Hungry heart: Billy Coulter plays music so others might, too

Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005




Dashing through the snow this December, gathering up goodies for needy folks. It isn’t Santa; it’s Takoma Park musician Billy Coulter.

‘‘It’s the season of giving,” says Coulter, who grew up in Rockville. ‘‘It’s been a crazy month, with a lot of benefit concerts. Last month, I hosted a benefit for Habitat for Humanity, this show [Thursday night] is a benefit for Hungry for Music, then WAMA Crosstown Jam for Flood Relief has a benefit next week at Chick Hall’s Surf Club.”

On Thursday, Coulter plans on doing two performances in one night: ‘‘It’s a double header for us,” he explains. ‘‘We’ll be at Strathmore first; then, we’re going to race across town and do our benefit at the Austin Grill.”

One night, two shows, double the opportunity for fans of roots rock music to get on their feet. And because the proceeds from each show will go to charity, it’s a chance to do something for others in the spirit of the holiday season. For Coulter, it’s payback time.

‘‘My mom made the mistake of letting me stay up to watch the Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’” laughs Coulter, 45. His musical journey – he started playing ‘‘the stapler” while his big sister played the keyboards, then progressed to guitar and vocals – has had its fits and starts.

‘‘The past 12 months have been crazy,” he says happily, ‘‘I’ve been amazed at all that’s been going on.”

Let’s see, five 2004 Wammie nominations his self-titled debut CD. A big win with his band in the 2005 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest in the rock category for the song ‘‘Disconnected.” And, of course, the inclusion of Coulter on ‘‘Holiday Feast Volume 8,” a CD that features other local favorites like Dead Man’s Hollow, Phil Mathieu and Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra.

Indeed, a peek through the seven previous volumes of ‘‘A Christmas Feast” and the companion CDs ‘‘Creme de la Creme and ‘‘A Chanukah Feast” (www.hungryformusic.com) offers a who’s who of the D.C. music scene – from Bill Kirchen to Lisa Moscatiello to Eva Cassidy. And to think, the whole thing started on a street corner.

Band aid

‘‘Hungry for Music started as a homeless benefit concert back in ’92 or ’93,” says Jeff Campbell, the organization’s founder and director. ‘‘I hadn’t seen homelessness at the level I saw here.”

In town from his native Shreveport, La., Campbell says Hungry for Music grew out of a project for a class he was taking at George Washington University. He had noticed two types of people in particular on the D.C. streets: homeless folks and street musicians. Both caught his imagination.

Since becoming a nonprofit in 1994, Hungry for Music has worked to inspire underprivileged kids with music, mostly through instrument donations. There’s no corporate support, no foundation grants; the programs are funded through benefit concerts like the one at Strathmore and through CD sales, memberships, even raffles.

These days, running the charity is pretty much a full-time job for Campbell, although he works as a statistician for the Orioles and Nationals and does a bit of freelance writing. What’s his secret for getting artists to participate in the shows and CDs that fund the foundation?

‘‘It’s pretty simple: I ask,” he says. ‘‘I’ve been able to get some pretty big names on our compilations. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan contributed songs, George Winston, Paul Simon. We’ve had a pretty good success rate.”

And local musicians love to get in on the act.

‘‘They benefit: They get a song, their creation, on a CD. And we benefit.”

For Coulter, it’s a win-win situation. He’s as local as a musician can be, having formed his first band, the Inserts, just after graduation from Thomas S. Wootton High School. They were ‘‘skinny guys with skinny ties,” he laughs, typical of the punk⁄New Wave era, but they won the local CBS affiliate’s ‘‘Rising Stars of Washington” contest and performed live on TV. Coulter didn’t go into music as a career, though. He worked on the newspaper at Montgomery College (‘‘a good stepping stone”), then transferred to American University to study journalism.

‘‘After I finished college, I got a ‘real job,’” he says. ‘‘Publishing technology and graphic design.

‘‘And about seven years ago, my life changed dramatically.”

During a vacation in Mexico, a chance meeting with Fleetwood Mac keyboard player Steve Thoma rekindled his career in music.

‘‘He brought out the best in me and instilled a lot of confidence,” says Coulter of Thoma, who produced the debut CD. ‘‘That was the most fortuitous thing that ever happened.”

So, perhaps there is a sense of obligation, a desire to pay a good deed forward, that keeps Coulter on the hop this holiday season. He cites the cooperative nature of the Washington area music scene and the desire of musicians to work together as reasons he’ll be joined onstage at Strathmore by Janine Wilson, Esther Haynes and Honky Tonk Confidential, plus bandmates Tommy Derr, Doug Tull and Barry Warsaw. He talks about the satisfaction of seeing the projects Hungry for Music supports, like a youth center that gets kids off the street and into music. And he marvels at the time he spent not playing music at all, wondering how he could have gotten away from it.

‘‘I can’t believe I haven’t been doing this for the last 20 years,” he says. ‘‘It’s so much fun.”

The Hungry for Music Holiday CD Release Benefit Concert featuring Billy Coulter, Janine Wilson, Esther Haynes and Honky Tonk Confidential takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Admission is $20, which includes a free CD. Call 301-581-5100.

Coulter will perform acoustic rock and roll at 9:30 p.m. Thursday at Austin Grill, 919 Ellsworth Drive, Silver Spring. Call 240-247-8969.

The WAMA Crosstown Jam for Flood Relief benefit is at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 28, at Chick Hall’s Surf Club, 4711 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg, 301-927-6310.