Bluegrass Band Duty Free Knows How to Draw a Crowd
'We Just Want to Pick a Bit'
By LAURA MONDUL | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER | May 14, 2009*** Published: May 11, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***
Finding some good live music in the Tri-Cities just might be as easy as walking into a local convenience store. That is, if you happen to be at the Pit Row Market on a Tuesday night.
Sound strange? Maybe. But the five-piece bluegrass band Duty Free can be found playing inside the market on Highway 394 near Blountville, Tenn., most Tuesday nights.
Tucked into the equipment closet in the back of the convenience store, Duty Free warms the crowds, who don't seem to mind that the musicians are crammed in beside the mops, brooms and a utility sink. Once the music starts, it seems the standup bass, fiddle, mandolin, guitar and banjo fit right in.
Think they can't draw a crowd? Pit Row Owner Elmer Bare begs to differ.
"We're about to capacity at their performances," Bare said. "Sometimes they're in the dining room, sometimes the back room, but they always draw a crowd."
The band's popularity is not surprising, considering the wealth of talent that composes Duty Free. Formed about two years ago, Duty Free features five well-known locals who all perform with other groups, but started picking together for fun.
Most members of the band have other jobs, with the exception of fiddler Tim Laughlin, who is the only one they dub a professional musician. The others – Hal Boyd on bass; Bobby Love, mandolin; Rick Powers, banjo; and Charlie Powers, guitar – all have day jobs.
Boyd is well-known in the community for his family owned and operated business, Boyd's Bicycle Shop in Bristol, Tenn. Charlie Powers is a mechanic at the Laurel Marina on South Holston Lake, and his brother Rick Powers is a mechanic at Rogers Trucking in Bristol, Va. Love works in sales and service for Magic Wand Car Wash.
Somehow, the four came together with a professional fiddle player to create a kind of garage bluegrass band.
"They really call us "Four Wrenches and a Fiddle'," Boyd said, laughing.
True to form, Duty Free practices in the cinder block basement of a house belonging to the mother of Rick and Charlie Powers. The basement is unfinished, with a concrete floor, a few kitchen chairs and stools, a desk with recording equipment and a recording studio, really just a small room with a curtain for a door and barely enough space for a stool, microphone and earphones. Completing the image, tucked away in the back room is an old television, exercise bike, folding table and even a broom in the corner.
Charlie Powers recalls helping build the basement years ago with his brother Rick and their father. "We pretty much built the house," he said. "We laid most of the block in here, did the framing and everything."
The members of the band have known each other all of their lives. Love used to shine shoes at State Street's Star Barber Shop, which was owned by Gene Boyd, a great-uncle of Hal Boyd. Love recalls that back then, people would come to the shop and play music. "I've still got that shoe shine chair at the pickin' room at my house," Love said.
Years later, the friends started getting together to "jam" and were approached by downtown businesses to play some music. Boyd recalls that the band's real start was when they were approached by Lisa Martin, owner of KP Duty in Bristol, Va., about finding someone to perform at her restaurant. They were happy to oblige.
"We didn't care about getting paid, we just wanted to pick a bit," Boyd said. "That's pretty much what it was: Duty Free. KP Duty Free."
Consistent with the lighthearted, joking demeanor of the band, Boyd added, "Then they named that place for us at the airport – Duty Free Zone. Now, no matter where you go, we get advertising at the airport."
The congenial humor and constant ribbing is as much a part of the band as their music. The five musicians joke throughout their sessions, poking mock insults at one another and clearly enjoying themselves.
But don't let the casual attitude fool you – Duty Free has a personal flair that is as impressive as any professional recording group.
"These guys are as good as anyone in bluegrass," Bare said. "They've got a tremendous amount of talent, and people that come here to hear them can't believe they're that good."
Their talent has been recognized widely in the community. Duty Free performs at many prestigious venues, such as the Rhythm and Roots Reunion and the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, the Renaissance Center and Funfest in Kingsport, Tenn. The group also has been featured on Studio One of public radio station WETS-FM 89.5 out of Johnson City, Tenn.
"Duty Free is a group of musicians who grew up with bluegrass music," said Mike Strickland, announcer-producer for WETS and host of the station's bluegrass program Roots and Branches. "This is not something they picked, it's what they know. They can do traditional bluegrass and gospel with wonderful harmonies, and then turn around and do a more modern sound or even renditions of rock and roll songs."
Many who know them agree, not only on their creativity and talent, but on the warm personalities of the band members.
"In a dog-eat-dog business like music, you won't find a nicer group of guys," Strickland said. "There's no act – they're just real musicians who love to play, whether in a basement, a store or on stage."
Duty Free is available for bookings; contact Bobby Love at (276) 494-1947.