Rich Tarbell

Interview by Lucas Czarnecki
Issue 68 • October 2018 • Charlottesville

The photographs are his own, but the stories? Those amount to nothing less than a multi-generational oral history of the Charlottesville music scene.

Where would you go if you wanted to learn about Charlottesville’s storied musical history? Maybe you could Google bands from the area. Doing so yields a few pages of wedding and cover bands, a list topped off by the likes of Dave Matthews Band, Dave Matthews, Carter Beauford, LeRoi Moore, Boyd Tinsley, and—of course—Dave Matthews & Friends. You might start to think that DMB members make up the lion’s share of Charlottesville’s musical talent. Thankfully, Rich Tarbell’s new book, Regarding Charlottesville Music, is here to set the record straight.

Regarding Charlottesville Music by Rich Tarbell

Tarbell, a tall Ohioan who speaks with a deep and rough voice, began crafting the 300-plus-page photo book in the latter half of 2017. “We had a tough summer last year,” he said, “and I was thinking we were overdue for some positivity.” He asked himself what he could bring to the table, and he landed on his photography. “Some people do political stuff, but this is what I do—this is what I know.” A long-time concert photographer, Tarbell grew tired of the lights, crowds, and hassle, instead opting for more nuanced, personal shoots with musicians.

Even though he has enjoyed the local music scene for 30 years, Tarbell needed help to assemble the book’s lineup. He asked each musician to pick one or two others, developing a replenishing list of subjects. “I started with Terri Allard and Jamie Dyer—who are the matriarch and patriarch of the Charlottesville music scene—and let them pick two people each. I did the same thing with Sally Rose Monnes and Koda Kerl, as kind of the younger versions.” With this referral method, he quickly compiled his “roadmap” of whom to photograph.

I wanted to capture the portraits in each musician’s personal creative space. The definition of creative space evolved person to person. I had thought it would be a lot of dudes in basements, which it is, but some people took liberties with it. The best example is someone like Jenn Rhubright who said, ‘I don’t play piano or guitar—I’m the singer and songwriter, so I don’t sit in my house. I go down the road here to the Tye River,’ and she sits on a rock. That’s where she sings to herself and comes up with her lyrics and melodies—that’s her creative space. We went down to the river for her shoot.

“All I want to do is celebrate Charlottesville musicians,” Tarbell added while explaining how the portrait book transformed into a record of oral history. During an early shoot last fall with Sandy Gray, a 40-plus-year veteran guitarist, Tarbell noticed something. They had gone to the old Prism Coffeehouse, a now-defunct venue for acoustic concerts, and Gray began sharing more than his looks. “It took about five minutes to take his photo,” Tarbell recalled, “but then he started telling stories about the old days, the Prism, the people who came through there. I pulled my phone out and recorded it. We talked for an hour. His stories were golden, and I thought, I bet other people have these stories, too.”

Lauren Hoffman | Photo by Rich Tarbell

After a few interviews, Tarbell realized that the musicians were “being too nice” about each other. He wanted the real story—not a revisionist history. With that in mind, he tracked down others who had been in the scene: “bar owners, venue owners, people you’d see around.” The final book features quips from nearly equal parts musician and bystander, with several Charlottesville fixtures making appearances.

As a fan and photographer, Tarbell knew enough to start the conversations, but let the interviewees guide the process. “I had no plan. It was organic. In the conversations, I noticed the same musical centers would appear. These were centers of influence.” Tarbell decided to segment the book according to these locations: “The book is somewhat chronological, but it’s mostly about these musical centers, rather than a group of musicians or a period.”

The conversations revealed not only Charlottesville’s musical centers, but also the bands most associated with them, providing Tarbell with clean venue/artist pairs for each chapter’s topic. Some stories and pairings make sense: restaurants, which might have fancy menus during the daytime, needed extra cash and hosted concerts at night, or the University of Virginia fraternities would write big checks for big bands to draw big crowds for big parties. Some, though, were a little more remarkable:

The story that blew me away was Muldowney’s. Muldowney’s was gone before I got here in 1987; I had just missed it by a year or two. It was not only the first gay bar here in Charlottesville, but it was basically a lesbian bar. It was run by a woman, who still lives in town, and she was approached by some of the hardcore guys—some of the punks in town—who said, ‘we need a venue.’ It was outcasts being paired with outcasts; they bonded, and the punk guys had run of the place on Thursday nights. That was the genesis of early hardcore Charlottesville music. It was an unlikely place, but it worked.

Bella Morte | Photo by Rich Tarbell

To produce the book, Tarbell knew he could not turn to a big publisher, saying, “No publisher is going to hassle with a book unless it is going to sell thousands of copies, so self-publishing was really the only way to go.” Cognizant of the pitfalls of self-publishing, most notably a dip in production quality, Tarbell assembled a small team to work on the book. The group—composed of himself, his brother, and prominent local graphic designer Matthew Thomas—ensured that Regarding Charlottesville Music exceeds expectations as a physical object. Within its dimensions, which match that of an LP, the book contains more than 300 pages of high-quality photography paper. “It’s very expensive to produce,” admitted Tarbell, who turned to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter for funding. The campaign was an incredible success, raising $8,726 from 76 backers.

Tarbell has shown test prints to some of the included musicians, all of whom gave joyful reviews. “I’ve had a couple of the older musicians say, ‘Someone had to do this—I’m glad it’s you.’” Ultimately, after the musicians and venue owners get their copies and settle back into their routines, Tarbell hopes Regarding Charlottesville Music might stir the next generation of Charlottesville music lovers: “Maybe some kid will go through it and get inspired. That would be enough for me.”

Tony Lechmanski | Photo by Rich Tarbell

Champion Brewery will host a book release party for Regarding Charlottesville Music on Sunday, October 7 from 4–7 PM. Learn more at richtarbell.com.

Photography by Tristan Williams

The Whurk Week

Five cool things happening in Virginia each week. Delivered to your inbox Monday mornings. Sweet.


More From Issue 68
More Interview Features
Other Recent Stuff