Darrell Harwood and band spreading out, still find time for benefits at home
Clad in a yellow T-shirt, designer jeans and his trademark black cowboy hat, Darrell Harwood grabs the mike.
“Salisbury, you ready?” he hollers, and the crowd roars back.
As it happens every concert, little by little, the crowd inches up toward the stage. The music is loud. The lights are flashing. The crowd sings along, many dancing with wild abandon.
It’s a pretty typical night for Darrell Harwood and his band.
Except this particular concert is at the J.F. Hurley Y’s youth gym, and it’s being put on for special-needs fans. Its sponsored by Special Olympics, and many athletes are in the audience, dancing or tapping their toes right along with their caregivers.
You might think it unusual for an up-and-coming regional band to be doing this type of gig. But it’s not the least bit unusual for this band. In fact, it’s how the band got started in the first place.
Four years ago, Darrell Harwood performed a benefit concert for his brother-in-law, who had been diagnosed with cancer. It was meant to be a one-shot deal, but Darrell was hooked from the get-go.
After that, the band, known as Darrell Harwood and the Coolwater Band, played a private party Labor Day weekend at the home of Kenneth and Wendy Shell. The invitation showed up on facebook, and hundreds turned out — so many that it turned out to be the last time the couple hosted such an event.
“That was a big show,” Darrell says. “That kind of scared me.”
Paying gigs soon followed. Darrell estimates that the band has played some 450 shows over the past four years. And they want more.
The band played a showcase recently for fair association talent bookers.
“We’ve got four days at the State Fair this year,” Darrell says. “So I’m really, really excited about that. We’re gonna start playing more of those showcases.”
The band has mainly played bars and other venues in the Carolinas, but hopes to branch out in 2015 to Florida, Georgia and Virginia.
They’ll do it in style. Darrell Harwood now owns a tour bus.
He laughs about his new “status symbol.”
“You show up in a tour bus and all of a sudden you’re a band, you’re legitimate,” he says, “when really, you’re the same person in a different vehicle.”
But, he says, “We’re ready to move out. With the bus, it makes it so much easier.”
Eric Upton, the band’s guitarist and road manager, agrees.
“The first year we played together,” he says, “it caught everybody off-guard because it grew so fast. What’s allowed us to continue to grow is not to limit ourselves in our thoughts about where we can take this. The perfect example of this is the bus.
“It allows us to look at this further out. That’s just the next step for us.”
Darrell has also signed with a manager, Wayne King of King Entertainment in Charlotte. That means that he and Eric no longer have to handle bookings. His agent is shopping the band with some major record labels, but at age 43, Darrell knows it might be a long shot.
“That’s all my deal is, the entertainment side,” he says. “Tonight is really a special night.”
The concert marks the band’s fourth year playing for Special Olympics. Darrell knows that most of the folks who come would not be able to come out and see a show otherwise.
“It really means a lot to me,” he says.
The band is coming up on its fourth year playing for the annual Relay for Life event at the fairgrounds. That work means even more now to Darrell, who was treated for melanoma in 2012.
Besides Darrell and Eric, the band’s current line-up includes John Barton on guitar, Jamie Scruggs on bass, and drummer Tim Jones.
The rest of the guys have day jobs, but Eric and Tim are full-time musicians. Eric owns Oasis School of Music in China Grove.
“Eric is the main man,” Darrell says. “We’re as tight as you can get.”
And Eric’s cool with the fact that Darrell eventually dropped the Coolwater Band moniker. In fact, he’s the one who actually pushed hardest for it, he says, because it’s how national acts market themselves.
“There were other CWBs around,” Darrell says, “and it’s easier to market the band with me as a soloist. Everybody understands the deal.”
It’s ironic that Darrell’s the front man, because off-stage, he’s soft-spoken and shy — almost painfully so.
“You really do have to get into a different frame of mind,” he says, “not in a cocky way, but to take over the show.”
And take it over he does during tonight’s performance.
“You know what’s good about this party?” Darrell asks the crowd. “It’s your party!”
The fans dance and high-five one another as Darrell and the band launch into their first song. That’s not enough for Darrell. One by one, he pulls folks up on stage to play guitar with the band.
Eric hands a guitar pick to Jennifer Jernigan.
“You gonna play some George Strait with us?” Darrell asks her, and she nods eagerly.
That the guitar isn’t plugged in doesn’t matter to Jennifer or anyone who follows her.
Donna Howard is next.
“Take your time,” Darrell tells her. “Why you nervous? You done got me nervous.”
“I’m ready,” Donna tells Tim, the drummer.
Although Donna lost her left arm to a blood clot, she does a terrific job, a wide smile spreading across her face.
“I sure did enjoy it,” she says later. “If he didn’t have a wife, I’d take him right now.”
A fine compliment for sure, but it hasn’t always been that way.
Before the show, Darrell says he was embarrassed by some things women said to him during the first year the band performed. From then on, he made it a point to introduce Karen, his wife of 18 years, at every show.
“I’m really glad that I’m married,” Darrell says.
He and Karen have two daughters, Tayler, 14, and Sarrah, 11.
“They’re very good girls,” he says. “I love them to death.”
He doesn’t discount playing in bars — that’s how the band made its name — but Darrell says if he had his way, he’d play festivals all the time.
“Any time I can get families to come out, and get kids on stage and dance and have my daughters sing with me, that’s what it’s all about,” Darrell says.
It’s definitely a family atmosphere at the Special Olympics concert.
Organizer Nancy Collins says her phone has been ringing off the hook the past couple of days.
“It’s a good opportunity for something other than sports,” says Nancy, who serves as a Special Olympics coach. Son Kevin is an athlete.
“They can come and relax and be with their friends,” she says of Special Olympics participants. “They all love Darrell. They think he’s great.”
It sure seems that way.
Bubba Reist plays from his wheelchair at the lip of the stage. A second man sits beside him, his face filled with what can only be called a look of pure joy.
From his vantage point in the right corner of the stage, Eric sees it all. He often plays with a bemused smile on his face.
“I constantly remind myself how lucky I am,” he says. “One, it’s fun and two, we’ve gotten to see a lot and do a lot. These fans are no different than anybody else. It brings us a lot of joy for them to be up there and enjoy themselves.”
Nearby, Diana Ki, clad in a pink Carolina girl T-shirt and white shorts, is dancing like no one’s watching her.
“Oh man!” she says when the music stops. “I like it a lot!”
Her friend Melissa Houston says country music is her favorite.
Darrell pulls Anthony Brown up on stage and together they sing an original song, “Crime I Didn’t Do.” Anthony knows the words better than Darrell. He hugs and shakes hands with the band before stepping off the stage.
“That’s the only song I listen to all time,” he says.
The band rolls through “Tulsa Time,” “Wagon Wheel” and “What Was I Thinking?” before wrapping up the 90-minute show with “She Goes Out With A Bang,” another original song.
“It means the world to me that you would come out and have a big time,” Darrell says.
He says the band will sign autographs and take all the pictures they want. And the crowd follows him off the stage.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.