Talented Musicians Add a Pleasing Note to Woodruff’s Rich Culture
By: Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Woodruff is a town with a long and storied history and rich tradition, not only athletically but also in the arts. That includes a host of talented musicians from our town, many who still call Woodruff home, and others who have taken their talents around the country and the world.
With various styles and experiences, Woodruff’s musicians span different eras, different genres, and varying styles, but the message is the same. Music is a uniting force, and those who have chosen a performer’s life have a unique ability to brighten our lives with their songs.
Here is a look at some of Woodruff’s most talented; the musicians who call our town home.
Ben Harrison and Wes Liston
Harrison and Liston are both Woodruff High School graduates. They have been playing together for years after forming the group Gritty Flyright. Though Harrison and Liston took different paths into the music world, the convergence of their talents has produced a sound that encapsulates a small-town feel and the world around them.
“When I was about 14, I took an interest in wanting to play,” recalls Harrison. “I bought a guitar because I thought it was cool. I played in a bunch of garage bands. I desired to be the next Hootie and the Blowfish, I guess, and then at age 18, right after high school, formed an original rock band in Spartanburg, which caught a lot of traction really quick. We ended up touring with my childhood guitar teacher, Desiree’s Hammer.”
Following the dissolution of Harrison’s original band, he connected with fellow Woodruff native Liston.
“I reconnected with Wes, who was an old friend,” continued Harrison. “He had moved to Charleston and told me he was playing music. I went to see him play a small show and then started playing with him as Gritty Flyright, and we have been doing that for about three years. Ninety percent of what we do is in the Lowcountry, and we play many public and private events. Wes is a very talented singer-songwriter and a very late bloomer. Music wasn’t on his radar like it was in my life. I enjoy his style and songwriting, and the camaraderie in the band, all of the guys are really good friends.”
Liston, the founder of Gritty Flyright, taught elementary school in 2007 and said he felt something was missing. Buying a $90 guitar, Liston began writing songs to sing to his students. From there, his affinity for music began to grow. Then, a health scare became a turning point in his musical career.
“It wasn’t until I was severely ill with Chron’s disease that I took to playing for myself,” he said. “I was in and out of MUSC (Medical University of South Carolina) and on leave from teaching in Charleston when I started wondering if I could play songs for myself.”
Liston, who plays the guitar and harmonica, adopted Gritty Flyright as his stage name. For the past six years, he has carved a name for himself in the Lowcountry music scene. Gritty Flyright wrapped up competing in a singing competition in late May called “Sing United”, a fundraiser for United Way that lasted five weeks. Liston won the competition, helping raise $50,000 for charity in the process. Still, Liston says, he is always continuing to learn new things about the music he plays.
“I think I’ve grown as an artist in different ways. I didn’t know I would ever have a singing voice. It’s something that I’m still discovering because I was so late to the game.”
Kenny Lawrence has always been an impactful songwriter with an Americana style that by his admission tends to produce sad songs. But that is ok with Lawrence, who believes that sad songs teach lessons about life. In a sense, sad songs can be positive in that regard. That is the message Lawrence wants to get across.
“To me, sad songs make me happy,” he said. “It’s cathartic. I want to be able to tell hard truths to the audience, and that’s my motive.”
As successful as his career as a solo songwriter and performer has been, Lawrence is currently the frontman and lead singer for Blackfoot, a well-known Southern Rock and Americana band which has toured extensively around the country for decades and recorded smash hits such as “Highway Song” and “Train Train.”
Lawrence is grateful for the opportunity to sing for audiences on a broad scale as a member of Blackfoot.
“Joining Blackfoot, it just fell into my lap,” he said. “‘Highway Song’ is one of the very first songs I ever learned to play. It’s just an honor to carry on their legacy. I want to do right by the band and their music. I’m happy to have such a great band behind me.”
And Lawrence, a 2004 graduate of Woodruff High School, has seen the opportunities grow and evolve for performers in Woodruff throughout the years, a good thing, he says.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t have a Tap Three, and you didn’t have a venue to play live music. We have great outlets now to reach audiences with the amphitheater in the park, Tap Three, and it blows my mind how many great opportunities we have now.”
Jessica Sims (Skinner)
Jessica Sims always knew she wanted to play and sing. A talented guitar and ukulele player with a songwriters’ mind and a sweet yet powerful voice, Skinner has for years enjoyed a successful career as a co-founder of the musical duo Prettier Than Matt. A unique name, Sims admits that the most often asked question is, what is the origin behind the name. The etymology, she says, is from her musical partner Jeff’s former bass player, Matt, in his previous Columbia-based rock band, Deleveled.
“Jeff was searching for a female singer to complete his acoustic duo,” said Skinner. “I had just moved to (Columbia), fresh out of college in 2009 and was working at Best Buy where I quickly made friends with my coworkers, some of them who were tied deeply into the music scene in Columbia. This led to me meeting Jeff. He told me he had heard I could sing and asked if I would be interested in playing music together for fun.”
Sims continued, “We got asked about the band’s name and we didn’t have one at the time, and since Jeff had been playing with Matt for a long time, our buddy said I was ‘prettier than Matt’. Thus, the name was born, and we’ve been Prettier Than Matt ever since.
Officially formed in 2010, Prettier Than Matt has enjoyed great success in South Carolina and beyond, touring as far away as Seattle, WA. Prettier Than Matt has encompassed several genres but…
“We’ve come to the conclusion that we are Americana or simply acoustic pop-rock,” Sims added. “Jeff and I both write lyrics that are taken from our personal experiences. It is therapeutic for both of us and allows us to have a more personal connection with our audience and fans. As we are getting older, we’re realizing more and more how important time is and how fast it flies.”
Elliott Satterfield never really planned to be a musician, but watching his brother Scotty Hawkins, an accomplished drummer who toured with country greats Brooks and Dunn, Reba McEntire, and Joe Nichols, he felt a calling through his older sibling as a way of connecting while caring for their mother following the death of Satterfield’s father in 2007. It was in that way that Elliott fell in love with the bass guitar.
“I had always been interested in music but never really took it seriously,” Satterfield said. “I never really thought, man, I could play an instrument. Scotty came home from a touring gig, and he has always been the ultimate musician, truly world-class. He lived music so naturally, and when we both reconnected in 2007, I was drawn to learn music.”
Satterfield continued, “(Scotty) showed me a few chords on a flat-top guitar as well as a few scales. Once I got a decent grasp on the notes, I told him I was having trouble on the guitar with the ‘B’ string. He instantly said you’re a bass player.”
Once Elliott had mastered the bass, he began to play with several friends around Upstate South Carolina while also playing gigs with his brother and Ronald Radford, who himself was a veteran musician having played with Randy Travis and The Marshall Tucker Band. The Marshall Tucker Band hired Satterfield following his college graduation and, as he put it, “got to see what life was like as a working musician.”
Satterfield now plays with the Clay Page Band as their bassist, with Page appearing on American Idol in 2019. Traveling around the country, Satterfield is always quick to brag about his hometown.
“I am proud to be a Woodruff Wolverine,” Satterfield said. “I always tell folks around the country that I come from the best town and the best state in the United States. I encourage folks to get out and support live music and creative music. That human connection is special and should not be taken for granted.”
Of all of Woodruff’s accomplished musicians, Milton Smith has undoubtedly seen and experience more than all of them. Smith, a Woodruff native, was drawn to music at an early age. In the early 1960s, he would listen to a radio station out of Nashville whose reach extended to South Carolina.
“I always liked old-time music,” Smith said. “I listened to a station in Nashville, a 5–10-thousand-watt station that would jack up to 100 thousand watts at night. They played all kinds of music, from jazz to rhythm and blues. I started out playing horns in clubs, and around 1960 I started playing bluegrass when I bought my first guitar.”
Smith has played bluegrass music ever since as part of a group that plays local shows around the Upstate. Smith’s life has been intertwined with music since his youth.
“I played in the band in school, and with guys like Alford Sisk and Paul Davis, we played the clubs and dancehalls. It was great fellowship and a lot of fun.”
And now, in his early 80s, Smith says that music is more enjoyable now than it has ever been.
“It really is more enjoyable now,” he added. “A lot of the people I have played with have now passed on. I want to keep playing. My mother lived to be 102 years old, so hopefully, I have some of those genes as well.”
A musician himself, Brad Phillips was ultimately led to a different side of the music industry. Phillips, who studied music and music production at Belmont College in Tennessee, owns Studio 101 just outside of Woodruff, and has worked with and produced music for successful artists in the contemporary Christian and country genres. For Phillips, it is a labor of love.
“I started playing guitar when I was 12, then guitar slowly progressed into more of an interest in the technology side of music,” said Phillips. “We made a trip to Nashville when I was a sophomore in high school. While I was there, we toured Belmont University. They were offering a Music Business Degree, and I was hooked. I never looked back from there.”
Phillips had plans to stay in Nashville after graduation but was led, he said, to a different calling.
“I planned to stay in Nashville and continue to play guitar and record there,” he said. “My wife and I got married after we graduated from Belmont and a year later, we felt like we were being led to live in South Carolina so that I could open the studio. Twenty years later, and we are still recording music here in Woodruff.”
And as a producer, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded Phillips of just how adaptable musicians are.
“In light of the pandemic, I was reminded of how resilient musicians and performers are,” added Phillips. “They work hard to find a way to entertain. I also think the average everyday consumer realized how valuable live entertainment is during the past year. The music community is tight-knit. Artists are always willing to step in and help each other out when needed.”
So, from country, to rock, to bluegrass, and even music production, Woodruff has a long and storied history of making great music as well. It is a beat we can all dance to, and a legacy to be celebrated now and in the future. These men and women are but a few of the talented souls, and there are many others, who share their gifts every day. That truly is hitting a high note.