From the rock n’ roll string theory of the Cotton Avenue Hustlers to his studio work with a myriad of artists, multi-instrumentalist Sterling Waite revels in leaping from style to style and crafting soundtracks for any occasion. The Reedy River String Band is among Waite’s current outfits and endures in the vein of the aforementioned Hustlers with fiddle, guitar, upright bass, and 3-part harmony. The Greenville, SC trio of Waite, Mark Dye, and Rush Morgan are set to make their JBA debut on Friday, February 4, and in anticipation, Sterling talks about his formative period in Macon and shares details on new recordings.
AI- The first time that I remember hearin’ your name was in connection with Cotton Avenue Hustlers. That was when you were based here out of Macon, but in that time since, you have been a part of numerous outfits. Are you from South Carolina? You’re based outta Greenville– is that where you’re from originally?
SW- No, my mom’s from north Georgia, like Hiawassee up there the mountains. That’s where her side of the family’s from.
Yeah! It’s beautiful up there! Lake Chatuge, that’s where they live now. But yeah, I went down to Macon in ’09 for a job and then started Cotton Avenue Hustlers and was playin’ there for a number of years. Actually, the band kinda blew up ’cause I went off to law school at UGA in Athens, and then worked as a lawyer for a number of years before actually gettin’ back into playin’ music. Recently, as in this year in April, I went part-time, and then in September, I stopped [practicing law] and I’m just doin’ music all the time. So it’s kinda been a nontraditional (laughs) musician arc!
I wondered if you were actually still practicing law. I hear your name come out of a lot of musicians’ mouths, and I see you pop up on a lot of albums. Even here recently, I spoke to Andrew Crawford when y’all were comin’ through town. You were on Andy Johnson’s album Help Yourself. I know you play fiddle and a little bit of banjo on that one. Where did you get started playing music? What bug bit you and what led you into doing this professionally?
Well, I got my parents to thank for startin’ me with music. They started me at piano lessons at like 5 years old (laughs)! I took 10 years of piano lessons– about 5 to 15– and then when I was gettin’ a little bit older, like early teens, I started picking up other instruments, the guitar, and actually took a few years of violin lessons way back then. And then didn’t touch [the violin] for 10 years until I was in Macon! I was tryin’ to put that string band together. At the time, Old Crow Medicine Show had some music that I was really into, like really high-energy string band stuff. And I just couldn’t find a fiddle player for the life of me that was workin’ the way I wanted! So I was like, “Well, I guess I had two years of violin lessons as a kid… How hard can it be?” (Laughs).
I spent maybe like a year wood sheddin’ like crazy, just tryin’ to learn some fiddle chops, and then ended up playin’ fiddle for Cotton Avenue Hustlers. That was how I got back into playin’ violin and got into the rootsy stuff. Actually, I saw Old Crow at… What is the Macon theater? Which is the one that’s…
I remember when they played at the Grand (Opera House).
The Grand, yes! I was at that show and that was a huge show for me. I came away goin’, “I wanna do that! I wanna play like him!” That fiddle playin’ just blew my mind! It’s so fast and there’s just such a cool feel to it. It was like someone up there shreddin’ electric guitar! It had that same kinda rock n’ roll energy to me, and that’s what drove me to be like, “Well, I’m gonna figure that out!” Which I’m still tryin’ to do (laughs)!
There’s a few diversions in between then and now, but here you are again, leading a string band. Tell me about the Reedy River String Band.
I’ve picked up a bunch of the Cotton Avenue Hustler songs. We probably play probably a dozen Cotton Avenue Hustler songs that I’ve brought in as Reedy River songs. I’ve written some new stuff as well, but I’ve actually reworked some of those songs.
Mark Dye is on upright bass, and here in the upstate in South Carolina, he’s one of the go-to guys. He sings lead on quite a few songs in the band as well, sings harmony, and plays killer upright. I got hooked up with him first and then for a brief period, we had Andrew Crawford playin’ some guitar with us, but he’s so busy off doin’ his thing that he eventually stepped back and said, “I gotta focus on my own stuff,” which was totally understandable. I still play with him some here and there, but we were really fortunate to get Rush Morgan. He’s a local guy that has his own… Not really bluegrassy but kind of a little bit more folksy solo stuff. Great, great writer, really cool voice, really different voice than mine and Mark’s which are a little more similar to each other. Rush has a really cool sound of his own. You should definitely check him out on Spotify and everything.
We play one of his songs right now, but we were gonna hopefully do some co-writing. He brings a really cool angle to the band. Me and Mark always joke, about 2 hours into 3 hour night, we get Rush up there to start singin’ and it really turns heads because everyone’s been hearing me and Mark’s voices! People hear his and go, “Whoa, this is totally different! Like a breath of fresh air!”
Now, aside from that, did I see you also have a funk band that you go out and do shows with as well?
Yeah! That’s just at a year old. I think last weekend was actually the one-year anniversary of our first gig for that band. Before I got the string band back together, I ended up findin’ a really good drummer that I played with in a bunch of country acts, Caleb Raines, and another guy, Zach Gray, on bass that’s got really good funky chops. I’d written maybe a dozen songs in that funkier style way back when, as well, like 10 years ago, and so I put something together around those originals. We’re actually fixin’ to release– I think I may upload it today, maybe to Spotify– a 6-track EP with the funk band! We just call it Sterling Waite Band for lack of anything better right now (laughs), but who knows? We might change if we can think of somethin’ that works! That [EP] we recorded has a 3-piece horn section on it where we had some awesome horn arrangements by a local guy, Greg Day, and his son Wesley Day. “Bruce Caldwell plays saxophone, and the three of them– well, really Greg and Wesley– arranged these amazing horn parts and played them throughout the record.” So I’m really pumped for that! But yeah, I’m really kinda straddlin’ the fence in two worlds (laughs)!
You have your own studio there in Greenville? Are you in the middle of recording or have you recorded a larger project for the string band?
I do have a small home studio set up and actually do record a few local artists here and there and do production where I’ll play mandolin and fiddle and stuff like that for them– but that’s not what I’m doing for Reedy River. I’m actually recording with Andrew Crawford in his studio. He’s only about 30 minutes for me, and man, he’s put out some really high-quality recordings of his stuff and his clients. We’re actually back in the studio tomorrow to hopefully finish up a single for the Reedy River String Band.
Do you have a timeline?
Not really, nothin’ strict. But I’d love to get the single out in the next three weeks or so. I’d love to really push it out and then would love with that band to just crank through a 4-track EP or somethin’. And may even rerecord one or two Cotton Avenue Hustler songs ’cause there’s a few that we play every night. But hopefully, in the next couple months, we could see a Reedy River String Band EP out. That’s the goal.
Back in 2020, you released a single, “Matador”, and that was supposed to be the herald of an EP. Did that EP actually ever come out? Did you ever release that series of songs?
I’ve been actually sittin’ on that for a while. I finished it. “Matador” was gonna be the title track, and then I ended up writin’ another song and the title track was gonna be called “Honky Tonk Carnival”, which is a bit of a strange name but was kind of about playin’ fiddle for a bunch of country acts. I was hangin’ out “backstage” (laughs) at a lot of backyard festivals. People throw together festivals, and it kinda feels like you ran off and joined the circus! I was just a hired gun with a buncha different country acts, and so anyway, that project, instead of releasing it under my name, I’m just gonna release it under Honky Tonk Carnival as the artist name too, I think. I’ve put it on the back burner ’cause I’ve got so many other musical projects. Between the funk band and the string band… And the string band picked up some of the other songs that were gonna be on that EP and we’ve started doing ’em, so they may appear on the Reedy River EP. I’m not sure what the future fate of that is (laughs)! I’ve got the whole thing done. I’ve had it done for a while now and just haven’t released it ’cause I’ve been caught up with playing with these bands and trying to figure out where that material’s ultimately gonna end up!