Carolina musician forges new path in old-time music

The story of musician Mike Collins Jr. is one of constant motion – moving from town to town, and from genre to genre, in search of his own musical identity.

While in his home state of South Carolina, Collins played in the bands Mercy Mercy Me and Say Brother, both swampy, boozy garage-rock outfits with attitude. A move to San Francisco in 2012 led to hopping on the road with another band and winding up in New Orleans for nearly three years, where Collins found his calling in traditional and old-time sounds that he’s currently indulging in at his current home base in the Shendandoah Valley town of Staunton, Va.

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“I bought a banjo in 2011, but had only taken a guitar out to San Francisco,” Collins recalled in a recent interview. “When I was exposed to the busking culture in New Orleans and realized it would be a way I could make a living playing music, I got the banjo back out.”

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Mike Collins Jr. (Photos and video provided)

That instrument, he explained, produces a much louder, more percussive sound that’s better for outdoor busking.

“With that and a kick-drum pedal I came up with a sweet, mobile setup that was loud enough to use anywhere,” Collins said.

Seated on a suitcase doubling as his drum, stomping on the kick pedal with one foot and a tambourine with the other, Collins wields banjo and harmonica up top as he entertains passers-by, wherever he lands.

“My one-man-band sets are about half-original, half-traditional; it’s a more rock and roll sound still even though it’s acoustic,” he said.

Collins released a raw recording under the moniker, “The Outdoor Protestant Blues Band,” and another under his own name via the Columbia label Fork and Spoon; both are more punk and rock, energy-wise, than the folk-acoustic format might suggest. It all started during his time in the Crescent City, Collins said.

“In New Orleans there are people in their 20’s and 30’s playing jug-band blues and traditional jazz, things I did not get much exposure to in South Carolina,” he said. “After hearing it live, and loving it, I went in that direction more with my own music.”

dsc_0070bwTraditional music was something that began to interest Collins only after he began busking his own songs, but once that spark was lit, he dove in.

“There is a tremendous volume of material out there in traditional music, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of that,” Collins said. “I’m playing with a string band here in Staunton now, the Old Time Snake Milkers, and our album coming out next month only has three originals on it out of 20 songs.”

He’s still busking and doing the one-man band, which is how he’ll perform this Thursday night when he appears on the bill with indie-pop act Kid Trails at New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia. It has taken him many places around the country, and the world as well.

dsc_0103“When I lived in New Orleans I would stay there over the winter carnival season from October to May, then in the summer when it’s 100 degrees I hit the road and travel up the east coast or out west, busking,” he said. “I’ve been to Europe three times and loved it. I’m planning a fourth trip over for late 2017 that will be anchored around a record I’m cutting there with a German blues label.”

Given the current unrest and uncertainty overseas, Collins still feels compelled to travel as long as he can.

“I make new friends, eat new foods, and usually come out ahead on the money,” he said. “As far as safety and security, as long as the sociopolitical situation allows it, I am going to continue going back.”

Continuing to grow and challenge himself as a musician is also an important part of the process for Collins, and he promised some very new material for this week’s local show.

“I learned a more Piedmont blues picking style that I play on a resonator guitar,” he said. “I just played it in public for the first time here last week at an open mike.”

Fans of his frenetic banjo frailing need not worry, as he’ll be devoting plenty of the set to that instrument as well.

Upcoming shows:
Thursday, December 22: New Brookland Tavern, 122 State St., West Columbia. With Kid Trails and Live Singles. Showtime 8 p.m. Tix $6 ($8 under 21).

Friday, December 30: The War Mouth, 1209 Franklin St., Columbia. Dinner show, performing from 7-9 p.m.

Friday, January 13, 2017: The War Mouth, 1209 Franklin St., Columbia. Appearing with Old Time Snake Milkers.

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