Mark "Pork Chop" HolderMark "Pork Chop" Holder
For some, it’s a pulse-pounding, gut-wrenching rite of passage. For others, it’s an opportunity to show off their song, poem or comedy writing passions to determine if audiences will enjoy the fruits of their creativity. Or maybe it’s just a test of nerve; to put yourself in a vulnerable position, in front of a microphone, pouring your heart and soul out in song or spoken word to a room full of strangers. Whatever the motivation, the open mic is the original “American Idol” forum, a live show judged by a (mostly) random audience designed to showcase new and emerging talent where dreams die hard. But every so often, as the saying goes, a star is born. And the stages at venues that host open mics develop a reputation as a breeding ground for future stars.
In Nashville, The Bluebird Café is the Holy Grail of open mics. This all-original material venue is the real test for Nashville songwriters and perhaps the most famous open mic stage in the nation. The Bluebird has hosted some of the most competitive clientele to be found in the music business. Fred Knobloch, Garth Brooks, John Prine and Vince Gill, to name a few, have all paid dues at the Bluebird. Some of the greatest country music songs to ever hit the airwaves were debuted there, and you never know who you will find mingling with the songwriters when you stop to grab a bite at the Bluebird.
In Decatur, Ga., Eddy’s Attic has gained much notoriety as a coveted venue for aspiring songwriters. They even step up the game a bit by offering $60 to the winner, but it’s the stage, not the cash that’s the draw. Eddy’s has seen such notables as John Mayer and Sugarland performing on its stage.
Back in rock ‘n’ roll’s 1970s heyday, the legendary Troubadour Nightclub in Los Angeles hosted a swarm of up-and-coming stars on its Monday night open mic festivities. Never knowing which record label representatives would be present, artists like Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor would play their hearts out. Bands like The Byrds and The Eagles were born of these gatherings, and the club would make history with the music played within its walls. The Troubadour is still there, still open, still waiting for its next music legend to launch their career from its famed stage.
Most open mic nights start out the same. You sign up, perform in the order in which you arrived, and try to make your sweaty hands cooperate as you finger the fretboard and sing through shaky vocal chords. Alcohol can help calm those nerves. But it can also make a bad performance a terrible performance if quaffed in great quantities. Few venues are fiercely competitive; most just serve as a medium for allowing local, aspiring artists to share their talent.
The Scenic City is not without more than a few notable open mic venues, most welcoming artists of all kinds. There may be a shortage of record label execs scouting the next big star at these venues, but there’s no shortage of fun. And after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Can you take the pressure? There’s only one way to find out—check out our list of clubs and venues hosting open mic nights, check your nerves at the door and take the test. There’s nothing to lose and much to gain. Here’s our (selective) tour through the better-known open mic venues in town. We’ve featured the clubs with consistent devotion to the forum, but open mic nights inevitably pop up at most nightspots, so keep your eyes peeled.
The Camp House
Enter this popular Southside coffeehouse and you’ll notice the scrumptious, heady aroma of the different coffees that are brewing before stopping at the desk, signing up to play, paying and picking up your voting slip. At the end of each open mic night both audience members and players alike vote for the best performance and one talented player goes home with a little extra gas money. And what an assortment of talent you will see.
Christian Collier presides over the show, usually beginning the evening with original poetry of his own. Hailing from Slidell, La., Collier earned a degree in English from the University of Tampa. He’s been in Chattanooga since the late 1980s and has been emcee for open mic night at Camp House for the last four months.
“I like to keep the operation simple,” Collier said. “We frown upon competing with non-original material here, so it’s almost mandatory to perform original songs, poetry and comedy.”
The Camp House is home to an expansive, roomy stage and well-worn brick walls that surround the entire venue. Various tables, benches, chairs and sofas offer comfortable observation artfully scattered in the room. Waiters busily rush back and forth bringing plates and cups to patrons. An excited tension fills the room.
On a recent night, Collier opens with an original poem to the mostly young, intellectual audience before turning the stage over to poet (and Pulse art critic) Michael Crumb. Crumb recites a melancholy poem entitled “A Rabbit Contemplates Sunset.” The audience responds in kind and the music begins.
Jessica Weaver, bent over her Martin guitar, sings original songs penned about the loss of love. Morgan Stanley sings a soulful tune a capella she wrote in the car on the way to the venue. Her voice is loud, confident and harmonious. She’ll be tough to beat. Other acts are equally intimidating, ranging from (sometimes frantic and emotional) spoken word over a strummed guitar to Dylan-esque performances from a flannel-clad duo.
“For the price of a foot-long Subway sandwich you can come in here and listen to some quality acts,” said Collier. It’s a very inexpensive way to see some of the best talent Chattanooga has to offer.”
Besides coffee, The Camp House offers a nice but small assortment of import beers. You can also bring your own wine and sip your favorite vintage while listening to the performers.
The Camp House is located at 1427 Williams St. Open mic night is every Tuesday from 7:30 to 10 p.m. For more information call (423) 702-8081 or visit thecamphouse.com.
There’s a lot of talent in this tiny, smoke-filled room hidden inconspicuously behind The City Café Diner in the Days Inn hotel on the edge of downtown. From Hip-Hop to Delta blues to the sweet strains of country, a plethora of music can be heard resonating from the tiny stage. In these comfortable yet cramped confines, it’s almost like entertainers are not on stage at all, but playing as part of the audience. It gives the term “intimate” a whole new meaning.
Mark “Porkchop” Holder, a talented Delta Blues guitarist and somewhat of a local institution, presides over the weekly open mic here. A Tennessee native raised on traditional southern gospel, he’s a real music veteran who has toured Europe half a dozen times and performed in all the contiguous 48 states.
Dressed the part, Mark is clad in overalls and a white T-shirt. A genuine person, he is easy to talk to. “People that come to The Office are experiencing real communication from one human being to another,” he said. “This is reality in here. Everything else is just an abstraction. If you really want to develop your art, you’re gonna have to play in front of people.”
The Office has a liberal policy for newcomers. Whatever you want to perform is acceptable, original or not. The only expectation is to put your heart into your music and make it meaningful, according to Holder.
“We don’t care what kind of material it is,” he said. “The crowd will let you know if they don’t want to hear your music.”
The Office is located at 901 Carter St. Open mic begins at 9 p.m. On Thursdays. For more information, call (423) 634-9191.
Raw Sushi Bar
This is a relatively new venue for open mic performances. Every Wednesday night from 8 p.m. to midnight, performers hit this sushi bar’s stage with host Michael “Open Mic” McDade overseeing the lineup. The vibe is laid-back and the stage is open, McDade said.
“At Raw, we keep it a very relaxed venue for open mic performers,” McDade explained. “Anyone who wants to perform music, poetry or comedy has a flexible 15-minute window to do it in a very non-restrictive and non-competitive environment.”
Like The Office, Raw has no established rules for performers. Play whatever you like and give it all you’ve got.
Raw is located at 409 Market St. Open mic night is Wednesday and is now featuring a five-week bass and guitar contest. For more information call (423) 756-1919.
Here is another intimate venue that packs in the talent. Again, Chattanooga’s own Michael McDade hosts the show and beams with pride over these Tuesday night shows.
“You never know who will show up on an open mic night at the Tremont Tavern,” he said. “Once a man dressed in a business suit approached me and said he was an orator. For 15 minutes he was on stage talking about the positive aspects of the Republican Party. But on the other hand, with performers coming to play the Tremont from as far away as Alabama and North Carolina, you never know whether or not you’re watching the next Elvis.”
During a recent visit on Valentine’s night, McDade opened the show with a Neil Young number and finished his short set with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Right on his heels was a young man from Dayton who had never played an open mic gig before. Derrick Keeton sang a couple of original pieces and finished up with Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”
“I sing songs about love but not necessarily love songs,” said performer Jessie Knowles, New York City native who moved to Chattanooga after earning a theater degree from Boston’s Emerson College and a short stint in Los Angeles. Brandishing her black Yamaha guitar, she hit the small stage area and performed two original songs: “Just Friends” and a rather brilliant piece entitled “Walkabout,” which was written using the title as a metaphor for life.
But the real treat came when she sang a cowboy song that truly showed off her vocal range and her talent for that genre. As she warbled and yodeled her way through the song, visions of the prairie came to mind and for a moment, she transported the audience to the wild west of yesteryear. Influenced by artists like Alanis Morissette, Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman, Knowles played a set filled with bountiful emotion.
The Tremont Tavern is located at 1203 Hixson Pike. Open mic nights begin at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays. For more information call (423) 266-1996 or visit tremonttavern.com.
Vaudeville Cafe (138 Market St.) is the place for open mic comedy on Tuesday nights in Chattanooga. Test out your material in front of a live audience. For more information call (423) 517-1839 or visit funnydinner.com.
Market Street Tavern (850 Market St.) hosts a singer-songwriter night on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., but you can’t just show up, axe in hand and ready to play. Local musician Jordan Hallquist hosts the showcase with his guests. Songwriters have to book themselves and put on a 45-minute performance for the dinner crowd. For more information, call (423) 634-0260 or visit marketstreettavern.com.
Signal Mountain Opry (2501 Fairmount Pike) offers more of an open bluegrass jam than an open mic night at 8 p.m. on Fridays. Musicians need to bring their instrument of choice, express interest in playing, and wait until they are called to the stage. Impromptu jams can erupt out of nowhere and a good time is almost a certainty. For more information call (423) 866-3252.
The Palms at Hamilton (6925 Shallowford Road) features “Sunday Night Live,” an open mic night for singer-songwriters, track artists, covers and originals beginning at 7 p.m. every Sunday. For more information call (423) 499-5055 or visit the palmsathamilton.com.