(this is an extended version of the article originally published in Star News)
By Brian Tucker
Folkstone String Band is one of the busiest bands in town, performing bluegrass and old time music seemingly everywhere – from local bars, restaurants and private events to Thalian Hall and recently Wilmington Sharks’ opening night at Legion Stadium. This weekend they’ll open for Clay Walker at Wilson Center in downtown Wilmington.
The band – Jones Smith (mandolin), Ben Chontos (vocals, bass), Randy Hawse (banjo), Charlie Coulter (fiddle) is part of Our State magazine’s Emerging Artists Series highlighting up and coming artists for varied showcases.
“They asked us for the country themed night,” Chontos said. “It’s a different show (for us) than a brewery or barroom. We get people paying attention at (smaller venues), but it’s not the same as a theater. All seats are pointed toward you so we’ll have a more crafted show built around everyone’s talent. We want to hit ’em hard and re-focus songs (such as removing solos) to play more tunes. The whole approach is to get out there band be strong.”
“Wilson Center, that’s one of our premiere venues in Wilmington,” Smith added. “We’re a hometown band – we’ll play Thalian Hall, Wilson Center, backyards, festivals, a little bit of everything. That’s a big part of how we operate.”
Folkstone built steam after shifting away from the band’s origin as Possum Creek Bluegrass Band, initially a five member group. Chontos and Smith remained, bringing together different players for shows.
“We have Randy Hawse on banjo,” Smith said. “He’s been playing since he was a kid and played all over the east coast, jammed with the greats, and one of the best in the region. We’re really happy to play with him.”
A combination of spirited playing by the band and a style of music, whether due to nostalgia or fondness, is significant to their workflow. Though the sound of the mandolin and banjo conjure its own history, the ability necessary to play those instruments (see Folkstone’s “Washington Lee Swing”) perseveres as much as what we hear today.
“Nostalgia plays a part, but a lot of the bluegrass guys, you have to be somewhat of a near virtuoso on your instrument,” Smith said. “That’s what made a mark on bluegrass initially. Some of those first big bands, everyone was really talented so you’re expected to bring some of that musicianship.”
“Of course (bluegrass is) part of our environment and culture,” Chontos added. “Not as much on the coast, but we feel we bring that here to the coast from the larger North Carolina bluegrass tradition which is very strong.”
The band’s prowess caught the attention of actress Melissa McCarthy and husband and director Ben Falcone in 2013. Seeing Folkstone at Satellite Bar & Lounge while shooting the comedy Tammy in Wilmington McCarthy asked Smith if he’d put a band together for the movie.
“I said, yes ma’am,” Smith said. “I put in some guys we were playing with and some old Possum Creek members. It was a big feather in our cap. We got to spend some time off camera hanging out with Susan Sarandon. That was pretty special.”
They released their debut album this year and will stay busy. It’s nothing new to Smith, one of the busiest musicians in Wilmington (running close with drummer Charlie Smith). Though he plays mandolin in Folkstone, you’re likely to see Smith swaying back and forth on the upright bass, playing in a variety of bands – Folkstone, The Phantom Playboys, Da Howlies, with Hank Blanton in The Ratchet Bros. and occasionally with Blanton’s Swing Shifters gypsy jazz band.
“(Folkstone) do play quite a bit,” Smith said. “We try to keep it exciting, play with cool players, play new songs. Every little corner of town has its own audience. I tell you what, I’d be bored any other way. You gotta keep busy.”
Jones, you’re often seen playing upright bass. Not so with Folkstone.
Jones: In Folkstone I play the mandolin, it’s my second main instrument. It was more bass playing when I was in college, a lot of bluegrass bands in Asheville. That was bass 95% of the time. When I stretched out in the bluegrass realm the bass is more versatile than the mandolin. But since Ben has the bass and singing with Folkstone so good I said, let me play mandolin and you play bass
Ben: When we first started playing together I was learning how to play the bass. He said, I always wanted to learn how to play the banjo. So he started playing banjo with us and since we picked up some really good banjo players Jones moved over to mandolin and concentrated on that.
Folkstone is one of the busiest acts around town.
Jones: We do play quite a bit yes – private events, golf tournaments, the Marlin tournament. We try to keep it exciting, play with cool players, write new songs. We’re at Moe’s this weekend for a crawfish boil. We play Waterline Brewery once a month, Bills Front Porch once in a while, and often at Cloud 9 on Sunday once a month.
Jones, you were busy even before Folkstone, playing in different bands for years.
Jones: I did go out on the road a lot, sometimes in my brother’s band The Never. That band kind of turned into Lost in the Trees. I was on the road a lot with that until I came back and reformed with Ben which became Foldkstone in the last few years. Then I was backing up some singer-songwriters, played with Woodwork Roadshow. I came back into town and started The Phantom Playboys, started playing back with Possum Creek, kind of revived Rong a little bit. Now The Phantom Playboys is still going strong and Folsktone has been the busiest, most consistent act since the Possum Creek years. With Folkstone, we’re finally getting noticed, playing at Thalian and the Clay Walker show.