In the late 1990s, a record label dispatched musician and music producer Joe Kuhlmann to Charlotte to manage Studio East (formerly The Arthur Smith Recording Studio), a venerable Queen City production facility where James Brown, John Mellencamp, and many other performers laid down tracks.
Once settled, Joe wanted to help cultivate the next generation of music performers. “When I got to Charlotte there wasn’t a space for up-and-coming musicians to cut their teeth and learn. Not a room that allowed songwriters a spot to grow and to thrive,” he explains.
What Joe did see were a lot of “menu-venues”— basically, restaurants that might clear out a table or two from a corner so that a live musician could play for and over diners. So, in early 2001, Joe and his then-girlfriend (later ex-wife) Lee Prichard took over an available space at the corner of North Davidson and 36th streets — the former location of the Living Art coffee shop and the Cosmic Soul boutique and record store.
Joe’s vision for the new performance space, dubbed The Evening Muse, was ambitious. “I wanted a set stage, a permanent PA, and a hundred-seat space that was there not just for the community and people to connect to songwriters and musicians, but for the musicians to connect with each other and their audiences,” he says. The room was small, but the experienced sound engineer knew just how to build it out; the acoustics being mentioned in many of the venue’s numerous awards.
The neighborhood was a very different place back then. “I felt like this was a raw, real part of town, an open palette, artist-friendly, very bohemian,” Joe says. In 2001, Smelly Cat was a place where people were doing “lawnmower and appliance repair.” NoDa Room & Board was a hollowed-out vacant structure. There were things happening: Fat City was going on and the galleries were up and doing well. “I’d been on the road for a long time, 10-plus years. Toured the country, Europe – been around music-wise. I always tried to find the restaurants, bars, and other places where people were real, instead of where all the plastic prefab stuff was,” Joe says.
He and his partners got the lease in February and opened on April 6. “It was boots on the ground and we’ll figure it out along the way,” Joe says.
Not satisfied, a year later, Joe started a 10,000-square-foot recording studio in the NewCo Building (demolished for Novel NoDa) that was open from 2002 to 2005, and another one near the neighborhood’s Food Lion that was open from 2005 to 2014.
In the nearly two decades since its opening, Joe and the Muse have presented thousands of original independent musical acts, from local and regional bands, to national and international performers in genres as diverse as alternative, American, blues, country, folk, hip-hop, jazz, pop, reggae, rock, and R&B. Electric or acoustic doesn’t matter. What does matter is originality – no cover bands here. This place celebrates the songwriter, after all.
The Muse also acts as a general community hub, hosting NoDa’s neighborhood association meetings for 18 years, Tosco Music Parties, the “Are you OK, Charlotte” mental health initiative, and various benefits.
The history of the Evening Muse isn’t one without challenge. “It wasn’t until the economic stuff in ‘06, ‘07, ‘08 that a lot of the artistic side of things started to fade in the neighborhood,” Joe says. Prichard and Wes Robinson, another early investor, backed away. Years of light rail construction caused some lean times and, in 2017, Joe took on Laurie and Don Koster, longtime supporters of Charlotte’s music scene, as investors.
However, the biggest challenges have come from the changing ways people consume music. Festivals used to be a season; now they are year-round. Also, with streaming services, everyone is their own DJ, with the world’s music in their pocket. “It’s really difficult to get people’s attention, and they’ve become used to not spending money on music. They don’t realize that they still need it, and I’m banging my head on the wall trying to figure out ways to help them realize the value of it,” Joe says.
According to Joe, the communal aspects of sharing a musical experience are important and worth supporting. “One of the reasons we need live music is the same reason people go to church. They are in a room with a bunch of people who don’t want to be alone in the world,” he says. Festivals, arenas, and the other large venues commercial acts get to play are great, but “if we don’t have places for up-and-coming performers to be mentored, play, to hone their craft and performance skills, we’re out of music.”