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Published on February 18th, 2014 | by Ballard Lesemann


Flatt City’s Harmony-Laden Bluegrass Will Raise Cheer at Brewvival 2014

From the Carolinas to the Rocky Mountains and northern Appalachians, beer festivals and bluegrass music are a common partnership — a comfortable, complementary phenomenon with a natural fit.

Lowcountry bluegrass and folk acts regularly get to pick, grin, harmonize, and sip on and around the main stage at the annual Brewvival — the sizable craft beer festival held every winter at local microbrewery COAST Brewing Co. in the Noisette neighborhood in North Charleston. This year, popular bluegrass combo Flatt City will headline the musical portion of the event.

“We played Brewvival in 2012, and it was a blast,” says Flatt City singer and mandolinist Stephen Schabel. “Listeners at the festival can expect all of the best beer-drinking music: barnstorming breakdowns, upbeat murder ballads, and tear-in-your-beer waltzes.”


At his day job, Schabel works as the director for the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw. On the side, he and his bandmates gig around the Lowcountry from month to month, playing private events, oyster roasts, and small clubs. It’s not uncommon to hear their string tunes and high harmonies on the deck at the Pour House on James Island — not far from where they first started playing together in 2005.

These days, the Flatt City lineup includes founding members Schabel, Michael Bruner (banjo), and Chris Robinson (fiddle and vocals) alongside newcomers Keith McCullough (guitar) and Phil Kelly (bass).

“Keith has been with the band for several years,” Schabel says. “He also lends some excellent vocals. Keith was the unofficial sixth member of the band when we started and was an obvious choice when our original guitar player [John Svenson] headed west. Phil Kelly is our bass player now [replacing Dave Okey]. It’s always tough when people move out of town and the lineup has to shift, but we are really happy with the sound currently.”

Flatt City independently released a debut album titled Lickety Split in 2008. They’ve composed several new tunes and arrangements in recent years as well.

“There are always murmurings of another album as we all love getting into the studio, but we don’t have anything in the pipes currently,” Schabel says. “It’s still traditional music on traditional instruments. One of the hallmarks of our sound is the harmony singing. Most of our songs involve at least three-part harmony, which I think is one of the most important facets of bluegrass. Lots of bands today bill themselves as bluegrass just because they have a banjo or mandolin in the lineup, but without harmony singing, it’s not bluegrass.”

As is the case with many bluegrass-based groups, various other musical styles inevitably sneak into the sound of their music. Flatt City’s sets find it relatively easy to strike a balance between different shades of folk, country, and old-time music.


Brewvival: an early afternoon scene (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

“Our instrumentation and sound are squarely rooted in bluegrass, but we try to spice the sets up with interesting covers and originals that stretch the boundaries a bit — some Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, of course, but also some Tom Petty or perhaps even the Beatles,” Schabel says.

Attendees at this week’s Brewvival can expect an upbeat mix of standards, a few obscurities, and a slew of melodic originals from Flatt City. A surprise mini-set of Bavarian/Alpine biergarten songs might not be too far-fetched, either.

“We have a rehearsal this week, and I am going to suggest some oompah tunes,” Schabel laughs. “If we can’t pull that together in time, we will have to settle for our standard blend of traditional bluegrass, various rock covers, and originals.”

As an avid beer enthusiast himself, Schabel says he’s most looking forward to sampling some of the rare and local Belgian-style sour ales that will be on tap when he’s away from the stage.

“I love sours,” he says. “The funkier the better. The only problem with so many ‘one-off’ beers is that when you find the one you like, you may never see it again. Every time I see another great-sounding beer added to the list, I get more excited to taste them.”

Flatt City will share the Brewvival music stage with world-beat/garage-groove trio Peking Sunrise and special guests from 12-6 p.m. on Sat. Feb. 22. Flatt City will also perform at the Palmetto Brewery’s “Loading Dock Series” on Huger Street from 5-9 p.m. on Fri. Feb. 28.

The fifth annual Brewvival 2014 will take place on the grounds next to COAST Brewing Co. at 1250 Second St. N. in North Charleston. Food from local vendors and food trucks will be available for purchase. The event is sold-out. 

Visit brewvival.com and flattcity.com for more.

Top photo by Stephanie Smith.



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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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