Josh White enjoyed a successful career in the ’40s and ’50s playing a unique blend of jazz, folk and Piedmont blues. An outspoken civil rights activist and friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (White was the first black artist to perform at the White House), he enjoyed huge success with "One Meatball," the first million-selling single by an African-American artist. Ultimately, however, White's outspoken social views and his friendship with artists in McCarthyism's cross-hairs like musician/actor Paul Robeson led to his being blacklisted as a communist sympathizer in the 1950s. Between that and the growing popularity of rock music that took the Delta Blues as its foundation, White and his gentler brand of folk blues faded.
After his death in 1969, White's obscurity extended even to his birthplace of Greenville, South Carolina, until Josh White Day brought him back into the spotlight. The brainchild of Dolph Ramseur (head of Ramseur Records, an early home for the Avett Brothers) and Gene Berger (owner of Horizon Records), the celebration included remarks by White's son, a re-release of White's watershed Josh at Midnight album and the unveiling of plans for a statue of White to be erected in the city.
When you pull into Horizon Records, White's image serenades the parking lot as part of a giant mural. He shares it with Russ Morin, a local ukulele maker and friend of the store who recently died of cancer. That juxtaposition of the old and the new, of the famous and the personal, acts as a fitting representation of the store, which stands as witness to plenty other things as well.
Greenville sits halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, a reasonable drive from Athens, Georgia, and a quick hop over to Asheville, North Carolina. On any given night, you can check the calendars of venues like the Orange Peel, the Georgia Theatre or the Tabernacle and be on your way to a great show no more than two hours away. Public radio station WNCW broadcasts out of small-town Spindale, North Carolina, filling the airwaves with hand-selected programming that's heavy on regional blues, bluegrass, country, rock, you name it. Simply put, when it comes to music, we've got it good.
Greenville's placement as an "outpost" along I-85 also allows plenty of bands to wedge in an extra show or an in-store stop while traveling from one town to the next. Horizon's showcased free sets from the likes of Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, John Moreland, Robyn Hitchcock, James McMurtry, Nikki Lane and an especially packed Jason Isbell set just as his solo career was exploding.
Greenville's also one of the fastest growing cities in the country, its downtown revitalization such a success that other cities are following its example. So that's the good. On the bad side, rampant growth finds historic neighborhoods under assault by developers who tear down perfectly good houses so they can plop three houses on the same piece of land. As a result, Greenville runs the risk of joining cities like Austin and Nashville in pricing out the more bohemian and creative elements that provide so much of the city's energy.
Horizon Records sits smack-dab in the middle of all of this, having relocated to the downtown area in 2003, before much of this got started. Now, a new block of condos sits catty-cornered from the store, and it's not hard to imagine Horizon eventually sitting in the shadows of tall buildings like the house from Up. How long can the yoga studio on the left and the ancient corner grocery behind the store hold out? As Berger will tell you, one of the best decisions he ever made was to purchase the land the store occupies, which gives him a fair amount of immunity to the unchecked changes going on around him.
In the same way that WNCW focuses on regional music, Horizon's found similar niches within its role as a solid all-purpose store. Vinyl hounds can definitely find surprises and treasures among the collectible records, new releases and $1 records that stretch across the store. Even the CD section, which has shrunken in the face of the vinyl resurgence, is exceptionally well-curated. If you're into jazz, blues or rock, the staff can steer you into wonderful and unexpected musical corners, and classical fans get good use out of the store's dedicated classical room. Releases from the region's rich local music scene are well-represented, and side-hustles in used music books and turntables keep every nook and cranny of the store packed.
Berger's a big believer in preservation and upcycling of all kinds, and that extends to the store's contents. He may joke about EMP pulses taking out iTunes and Spotify in one fell swoop, but he's completely serious in his belief that record stores play a vital role in preserving music that might otherwise be lost. There's still plenty of music that you can't find on the streaming services, and who knows where various rights battles and business upheavals will take things in the future? Best to have the music in hand and on the shelves. Not to mention doing the Lord's work of keeping countless records and CDs out of landfills and putting them in appreciative hands. He's also well aware of the store's role as a community gathering spot where relationships are born and grow over the years.
That reputation, gained over decades of ups and downs in the business, culminated in a surreal 40th anniversary weekend for the store, when both Roseanne Cash and Pearl Jam were in town for shows. Not only did both Cash and Eddie Vedder give heartfelt onstage shout-outs to the store, but Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready came in on Record Store Day to buy records and boost the store on social media.
A pulse runs through Horizon Records and it's not just because the staff's prone to playing John Lee Hooker's Endless Boogie record. Stock-wise, it's a great store, but there are plenty of those around the country. It's events like Josh White Day, the city's annual record fair and the store's involvement in various charities that mark Horizon as a good citizen, and which raise it above the level of many other record stores.
Up next, we travel to Montana.