By Margaret High
On the evening of May 12, six law enforcement officers arrived at San Juan Mexican Restaurant in Whiteville. It was going to be a long night.
Instead of their normal on-duty gear, they wore ripped jeans, vintage t-shirts and cut off tanks. They were there to enforce good music.
James Street Band, or JSB for short, came to San Juan for their first public gig since unofficially forming three weeks earlier. They’re all self-taught. Some are more surprised to see themselves on stage than others.
By 8 p.m., a crowd of around 100 people formed on the outside deck. Beads of sweat formed on Richard Capps’ forehead, a combination of the warm spring night, hot lights and nerves. In his first performance as lead guitar, he was so nervous he had to turn his back to the crowd.
Brian Miller worked all day setting up equipment to ensure everyone in the crowd could hear Capps’ guitar. It was time to deliver.
On the other side of glaring lights was the crowd staring at the stage. Family, friends and peers sat on benches and eagerly awaited the first chord. Capps’ hands were shaking so hard he wondered if he’d be able to do it.
Finally, the first chord of “Can’t You See” by The Marshall Tucker Band broke through the speakers and into the night air. The crowd was stunned.
“(People) think we’re just sort of picking and grinning,” Jason Smith, rhythm guitar, said. “You know, just a backyard band. Then they’re shocked.”
So shocked, the crowd at San Juan demanded JSB play an hour-long encore.
Around 11 p.m., JSB played the last note of “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses. They ran out of songs they knew to play or else they might have kept going. Three of the songs had never been played before, leaving the band figuring out the chords by ear and jumping headfirst into the performance.
Lead singer Kayla Mercer recommended “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin because she sang it in the car on her way to work.
“I never sang that whole song until that night,” Mercer said.
Mercer, who is almost 20 years younger than her band mates, has always loved singing but never thought she’d be in a band.
Besides Smith and Moody, no one expected to be on stage.
“My father cannot get over the fact that I’m in a band,” Capps said. “He would have never in a million years thought I would be doing this.”
Getting over nerves has been Capps’ biggest challenge, but it gets better with every performance. So does his playing, since he’s self-taught and plays by ear.
The same is true for Scott Floyd, another member of JSB. Floyd said it’s been a common trend for Smith to get him into interesting things, like the tree cutting business they used to own.
“Scott Floyd is the reason there’s a James Street Band,” Smith said. “If it weren’t for him calling me that night, we wouldn’t be here.”
“Here” is a theater in the old Cinema, where the band practices when they can juggle work schedules. They play in dim lighting in front of an old projector screen, strumming notes and stepping over a myriad of electric cords.
It’s an improvement from the 14×12 storage building in Smith’s backyard on James Street, where the full band first practiced. But that’s not the beginning.
About three months ago, Floyd called Smith to come over to Capps’ house. Floyd knew Smith had been playing guitar since he was 13 years old and Capps had a guitar collection. Floyd wanted the three of them to jam together.
It started with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Guns N’ Roses in Capps’ “man cave” and ended four hours later.
“You want to call it magical?” Smith asked Capps and Floyd.
“It sounded magical at the time,” Capps joked. “But looking back, it was not.”
As the three realized they had something special, they started asking co-workers to join them. Tim Moody works with Smith as a corrections officer and has played drums his entire life. Smith knew Mercer had a good voice, so they asked her to sing “Picture” by Sheryl Crow one night, which secured her spot in the band.
Then they needed a bassist, so they turned to Donnie Bowen, also known as Donnie Cash. Bowen liked the idea, so he went to a pawn shop and bought his bass guitar. Three weeks later he was playing at San Juan.
“This thing is turning,” Moody said. “It went from a group of friends all the way up to, like, family.”
Everyone agrees there aren’t other people they want to play with. James Street Band has found its voice: strong bodies playing strong chords.
“I don’t think there’s any telling what this will end up being,” Mercer said.
Maybe they’re all adrenaline junkies, the reason they’re in law enforcement. They’re pursuing exciting lives in both work and hobbies.
“It’s different than the adrenaline you get at work,” Capps said. “This is good adrenaline.”
Despite being exhausted from an hours-long rush after playing at San Juan, the band stood outside the theater for about an hour after putting their equipment up to talk about what just happened.
“I didn’t sleep good for a week,” Smith said. “I had insomnia for a week after the concert… I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 13.”
No one knew a few months ago that the six of them crammed into a 14×12 storage building would end up playing three hours in front of a large crowd at San Juan. Really, no one knew they’d become a band. They were playing music to relieve stress after work.
Rags to riches, or so they say.