Students at the Frederick Rock School don’t usually start bands with their instructors. But Kimmie Smith wasn’t a typical student. She followed her daughter, now 21, to the school almost 10 years ago, fulfilling a longtime dream to start and sing in a band.
And not just any band. Smith wanted to start a country band — the type of music she had grown up listening to in Monrovia.
“Country was just always what I loved,” Smith said. “And what I liked to sing. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Mary Chapin Carpenter — they were all big inspirations.”
She formed Southern Charm outside the Rock School with input from Ricky Slezak, a drumming instructor there.
“I had the idea and Ricky was like, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to be in a country band,’” Smith said, laughing. “He really didn’t. Ricky just loved being in bands.”
His enthusiasm still encouraged her, though, and she decided to focus on contemporary covers from artists like Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. The band’s country roots were tempered, at least a little bit, by other members, including Slezak and guitarist John Turcotte. Neither had much of a background in country music, but they added a rock-n-roll sensibility to covers of AC/DC and the Eagles.
“So, we like to say we’re a little bit country and a little bit rock and a whole lotta charm,” Smith said. “It’s a fun mix.”
Over the years, members of the band have come and gone, but the current lineup was finalized about nine months ago with the addition of bassist Dave Clements, a Frederick native. Another crucial member is Lauren Carnahan, a Boonsboro resident who found out about the band through Jason Perry, a singer and guitarist with the cover band Drunk Naked Pirates.
Carnahan also grew up listening to country music and followed in her mother’s footsteps as a singer. She had cameoed with other groups in the past, but it was clear from her very first rehearsal with Southern Charm that she was meant to join the band, Smith said. When the two vocalists sat down together at Turcotte’s house in Mount Airy, their harmonies almost instantly transformed Southern Charm’s sound.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to stay with us, right?’” Smith said.
“I think it makes us greater than the sum of our parts,” Turcotte added. “And it’s so different to have not just one, but two, female vocalists.”
Another asset for the band is Turcotte’s basement recording studio, a renovation he completed at the suggestion, and with the support of, his wife, Erika (“She’s like the sixth member of the band,” Carnahan said). The group meets there for rehearsal almost every Tuesday and used the space to record an original album last year.
Even when they don’t end up practicing, the studio is where the band meets for impromptu pizza parties and YouTube listening sessions. The fact that they’re all friends, Smith said, has helped the group stick together since their early days playing smaller venues, including the Blue Sky Bar in Mount Airy. She and Turcotte thought it was a huge accomplishment when the band first booked a performance at Champion Billiards, one of the biggest stages in Frederick. Since then, Southern Charm has moved onto even bigger events.
Nearly 1,000 people attended the band’s Alive @ 5 performance two years ago, according to Carnahan. And they played in front of 2,000 people last year at Sunfest, an Ocean City music festival.
“I was extremely nervous,” Smith said. “I never imagined, when I first started the band, that I’d be singing in front of so many people.”
Carnahan couldn’t be at Sunfest that day, and it made Smith realize how much she depended on her bandmate for both harmonization and support. In fact, she added, the whole band leans on one another. That was never clearer than when Southern Charm played a recent show at Red Eye’s Dock Bar on Kent Island, and Smith came down with a case of viral pharyngitis (a sore throat, essentially, but a total voice-killer).
Smith made it onstage, but she quickly realized her voice was nearly shot. Luckily, Carnahan was there to sing their normal harmonies solo, and Turcotte even filled in with a song by Joe Walsh. No one in the audience seemed to realize that one of the band’s two singers was performing without her voice.
“I was just thinking, ‘I love you people,’” Smith said. “I think we all kind of realized how much we depend on each other.”