S.C. Arts Awards: Andy Brooks

2019 Recipient Feature Series

As the day nears for the 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards, The Hub is taking 15 days to focus on this year’s recipients: nine receiving the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Awards for the Arts and five receiving the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, which are managed jointly by the South Carolina Arts Commission and McKissick Museum at UofSC. In between the two groups, we’ll run a special feature on S.C. Arts Awards sponsor Colonial Life.

John Andrew “Andy” Brooks

Old-Time Music

Andy Brooks first plucked the strings of a banjo when he was four years old. He fondly remembers holding his great uncle Sammy Lee Stephens’ banjo at the home of his great grandmother, on the Alice Mill Hill in Easley. Stephens taught Brooks everything he knew on the banjo and lent him his fiddle to try. Stephens’ enthusiasm motivated Brooks to keep practicing.

Brooks’ musical journey is inspired by multiple traditions, yielding a collection of hundreds of tunes that he knows and plays by heart. Early on, Stephens taught him tunes like “Under the Double Eagle,” from the textile mill brass band tradition. Brooks discovered the music of Pete and Mike Seeger, and by 17 was fascinated by the flashy performances of bluegrass pioneers Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. Brooks’ love of the fiddle led him far and wide, seeking out albums, festivals and fiddlers to expand his repertoire and learn a variety of styles. When he heard Roger Howell play old-time fiddle at the 1991 Galax, Virginia Fiddler’s Convention, he felt he had found the real sound of Southern music. Other influences include Al Osteen of 5th String Bluegrass Band and Bill Lowe of Cripple Creek.

Old-time music combines diverse cultural sources. The fiddle and the banjo—which is African in origin—were popular instruments among traveling musicians. Immigrants from the British Isles brought their musical traditions to the U.S. and melded them with those of enslaved Africans. Melodies of immigrant tunes fused with the driving rhythms of African music. Old-time music encompasses both secular and sacred songs. In South Carolina’s Upstate region, the sounds of textile mill weave rooms shared the rhythm of many old-time songs played on the mill hills.

Brooks’ dedication and talent has earned him recognition, including winning the 2016 South Carolina State Fiddle Championship at Hagood Mill in Pickens, where he also placed second in banjo. He also accompanied fellow musician John Thomas Fowler at the SC State House when Fowler received the 2013 Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award and played with The Carolina Relics at the Carolina Music Museum at the 2018 Heritage Green Music Festival in Greenville.

A tireless old-time music ambassador, Brooks strives to keep old-time music dynamic and relevant. To him, old-time music is a community-based, rather than performance-based, tradition, in which everyone contributes to the music by dancing, playing or singing. Brooks plays for dances and hosts jams where musicians of different skill levels and repertoires share and learn from one another. In 2016, Brooks co-founded the Old Keowee Contra Dance to benefit the Oconee Heritage Center’s music program.

An avid educator, Brooks has taught in the Young Appalachian Musicians After School Program and the Oconee Heritage Center in Walhalla. This summer, he will teach Appalachian banjo at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. When he plays for dances, he encourages students to join him onstage, and is always eager to talk about their musical ambitions. Brooks and his students often play at nursing homes, churches, and charity events. Passionate about sharing his knowledge of the history, songs, and spirit of old-time music, Brooks is keeping the tradition alive.

South Carolina Arts Awards Day is Wednesday, May 1, 2019. The festivities begin at 10 a.m. with a reception that leads up to the awards ceremony at the UofSC Alumni Center (900 Senate St., Columbia). The event is free and open to the public. Following the ceremony, the South Carolina Arts Foundation honors the recipients and the arts community at the S.C. Arts Awards Luncheon and Art Sale. Tickets are $50. Please go here for more information and reservations.

Meet the Recipients

Use these links to read the long-form bios of the other 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards recipients.