There’s nothing quite as Meeting Street as a Friday night at Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlor. For 37 years, musicians and music lovers have made the pilgrimage to West Columbia for the all-acoustic pick and jam sessions at the living monument to bluegrass. “My dad was a diehard traditionalist,” says Wilford “Willie” Wells Jr., the son of Bill’s founder and operator of the business today. “Friday night was his night. It was why he built the place. He wanted a place where he could have a little store, and anybody could just stop in and jam. I promised him I wouldn’t change it.”
Almost everybody is welcome thanks to a few hard and fast rules at Bill’s. No smoking or alcohol. Never. Not in your car, not from a flask in your pocket. But there’s an even more stringent rule that applies to everyone whether you’re coming from Columbia or traveling with one of the most popular touring acts to visit the parlor. No playing electric on Friday nights.
“My dad wouldn’t even let an electric instrument in the building,” says Willie. “Years ago, one of the big bands had a show here. The bassist was hauling in his amp when he crossed paths with my dad. My dad looked at it and said, ‘Say, son, what are you gonna do with that?’ He told dad he was going to play it and dad told him, ‘You ain’t playing that thing in here!’ As the bass player again tried to explain that he played the electric bass he unknowingly dug his hole even deeper. “My dad said, ‘I don’t care what you are. You ain’t playing electric in here.’ So, the bassist went in search of the band leader and before he even got over to my dad, he goes, ‘Bill, I’m sorry. I forgot. He’ll play the upright.” No one plays electric at Bill’s on Friday nights. No. One.
Those Friday night jam sessions are the origin story of West Columbia’s celebrated bluegrass store, which was founded by Willie’s father, Bill, and mother, Louise, in 1985. “When my mom and dad decided to move here, because my mom was from the area, my dad hoped to start bluegrass here,” says Willie.
Bill was raised near the famous Carter Family Fold in Virginia, the literal birthplace of country music. While raised in a strict Free Will Baptist home that forbade playing music and singing, the Carter Family secretly nurtured his interest. Years later, he and Louise met and moved to Chicago. At that point, he’d played bluegrass his entire life and was part of a band that later headed south and became the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass of today. When Bill and Louise moved to West Columbia, they found a pocket-sized storefront on State Street to open a music store that would double as a place where bluegrass fans could meet up and jam. But Bill soon discovered, his plan had one flaw. His customers didn’t know what bluegrass was.
“I don’t think my dad realized bluegrass was really North Carolina, not South Carolina,” says Willie. “A lot of people were coming in to jam, but they were doing country music, not bluegrass.” That’s when Bill discovered his life-long mission — to create a bluegrass scene in the Midlands and across South Carolina.
It quickly turned into quite the scene. Within two years, Friday night sessions spilled out of the store onto the sidewalk and even out into State Street. That’s when Bill’s headed down Meeting Street to the old Columbia Yamaha Motorcycle building or what was left of it. “It was a shell. It had no walls, nothing,” says Willie.
Today, Bill’s is a music store, a concert hall with a dance floor and stage, a repair shop, and a music school that teaches guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass, fiddle, ukulele and the dulcimer.
While much hasn’t changed over the years, when Bill died in 2011, change was thrust upon the tight bluegrass community. While Willie lived in the Nashville area at the time — playing “progressive” bluegrass Bill would likely point out — he and his dad spoke often about the founder’s hopes and plans for the landmark business.
“I’d already told him I was gonna keep it going, which I knew made him happy,” says Willie. “He knew where he wanted it to go, and it clicked with me. I wish I’d have done it 30 years ago. But I think he was happiest when I told him I’d take the band over, too.”
While he once considered uprooting the business, in the end he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “This is the Pickin’ Parlor,” he says. “I can’t do that.” And all the extra square footage that used to scare him? “Now I’m trying to figure out a way to build a second floor,” he laughs.
While most people can’t imagine Meeting Street without Bill’s, Willie can’t imagine a Meeting Street without the WECO sign. “I remember that sign from, oh Lord have mercy, as long as I can remember. Meeting Street would not be Meeting Street without that WECO sign,” he says. “It’s Meeting Street’s statement.”
While Bill’s legacy still flows through the bluegrass music world, welcoming new generations of musicians, some things are better left unchanged. The WECO sign can be electrified once more, but Friday night’s at Bill’s? Hell no.