Normally the showcases I put up on this site are simply about musicians and bands from our great state of South Carolina but this one is different, this one is about family. I waited for some time before approaching this showcase for Chris thinking it would be difficult to do in some way but as I began to gather data, go through pictures, listening again to his body of music I realized he is still right here with us, he has never really left us. This is not a “sad” thing but rather a way to rejoice and celebrate the body of work he created and all the memories that he and his gifts and talents have given to us.
Reaching out to his family, his Mother in particular helped me to realize that Chris Conner’s story is not just about music but more so about the strength and resilience of family, of love, of fabric. Chris is part of a fabric that makes up a richly colored and vibrant tapestry of people, community and friends, he is forever woven into the cloth of music being created and released here in the very heart of South Carolina. You can trace the threads out to his brother, Brian Conner, with his band Weaving The Fate to the experimental root sounds of Charles Funk and the Black Iron Gathering. Chris has touched so many musicians, songwriters, music lovers from all walks of life, his songs were so well sculptured, so finely delivered, soulfully, painfully, beautifully that they continue to hold weight and purpose to this very day.
I am blessed to have met Chris, I had a chance to sit and talk with him just before he left us and to this day I can remember how kind and gentle he seemed to me – how gracious and soft spoken, both old and young, he impressed me as someone I would have counted myself lucky to call “friend”.
Bio (Provided by Sherry Kyanko):
Chris Conner was born May 14, 1970 in Wilmington, NC just ten minutes after his parents' precarious 45 mile ride at 85 mph from Southport. NC. His grand entrance followed him through life - when Chris Conner entered a room people stopped and took notice.
Chris grew up in Lexington, South Carolina, exploring and playing in 12 mile creek, hunting, fishing, skateboarding, collecting Star Wars and action figures. He was a true outdoorsman, he studied and researched marine life, and his dream was to become a marine biologist. At age 16, Chris was a tall 6'5" broad shouldered youth who discovered he had a natural talent for music. He joined the high school orchestra, where his teacher said, "Chris takes to music like a duck takes to water." At age 16 He picked up a guitar and taught himself to play. He started writing music and he discovered he could sing -- really sing. His voice was deep and mellow, and he loved creating a song and bringing it to life. His friends were soon captive audiences, making his music their own. Music became his first love.
At age 17 Chris Conner formed his first band "Astronaut 888". Band members were Chris, Ryan Goforth, and Ricky Reddick. Songwriting came easy for Chris, and as one of his songs said, "I'm always hearing music in my head". Using his original music, Chris formed the band Sourwood Honey In 1989. He added Ryan Goforth on harmony vocals and guitar, Shane Conner on drums and percussions, and Bob Hylton on bass guitar. Sourwood's first performance was at the Village Idiot in Five Points. There was an “open microphone night” competition, where they played and won receiving free food and an open bar tab till closing time. By the early 90's, Sourwood would fill the club “Annie's” on Rosewood Drive to capacity where most of Lexington emptied out and into Annie's.
In 1994 Sourwood was joined by Cale Hernandez on drums, and Doug Reynolds on bass guitar. By this time Chris' voice possessed much of the tone and timbre that would render it instantly recognizable throughout his career. After an early cassette release, the line-up grew into a full band for the 1995 self-titled CD release. Additional new members Les Hall on keyboards and Jessie "Herbie" Jeffcoat on lead guitar filled out the band's sound. Chris' songs like “All My Relations” had a radio-friendly '70's country rock vibe that no amount of improvisatory jamming could disguise. By 1998 Sourwood was successful on stages across the Carolinas and all over the southeast. Their final CD release “Oxydendrum Arboreum” reflected the confident musicianship of the entire band, and it included several of Chris' best songs like, "Follow Me Down" and "Blues For You".
Kevin Oliver of the Free Times said it was Chris' growth as a songwriter and his need for a more focused showcase that led him in a different direction than Sourwood Honey, ending their successful run. By then Chris' material eclipsed the band's status as collegiate jam-rock favorites, Oliver said Chris' song "The Weaving of Fate" is about the writing process and opens with "The writer is willing to spill everything, if you'd only dare to listen". Chris' younger brother Brian, an accomplished guitarist and talented musician, had filled in on bass guitar for Sourwood and his band Villanova Junction frequently opened for Sourwood. Chris started a new band with Brian in 2000 called the “The Conner Brothers”. For two brothers with the same southern accent, their voices blended into natural harmonies. The Conner Brothers Band joined with the rhythm section of Hesham Mustafa on bass and Travis Lempesis on drums. The band played weekly in venues across the southeast performing a combination of reworked Sourwood Honey songs, new originals from both Chris and Brian and crowd pleasing Americana songs. Their CD release in 2000 included some of Chris' best songs like "Hell or High Minded" and the first recording of "Highway 17". "Strength" written by Brian and performed by both, showed an unmistakable symmetry of their talent.
As Chris' growth continued and Brian turned to rock and roll, Chris found the right answer in 2004 when he formed "The South" band. The South finally gave Chris a chance to put his own stamp on something without filters or alterations. Chris brought together five talents who shared a certain philosophy and dedication toward their craft. The sound they created was progressive but true to its roots. Jimmy Branham, formerly of Treadmill Trackstar, and Trey Brown, with several studio and television performance credits, provided a solid foundation to The South's pleasing sound. Charles Funk, once with S-Tribe, added a brash, but smart style of guitar that contrasted well with the deep rich folk-harmonies created by Chris Conner and Nicole Hagenmeyer. The South was an alternative country music experience, but still represented the best of southern music and its song writing traditions. This new country sound, combined with the experience of seasoned musicians and a classic vocal style, culminated into something very unique, both on stage and in the studio. Chris released “Monsters in the Kudzu” in December 2005. A collection of original songs written by Chris and band that defied categorization. Touching on several genres like country, alt-country, bluegrass, rock, southern rock, jazz and more, this release offered something for everyone. The album took the best of Chris' country-rock tendencies and framed the songs on top of a solid rock n’ roll foundation. Like The South's "Let It Sing" says, "This little bird inside, I'm gonna’ let it sing".
In January 2007, at the height of The South's success, Chris was diagnosed with lung cancer. The medical crisis made Chris even more aware of the importance of his family and faith, the two things he held closest in the months to follow. His faith and courage became a source of strength for the thousands who followed him. He continued writing and performing, and continued to help and encourage other musicians.
In March 2007 a concert fund-raiser called “The Benefit” was held for Chris. For months, fellow musicians donated their time and talent to record Chris' songs in their own versions for a CD release "Never Said It Was Easy". They all performed at the CD release concert while over 1,200 fans packed the club to pay tribute. Chris' unexpected appearance and performance raised the fevered pitch of applause and emotions higher than the ceilings. After the concert, Bentz Kirby said in a note to Chris, "I have thought a lot about your performance at The Benefit. I have lived long enough that I have seen some great moments in live music all over the world. I have seen rock n’ roll history made live and in person. BUT, nothing can touch that moment from Saturday night when JB was pumping that kick bass and Charles was holding up that acoustic guitar and Chris walked on to the stage. My daughter turned to me and asked "is Chris gonna’ sing Let It Sing?" (Yeah, she knows the whole album) As I told her yes, I could feel it was the best moment in live music I had ever seen or heard. It was so beautiful. I was blessed to be there and just wanted Chris to know IT WAS THE NUMBER ONE MOMENT FOR ME, AND A LOT OF OTHER FOLKS AS WELL!”.
Otis Taylor with The State said, "Conner's illness has united Columbia's go-your-own-way musical scene. He is facing his cancer much the way he writes songs -- by digging in". Charles Wilkie added, "Chris has always been there for fellow musicians. Whenever there was a benefit for someone who was sick or needed financial help, he was the first to step up". Ryan Goforth, former Sourwood Honey member said, "Chris has been a beacon for the local music scene for 15 years. He is a real true person with friends in every walk of life. Because of the way he lived his life, I think it’s finally coming back around to him". "It's overwhelming that one guy can touch so many people" said Chris Carney, the South's manager.
Chris' last performance was with The South October 25, 2007 at the Five Points Fountain. His young son Ace and wife Kelly stood at the front of the stage staring up at him with love and amazement as the crowd swelled to fill the street. The very next night Chris stood in front of a stage proudly looking on and grinning his beautiful crooked smile as brother Brian performed at his own CD release show. It was an event Chris had waited on and he was determined to be there when it happened. Three weeks later that strong and beautiful man lost his life to lung cancer. His wife Kelly said, "Chris was bigger than life" and "there is no way to put into words how he and his music touched the world”. His music lives on and the wonderful things he did for other people lives on, too." Otis Taylor quoted in The State Newspaper, " Through his life and music, Chris left a lot to hold on to. He was totally devoted to his family, especially his son Ace. Chris was a man full of grace, courage and love. He didn't need his spirits lifted, he lifted spirits".
The Christopher Conner Foundation carries on Chris' dreams of helping others. www.connerfoundation.org
Brian wrote "Things That I Have to Say" about Chris, who was always his hero and his mentor. The brothers agreed near the end that their talks would continue after Chris was gone. Brian later named his band Weaving the Fate in honor of Chris' song “Weaving of Fate”.