Big Saul” Greene, an influential South Carolina and Georgia disc jockey on WOIC-AM in Columbia and WIBB-AM in Macon, who suggested Thelma change her name to Linda Martell for easier listener identification.

“(I met Greene in 1996 on the opening night of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon. He was the first to play James Brown’s single Please, Please, Please, recorded originally at WIBB.)”

Success in most anything is about being at the right time with the right connections.

Duke Rayner, a businessman in Nashville, came to know of Martell and talked the then 23-year-old singer into flying to the city in 1969 for a demonstration recording.

He took it to his friend, Shelby Singleton, who owned Plantation Records and who later would make a star of Jeannie C. Riley, recording her single Harper Valley P.T.A.

Within 72 hours, Martell had signed a contract with Plantation Records, made her first recordings with the label and saw the release of her first single, Color Him Father.

It went to No. 14 on the nation’s country music charts, and in August of 1969 resulted in the first of her 12 Grand Ole Opry appearances. She would also appear on syndicated country music shows including one hosted by South Carolina native Bill Anderson.

There wasn’t much national attention then on country music, period.  The Country Music Association’s annual awards show had just aired on CBS-TV for the first time the previous year.

Daily newspapers barely mentioned country music artists, and neither did most nationally distributed music magazines except for Music City News, based in Nashville and owned by Opry star Faron Young.

So it wasn’t considered that big of a deal when Martell became the first Black female country singer to perform on the Grand Ole Opry stage.

Martell’s shows outside of Nashville were booked by the prestigious Hubert Long Agency, which also handled 
Anderson. Her first country nightclub appearance being in Poplar Bluff, Mo.

“I had a couple of hecklers,” she recalled, “but I had talked with Charley Pride at a party that Buck Owens and Roy Clark had, and he told me to expect a few of those.”

The country music industry, as everything else does, changed in the 1970s, and so did Martell.   She lived in Florida, Tennessee, California and New York before moving back to Leesville in 1992.

Little by little, the rest of the world began rediscovering this humble and sweet lady who was driving the school bus for handicapped children and living quietly just up the road from Augusta.

One of my favorite stories Martell told me about at the time that she was unexpectedly called to the stage of Batesburg-Leesville High School during an assembly.

The principal, Pat Padgett, read my column about Martell in The Augusta Chronicle to the students and remarked, “Others study about Black history.  We have Black history right here in our own school.”

The Country Music Association in late 1998 released its massive book The Encyclopedia of Country Music, and I wrote Martell’s entry.

About that same time, The State newspaper in Columbia included her in its century-end story, “They Made an Impact,” about South Carolina “artists, entertainers and icons of the 20th century.”

Then I started being contacted by journalists in cities across the country and overseas who had come across my 1998 and 2000 music columns about Martell on the internet.

Teresa Brown, production manager of the Eyeworks company in Sweden, who contacted me in 2013 trying to track Martell down for a filmed interview.

Plans for the production company to fly Martell to Nashville for the filming fell through due to because Martell did not want to leave her 95-year-old mother, who had heart problems.

So, the Swedish production crew came to Irmo, S.C.,and filmed Martell at her daughter’s house.  And to go with the segment, the crew also filmed a Swedish singer named Titiyo singing Color Him Father at a honky tonk in Pulaski, Tenn.

The New York Times and The Washington Post also have contacted me trying to reach Martell, over the past couple of years.

Most recently, a few weeks ago came David Browne, senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine, who was trying to locate her for a major profile.

He later emailed, “Hey, Don, I actually have talked to Linda twice, and we’re doing a big feature in our next issue. It took a while to make it happen, but it was worth it.”

If you search by way of Google, you will find his excellent article, “Country’s Lost Pioneer.”

Another of her most recent “shout-outs” came in November during the CMA Awards Show live on CBS, when Maren Morris won her first Female Vocalist of the Year honor.

She said, “I am such a fan of country and soul music. Discovering Linda Martell, and giving credit to people like Yola and Mickey Guyton, people that really should be more heard of.  I wanted to share this moment with women that don’t often get the credit they deserve.”

And National Public Radio in late November published on its website an interview with country singer Rissi Palmer about her new radio program called Color Me Country, with the name inspired by Martell’s hit single.

With all of that attention lately, there is one person who deserves to hear it and read it more than anyone else: Thelma Bynem, of Leesville, S.C.


Photo credits:
Feature p
hoto by Nur Andi Ravsanjani Gusma from Pexels
Pontone Gallery photo courtesy of
Locally Grown photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels
Getaways Jekyll Island photo courtesy of Bert Cash on Flickr
Ramblin Rhodes photo courtesy of Don Rhodes
Bar p
hoto by Chan Walrus from Pexels
Linda Martell photo courtesy of Sun Records

Appears in the January 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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