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Carlson brings music home for holidays

As the year draws to a close, college students are returning home for the holidays reconnecting with old friends and family, and sharing their adventures. Earlier this year I received a preview of Justin Nels Carlson&squo;s new CD that was released this year. This Polk County graduate has been juggling his college studies with making a mark on the music scene in Charleston, SC. On December 19 he&squo;ll be back home in Tryon to share his musical talents in a free concert.

After listening to his CD, checking out his myspace page, and catching part of a college radio interview I finally took the time to ask him a few questions about his music.

How did you get started playing guitar?

I took guitar lessons at Tryon Elementary School in an after school enrichment program in second through fifth grade. The class was taught by Woody Cowan and my dad Bruce Carlson. However, my interest in music started first with violin lessons in first grade in the violin program started by George Scofield at my school. After fifth grade I rarely picked up a guitar until high school.

Someone pointed out Woody to me at the Tryon Arts & Crafts festival this year where he was leading a group of young guitar players called &dquo;Stray Silver Bullet Band.&dquo; Is that group related to the same after school enrichment class that you mentioned?

I&squo;m not sure if we had a name. I think when I was involved it was the start of a new program in its infancy. I see things have become more developed, which is an awesome thing. I think what he is doing is great, introducing kids to music and encouraging their creativity.

How hard was it to pick up the guitar and start playing again after leaving it alone for five years?

Both of my parents were involved in getting me started young, and just having me try all sorts of different stuff, which made it a lot easier when I wanted to pick them up again. In high school, I had to learn the chords again and all about finger placement, but I picked it up fast since I had done it before, and had a general idea about what I was supposed to be doing.

You mention on your myspace page that your dad can &dquo;jam up a storm.&dquo; Did the two of you play music at home together as you were growing up?

When I was in elementary school we would play together, but I really did not take it seriously. In high school, though, when I started taking it seriously, I was writing my own stuff while he was playing a lot of covers. I would write a song or come up with an idea that I thought was cool and show it to him and get his opinion. Now we play a lot more together. He&squo;s even learned a couple of my songs now, and I always enjoy playing them with him or hearing his versions.

When did you start writing your own songs?

When I was a junior at Polk County High School I went to see the movie &dquo;Walk the Line&dquo; about the life of Johnny Cash. I came home that night really inspired, picked up my guitar and have not put it down since. I wrote my first song soon after and performed in the high school talent show a few months later. I kept on writing songs in high school and wrote a song called &dquo;Brand New Day&dquo; and performed it at my high school graduation in 2007. I was voted most talented by my senior class. I continue to write at the College of Charleston and have studied lyric writing there.

Did you ever perform much on guitar as a kid around this community, or is that something that you got more interested in doing after your talent show experience?

I never played anywhere until my talent show experience. In fact, when I did it, it was more of a dare than anything. I had just tried to sing, and write songs, which I hadn&squo;t done before, plus relearn the guitar. It was more of a goal that I was working towards. But I remember the feeling I had when I did it, and once I got over my jitters, and my eyes adjusted to the light, I really felt comfortable.

Who are some of your influences that inspire your style?

I grew up listening to artists like the Beatles, Robert Plant, Gordon Lightfoot, Dave Matthews and Iris Dement. I went to several Merle Haggard concerts as a child and was lucky enough to meet him and shake his hand. I appreciate the music of John Mayer as well as folk artists and the stories they tell.

What are your current goals with your music?

I plan on writing more songs and recording another CD. During the summer of 2008 I recorded my first CD of nine of my own compositions. My CD, &uot;Justin Nels Carlson,&uot; is available at the Book Shelf in Tryon. I have been entering songwriting contests and performing my music in Charleston. I plan to continue to play solo.

What type of venues do you enjoy playing the most?

I have been playing a lot in coffee houses in Charleston. I enjoy that, as many people come to listen. I like to tell a descriptive story with my lyrics and take people on a journey.

Do you consider yourself a storyteller who uses music to share the words, or the other way around?

I generally begin a song by doing the music first, and figuring out the rhythm and how I am going to say certain lines, and then I worry about words. But that doesn&squo;t mean words aren&squo;t important. I try to make a story, and use melodies to make people remember the words, I guess. But people may remember the melodies by using the words, too. I guess it could go either way. But in the grand scheme of things, I would want to be remembered as a storyteller.

You mentioned studying lyric writing at College of Charleston. What are you currently majoring in there?

I am majoring in anthropology with a minor in archaeology. I really don&squo;t know much about the music program, but I am interested in possibly adding a major in music. The lyric course is an English course, and was primarily focused on lyrics. That is where I learned to change my approach around and write the lyrics first and then write the music. My teacher, Paul Allen, really has a knack for words, and I have to say he really opened my ears to some great folk legends, and the idea of telling the best story that you possibly can. We had to write one song each week, and play it for the class. We would then get suggestions, revise it and perform it again the next day. Paul is also a member of the Nashville Songwriters Association, and has brought me to play a few songs for them before.

What are your goals after college in relation to you major and the music?

The way I see it, things can happen in the span of a few years that few minds can fathom, and you just have to go with the flow, and go wherever life takes you. I would love to be a musician, and I will do my best to get my music out there, but at the same time, I love archaeology and getting out in nature and figuring out the clues of the past. I will probably be going to graduate school and pick out a town or city that has a great music scene, and play music while I go to school.

Where and what time will you be playing Dec. 19?

I will be playing at the Gallery Coffeehouse on Trade Street in Tryon on Friday, Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. Fellow songwriter Noah Stockdale and I will be playing our own original compositions as well as playing a few songs together. The show is free and we hope people will come out and hear our songs.