Before it was the kind of idyllic destination that has come to define Southern elegance, Palmetto Bluff, like so much of the Lowcountry, was untamed. A retreat for executives, it presented a utopia of Southern wilderness, where trails meandered among ancient oaks, spilling out to the sort of quiet fishing holes that Mark Twain himself couldn’t have conceived in his wildest dreams. This was the Palmetto Bluff that Whitley Deputy knew as a child, splashing through its creeks and following the hidden deer trails that led to the most picturesque spots. To him, at least in part, it still is.
Taking the stage on the green recently, facing a crowd at the Summer Concert Series bathed in a pink late-June sunset, the frontman of the B-Town Project couldn’t help but be reminded of the Palmetto Bluff he once knew.
“It’s funny; when I was a kid I used to run through the woods right where you guys are sitting,” Deputy said into the mic, his voice echoing across the green. “I never thought I’d be playing a show here.”
The Summer Concert Series plays host to some of the area’s finest acts. For Deputy it was one part concert, one part homecoming. And just in case anyone is concerned about Deputy’s childhood activities, rest assured they were on the level.
“I wasn’t trespassing,” he explained with a laugh over beers a few weeks after the show. “The boyfriend of my best friend’s mom ran the hunting lodge at Union Camp, which is now Palmetto Bluff. So that’s how I got to go back there.”
It was all part and parcel of growing up in a small Southern town with one grocery store, one gas station, a single two-lane road and endless opportunities for making your own fun. This fun ranged from the innocuous (“We made up a game called Paperball where we’d toss around a wad of newspaper wrapped in duct tape.”) to the extremely foolhardy (“I remember being 7 or 8 and coaxing a gator up onto the bank of this pond. He was hissing at me, and I didn’t care. I wasn’t scared at all. I look back at it now and think ‘What an idiot.’”) For Deputy, that childhood impulse to create your own fun also manifested itself in creative ways that would sow the seeds of his eventual musical career.
“Living in Pritchardville, (my brother) Zach and I started out making music where I was playing with screwdrivers on a Rubbermaid bin and a bucket,” he said. “We actually made our first recording that way, back in the day, with the tape recorder where you gotta hold down ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. It was a simple rap song.”
That impromptu setup would launch both Deputy brothers into musical careers. And while Zach has hit the road, touring the country and amassing a following, Whitley has been content to keep his feet planted firmly in the Lowcountry he loves.
“Zach’s all over the country, man. I don’t know how he does it,” he said. “I could do that, but I don’t think I want to. I can’t stay away from my family that long. Plus, I want my own bed at the end of the day.”
Instead, Whitley plays it close to home, headlining shows and playing weddings around the Lowcountry during his busy season, then spending his off-season as a father, musical mentor and basketball coach (as needed) to his three children.
“It works out,” he said of his work/life balance. “It’s good for my life.”
Deputy performs both as a solo act and as the frontman for the B-Town Project, a loose collective of local musicians whose sound bridges the gap between old school and new. The ever-changing lineup of the B-Town Project evolved from what Deputy describes as a game of musical chairs among local bands B-Town Playaz, Permanent Tourist, and Deas-Guyz.
“The drummer for B-Town Playaz was my drum teacher, and he said ‘Let’s start a band.’ Will Snyder was playing bass with me. Then Arnell Byrd, who was with Deas-Guyz, came and played with us. That’s how it started,” Deputy said.
By its nature, the band has continued to change and shift from year to year (and sometimes from gig to gig, depending on the room) with as many as three guitar players, two bass players and two drummers shifting out roles in the band’s four-year history. But now, Deputy says, the lineup has coalesced around a core three members: Deputy, drummer Derrick Larry, and renowned local bass player Delbert Felix.
“Delbert’s a legend; he’s played with Branford Marsalis and Herbie Hancock and some other really big guys,” Deputy said, before adding with a tone of awe, “and he’s playing with me right now.”
Also waiting in the wings for larger shows, such as the Palmetto Bluff gig, are bassist Will Snyder, keyboard player Eric Brigmond, and sax player Larry Golden. And while the three-man project can shake a few tail feathers, a full-fledged B-Town Project show is an event. To see a show with the full lineup on stage is to have your funk reflex tested by a throwback sound that crams the old school and new school into a closet for a game of “seven minutes in heaven.”
Deputy describes the B-Town Project sound this way: “If a band that was kind of funky came out in the ’90s.” Essentially, it’s a hard sound to get your head around without hearing it. But you should expect nothing less from a band whose frontman grew up rapping to a Rubbermaid beat, graduated to the R&B and gangsta rap of the mid-’90s, then had his world flipped upside down when he discovered Stevie Wonder.
“Around 11th grade I started listening to classic soul radio stations,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect before adding, “and then “Superstition” came on the radio. Man, I was just like ‘What is this?’”
His enthusiasm for the watershed moment comes through on the interview tape in a rush of “This is amazing” and “You’ve got to be kidding me” set to a backbeat of him scatting a perfect a cappella cover of the song’s inimitable opening. I could transcribe “baddum boom boom bow boom-boom-boom bah-chick bah-chick baddap” for you, but you really should know the opening to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” by now. If not, for shame.
Stevie Wonder proved a gateway drug to the funk, soul and Motown music that would inform Deputy’s musical journey. Wonder’s “A Tribute to Uncle Ray” brought Ray Charles into Deputy’s life, and he brought a whole bunch of friends, from Al Green to Otis Redding.
“I’d have to say my top five are Stevie, Ray Charles, Al Green, Aretha Franklin and James Brown,” he said. “Not necessarily in that order.”
Whitley embraces their sound, weaving into his own in a way that’s similar to, but somehow more genuine, than some of the newer artists who are bringing back a funkier soul sound. Whether it’s Pharrell Williams with “Happy,” the catalogue of Amy Winehouse, or the clear Marvin Gaye influence in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (a clear enough influence that copyright lawyers were involved), the sounds of the ’70s are creeping into the mainstream.
“It’s coming back a little bit, but not as much as I’d like for it to,” said Deputy.
Maybe that old-school sound just hasn’t found the right person to bring it back into the limelight. Deputy plans to fix that in the next year or so.
“I’m in the process of putting together my own studio for a number of reasons. One, I can spend as much time on it as I want. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I’d be tweaking the same song for awhile until I was…” He was beginning to say the word “comfortable” and then stopped. “…happy with it.”
“I would never get it to where I wanted it. But I’d get it to a point where I could say ‘OK, I can live with this.’”
The revolving cast of local musicians that make up the B-Town Project will undoubtedly find a home on Deputy’s recordings. Mostly because these guys are down in the local music trenches with Deputy. Yes, whenever possible, they’ll book a show like the Summer Concert Series where they can play to a crowd in a beautiful park amidst an opulent resort with a breathtaking river view. But their bread-and-butter is in the summer bar-and-wedding schedule. That forms a bond of brotherhood among the musicians of the B-Town Project.
Deputy will bring them into his studio because of that fraternity, but also because he knows they can help him deliver a sound worthy of his musical idols.
“Hopefully I can get it right. We’ll see.”
Written by Barry Kaufman
Photography by Rob Kaufman