For many in the area, Stillwater Taproom is sort of Augusta’s answer to Cheers, a place where, even if everybody doesn’t know your name, you’re welcome just the same.
“I try to tell people it’s just a good, relaxing, comfortable and inviting place to go have a beer,” says Matt Flynn, who, along with business partner Barry Blackston, has owned the bar since it opened in 2003. “I’ve gotten to be friendly with most all of the regulars, and the fact that they have responded to that and the music — I feel like we’ve got a nice little place going, and we’ll see what happens with it.”
That nice little place started up when just about everything else had left the downtown area. Though no longer associated with the restaurants, he and Blackston also opened Nacho Mama’s in 1996 and Blue Sky Kitchen in 2000.
“There wasn’t a whole lot happening down there, and that was just kind of the case all around the country, with the opening of the malls and all,” he says. “Since we’ve been there, we’ve seen a lot of changes, and we’ve been a big part of the resurgence down there.”
Augusta’s vibrant downtown was pretty much decimated with the opening of Augusta Mall and the now defunct Regency Mall in the late 1970s, and many credit Flynn and Blackston’s commitment to downtown with keeping it from sliding away entirely.
“In another reality, somebody else would have done something there,” Flynn says. “We were newly out of school and kind of debating what we were going to do with our lives, and we just decided on this and kind of ran with it. Who knew? We were just kind of doing it, and then, next thing you know, it’s a career.”
Flynn says it’s nice to see a younger generation opening bars and restaurants downtown.
“We’re definitely happy to be a part of it,” he says.
While Stillwater is only one of several downtown bars known for bringing in quality musical acts, people associate it with a certain type of music, a unique blend of bluegrass and Americana.
“We decided early on that we wanted to tap into the bluegrass scene from up in Asheville — kind of American music — and people have been receptive to that,” he says. “We have all kinds of stuff, but a lot of our bands tend to be a little bit more rock and roll, where they might have a mandolin or a banjo in the band, but would otherwise be a rock and roll band.”
To some around Augusta, it’s simply known as the Stillwater sound, and no Stillwater band has gone on to greater acclaim than the Avett Brothers, who will be back in the area on May 23 when they headline Papa Joe’s BanjoBQue at Evans Towne Center Park.
Back when they were playing Stillwater, things were just a little bit lower keyed.
“Most of our regulars remember that,” Flynn says. “We opened in 2003 and they played the end of that year and a number of times in 2004 and 2005. And then they started blowing up.”
Now, those verbal agreement days are over, replaced by management companies with complex 20-page contracts, and though he misses those earlier times, he doesn’t begrudge the Avett Brothers their fame.
“They were just super awesome people, and I couldn’t wish success on more deserving people than them,” he says.
While the Avett Brothers have gone on to receive the greatest exposure of any of the Stillwater bands, a number of other bands, like the Steep Canyon Rangers, have gone on to achieve great success in the less mainstream bluegrass world.
“There’s just no telling who’s going to go on to stardom,” Flynn says. “We’ve had a number of Telluride Bluegrass Festival winners come through. Probably the normal person on the street wouldn’t know who they are, but I kind of have my feelers out, and when I see a chance to get somebody up and coming, I try to get them to come in. That’s what we’re concentrating on.”
Though booking bands takes up a good portion of his time, it’s gotten easier as Stillwater has become better known.
“In the early days I used to spend a lot more time than I do now because I was having to go out and actively seek people,” he says. “Nowadays, I have more and more people contacting me, and that kind of gives me the luxury of sifting through and seeing what would fit and what I would like and, if it fits, I try to get them in there.”
When he started out, that sifting involved 8×10 envelopes stuffed with promotional material and a CD. Now, it’s all digital, and more often than not he clicks through to a YouTube video.
That’s a big change for someone old enough to remember listening to 8-tracks, and he appreciates the way technology makes discovering music so much easier than it used to be.
“The classic rock I grew up on, as much as I love it, I don’t care to listen to that anymore, because I know it and it’s not interesting to me,” he says. “So I’m definitely looking for something a little different, something that’s out there and interesting.”
Now that downtown Augusta is experiencing a mini renaissance, does he think it’s turned the corner?
“I would like to say it has,’ he says. “It’s certainly made a number of turns. I would like to see even more of the younger generation coming in and doing things and trying to make their own mark. There’s so much potential for downtown, but it’s got a long way to go before it’s fully realized, I think.”
As for what makes a good Friday night, Flynn says it’s pretty simple.
“Just having a band that people are coming to see again,” he says. “That, coupled with the Happy Hour crowd that comes after work and has a few beers. I like it when it’s what I call comfortably busy, where everybody’s being served and it’s busy, but everybody’s happy. Carrying a nice Happy Hour like that throughout the night — that would give me a really satisfying Friday night.”