Some of the diners in Charlottesville’s trendy Public Fish & Oyster Bar are getting nervous—the large linen pendant lights that hang from the fleur-de-lis tin ceiling tiles have begun to sway, and the sound of music and dancing is growing increasingly raucous.
“What’s going on up there?” a patron asks.
“A band,” their server says. “But it’s supposed to be an acoustic show.”
“Acoustic?” the patron scoffs. “Doesn’t sound like an acoustic show.”
Upstairs in the Oakhart Social, the event room above the oyster bar, no one is complaining about the noise. Nelson County’s own Chamomile & Whiskey are playing an intimate unplugged set that has the packed room whooping and clapping.
The band is mid-set in a crowd of forty people. Lead singer Koda Kerl, donning jeans, a worn denim shirt, and an old felt hat with a large white flower in the hatband, works over his late father’s 1970’s Guild acoustic, while cofounder Marie Borgman expertly bows an old German violin that Kerl’s dad found in a dumpster and fixed up. With Marsh Mahon on bass, Drew Kimball on guitar, and local drumming legend Stuart Gunter banging the skins, the band’s high-energy, mountainous folk-rock brings music fans to their feet.
“Trouble in my head,” Kerl rasps warningly, “Bourbon by my bed. Tonight I sing myself a lullaby.” Like a good deal of Camomile & Whiskey’s music, the lyrics paint a troubled picture, which contrast with the upbeat, foot-stomping music.
“Another musician,” Kerl will later tell me, “was saying your stuff is so bleak these days, and I was like, because life is fucking bleak.” He gives a big laugh and adds, “He thought I was trying to write dark songs just to do it and wanted me to write more hopeful stuff. I was like, okay, I’ll just write bleak, hopeful songs.”
A dozen people are dancing and spinning a few feet from the band as complaints from diners are starting to drift up from below. Both groups can probably hear that there’s loneliness and darkness in the words, but the upbeat music pushes back against it. Despair can be celebrated; suffering is human. The audience commiserates; the effect is a catharsis of sorts.
After the show, the band sticks around to talk to the energized crowd. Kerl heads to the little bar area in back, and I go over to say hi. He’s already talking to a bearded man in a baseball cap that’s pulled down low.
“The gunner gets to pick the music because he’s the one exposed to snipers,” says Jerry, the bearded man, a veteran of Afghanistan.
“Yeah?” Kerl asks. “Shot of whiskey, Jerry? Seth?” he asks. He holds up three fingers to the bartender.
“Our gunner always played your music,” Jerry tells him. “He was from Nelson County like you guys. Back at base he’d play it, too, and her fiddle,” he nods up through the crowd toward the front of the room where Borgman, in a white dress and cowboy boots, is putting her fiddle back in the case, “really helped us de-stress.”
The bartender pours out three shots; Kerl hands one to Jerry and pushes one my way. We toast to Jerry’s buddy and down the whiskey. “Hey,” Jerry asks Kerl, “do you think it’s okay if I go tell her how much her fiddle playing meant to us over there?” Jerry seems worried about approaching Borgman, nervous even.
“Yeah, man,” Kerl says, gesturing toward the front, “Go tell her. She’ll love it.”
I watch Jerry make his way forward and shake my head at Kerl.
“That’s wild,” I say.
“That you make this great music in tiny little Nelson County, and it was being played half way across the world to soothe nerves in Afghanistan.” Kerl nods, troubled a little by the association of their music with war, yet pleased to know it was there to comfort these men.
We order another drink and discuss how music travels, like a published book or released film; it goes out into the world living its own life, making its own friends.
“You want a drink?” Kerl asks. “I’ve got some peach moonshine from Gatlinburg. It’s the legal kind—from a distillery where we played a gig down there.”
“Sure,” I say. He pours and we mix in some orange juice and Canada Dry. The band is lounging in the bridal suite at Veritas Vineyard, waiting to go on after Jim Waive and the Young Divorcees wrap up their set. The vineyard staff have brought up dinner for the band, along with a few bottles of Veritas’ own Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. “There’s usually two or three thousand that come out for this,” Kerl says, “but I don’t know with all this rain.” He takes a sip of his drink. “I need to make a set list.”
Veritas is in Borgman and Kerl’s hometown of Nelson County, and so I ask them what it’s been like to be from a small rural town and to get big in a music-focused city like Charlottesville. “For Virginia bands, doing well in Charlottesville is important,” Kerl says, noting their performances at popular, larger venues like The Southern Music Hall and The Jefferson Theater. After two albums and extensive touring, the band was voted as the “Best Musician” for Best of CVILLE 2018. Kerl and the band have kept their success in perspective, though. “We had this idea,” he jokes, “to have t-shirts made that said, Chamomile & Whiskey—we’re big in Charlottesville, but then only sell them in Lynchburg.” He laughs.
Although the band’s appeal and recognition is growing, Kerl and Borgman are staying true to their Nelson County roots and often give a shoutout to their hometown. After taking the stage in the rain at Veritas and playing through the first few songs on their set list, including “Seattle,” “Solomon’s Reel,” and “Drivin’ Rain,” Kerl addresses the crowd, thanking them for coming out and braving the elements.
“I am from Nelson County, Virginia, and I’m so proud of that fact,” he tells the crowd. It’s dark and the rain is coming down; much of the crowd has retreated to the large tents beside the tasting room, but there are cheers and hoots nonetheless. “Marie grew up in Nelson County, a seven-minute walk from here, and it means more than you can know to be back home and play in Nelson County.”
With that, the band launches into their song “Nelson County,” Kerl strumming the G&L telecaster he uses for larger events. Borgman bowing a fiddle borrowed from a cousin in Florida who found it at a yardsale for 100 bucks, her cowboy boots pound out time along with Gunter’s expert drum playing. “Marie’s foot is the best time keeper,” Kimball tells me before the show. “If you hear her foot stomping loud, it means you need to get your shit together because you’re playing too slow or too fast.”
“I got a red clay heart,” Kerl sings. “I got one place on my mind—Virginia, little darlin’, I call your mountains home; Nelson County, I’ll never be alone.” There’s an alluring longing and sadness in the way Kerl sings it, a sense of being far away, a desire to come back.
There are orbs of mist and water vapor around all the bright lights of Veritas. A few people are dancing on the darkened lawn, braving the rain; two young girls spinning beneath umbrellas.
Borgman draws her bow across the strings, her boots beating time on the stage, keeping rhythm. Kerl turns toward her, nods as he plays. The music responds to the lyrics, seems to comfort, spread its arms, reassures and welcomes the listeners, the band, and Kerl himself, home.
Photography by Tristan Williams