If Bill Wells tried something new at his West Columbia store, Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlor, his approach was deliberate and stubbornly slow.
At first, the shop’s weekly bluegrass session was held on Friday and Saturday nights, but Wells’ wife, Louise, told him one night would pull more people. At first, he didn’t budge.
“After a while, he started just having Friday nights,” she said. “It probably took a couple of years for him to do it. He always thought things out because he wanted to make sure it was the right thing.”
Before he died in November at the age of 84, Wells, a passionate bluegrass purist, made but one request: don’t mess with the Friday-night picking sessions. And while things have noticeably changed at the shop, Friday night remains as it always was.
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“That’s really the only day that my mom and my dad said, ‘Don’t change it,’ ” said son Wilford Willie Wells, who now operates the store. “I’m good with that. I still want to do other things, though.”
On this Father’s Day, Wells’ presence is still seen and felt at the Meeting Street business just across the river from downtown Columbia, where after sundown on Friday night it’s nearly impossible to find a parking space.
In the more than two decades that he ran the store, Wells became a local and national beacon for bluegrass, a genre characterized by acoustic instruments that can be traced to the Appalachian hills of the early 20th century. For his contributions to bluegrass, Wells was honored with a Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award given by the S.C. General Assembly in 1998 and the Order of the Palmetto, considered the highest civilian honor in the state, in September.
Wells, who battled brain cancer, was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma last June. Two of his sons – Larry for three months and then Willie since September – kept the doors open for their father, who would visit when he had the strength.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to try some things,’ ” Willie recalled telling Wells. “And he goes, ‘Well, just take it slow.’ ”
Keeping the shop open
Wells’ three sons, including Mike, the eldest, promised to keep the shop doors open. (Wells and Louise had one daughter, Mary Louise Powell.)
“And then when I found out (Bill was sick), I almost had a nervous attack because I thought, ‘Mike doesn’t know anything about the music, Wilford’s in Tennessee and Larry’s in Illinois. Who’s going to run the shop?’ ” said Louise, who is a fixture there.
“I either had to do it or else close the doors,” Willie said.
Willie, a former retail manager, commutes from Gallatin, Tenn., about 25 miles north of Nashville. He typically stays at his parents’ house Wednesday through Saturday before driving home to his wife and daughter. When Willie’s out of town, Terry Murphy, Dusty Rhodes and Benny Osment and others stop in to check on Louise.
“When my dad got sick, when he was diagnosed last June, I was at the point – and I told my wife – I’d really like to do something to get music back in my life,” Willie said. “That’s how I met my wife. I hired her as a female vocalist for a country rock band that I used to have.”
The distance from his wife, Dinah, a medical professional, and 13-year-old daughter Nanci, a competitive cheerleader, gets tough, he admitted.
“To me, it wouldn’t be fair to say give it up,” he continued. “So I just do the commute.”
Louise said Bill was relieved to know the shop would be in good hands.
“He was the only one familiar with the music,” she said. “... the other two, they just never showed interest in it.”
Larry, she said, did learn while he manned the shop.
“Bless his heart, he didn’t know nothing,” Louise continued. “But he did pretty well when he was here. He done pretty good not knowing anything about music. He could sell an Eskimo a pile of snow.”
Louise, who grew up south of Swansea in a section of Lexington County known as Poole’s Mill, is happy to have her sons around. She met Wells in Charleston. She was 16 when she went on the blind date her girlfriend had set up with Wells, then a 21-year-old member of the U.S. Navy. They had a good time, walked the South Battery together. At first, Louise wasn’t too keen.
“I guess it was because he smoked, and his friend smoked, and I never was one to be around too much cigarette smoke,” she said. “But I got used to it because he smoked until 1964.”
For years, Louise told Wells to ban smoking at the shop. At first, he didn’t budge.
“If I cut out smoking, I’m going to lose half of the people I have in there,” she recalled him saying. Of course, it took a couple of years to change his mind.
Three months before Wells died, the couple celebrated 62 years of marriage. Louise, 79, said it was like they had been together their entire lives.
“I have the ups and downs, but I think I do pretty good, considering,” she said. “I can’t sit around. And I have to think about the future – that I’ll be with him again some day.”
On a Saturday night in May, folks swayed and tapped their feet as a country band played classic, pre-’90s hits by singers such as Waylon Jennings in the parlor.
The band played drums and electric and pedal steel guitars. The evening’s host, Cody Davis, an aspiring country singer, shook his hips and legs like a young Elvis.
“My dad is probably rolling over,” said Willie, who’s 61. “He was just an old school, diehard traditionalist.”
Wells didn’t care for amplified instruments, Willie explains, and he was strict about their use in his place. About 15 years ago, he tried country music on his stage, but, according to Willie, the weekend warrior musicians turned it into a loud mess.
Willie wants to put on country shows at least monthly and add Southern gospel and blues to the calendar. There’s already a Tuesday night songwriters event.
“Instead of being just one thing or two things, I want to open it up,” Willie said. “The clientele that we’ve got at the store, a lot of it is your mid- to elderly people. Well, if the store’s going to survive, we’ve got to start looking at going in new directions and appealing to different crowds.
“He built it to what it was,” he says of his father. “I’m proud and respect him for that, but the bottom line is – and I’ve told my mom over the last couple months – ‘I’m not dad.’ ”
The country music night, which began in January, is building slowly.
“It hasn’t taken off, to me, like it should,” said Willie, who likes to eat lunch at Red Lobster, like his dad. “Probably one of the biggest things why it hasn’t is because we don’t do alcohol.”
He continued, sounding like his father. “And we’re not going to do it,” he said. “We’re going to have a family atmosphere. That’s not going to change. I can’t do that. I don’t want to turn it into a nightclub.”
People haven’t stopped coming to the Pepsi-and-popcorn establishment, a place where Wells didn’t foresee the presence of modern bluegrass.
“All of the country stars are putting out bluegrass albums. It doesn’t sound like bluegrass,” Wells said in 2010. “And bluegrass is trying to move that way. They’re trying to get drums and all.”
His son disagrees.
“To me, that’s what people want to hear,” said Willie, who also has taken over his dad’s band, Bill Wells & The Blue Ridge Mountain Grass Band. He has renamed it Wilford Wells and the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass. “My dad was really traditional. And I like traditional bluegrass, but I like a lot of the progressive bluegrass, too.”
The changes have been cosmetic, too.
The stage, now curved in the front, has been expanded four feet to accommodate the amps. The speakers have been rigged to hang from the ceiling, and a sound booth has replaced the rickety table where the soundboard was. Mike handles the construction.
Outside, there’s a new sign on Meeting Street.
Inside, a large sticker with the shop’s logo sits atop the newly tiled entryway. At first, folks went out of their way to not step on the floor logo, like it was a patch of new carpet.
“We wanted to make it a little different, but keep it the same,” Mike said. “It keeps getting better.”
Wells’ cowboy hat rests in his high-backed chair at stage left. A portrait of Wells holding a guitar and staring plainly ahead is illuminated by an overhead lamp.
“Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlor is a lot different,” said Willie, who wore a new red polo shirt sporting the shop’s logo. “I want to take it in directions that – not that my dad couldn’t – I think it was just that was his time.
“He just told me, ‘Whatever you do, just take it slow, look at what you’re going to do and the direction you’re going to go.’”
And don’t mess with the Friday-night tradition.
“That’s the core – the heart and soul of what this is,” he said. “And that’s what he built. So that won’t ever change.”