We can all agree that Savannah needs a lot of things. For at least five years, I've been telling anyone who'd listen that we could really, really do with an acoustic music listening room.
The Sentient Bean, still wonderful as always, has sadly severely cut back on live, local music. Aside from the odd Open Mic or one-off at one of the other coffee shops, there aren't a whole of venues for kicking back and enjoying a singer and a guitar, or singers and guitars.
I'm not talking about bars and restaurants. That's an entirely different atmosphere. And you're more likely to run into a troubadour playing "Margaritaville" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling" in those places, stuff to please the masses-in-passing. (I use those two as examples of gag-worthy songs I can do without ever hearing again.)
Until someone steps up to the plate and figures out how to make a living running a listening room (and let's be honest, money is a big issue here), we can enjoy the Savannah Songwriters Series, which Jefferson Ross and Stan Ray launched back in 2011.
It happens at 6 p.m. every other Sunday at venues in Savannah and Tybee. This week (Feb. 23) at Johnny Harris Restaurant (1651 E. Victory Drive) features an in-the-round performance from singer/songwriters Kyrsten Paige Roseman, James Seem and Sara Tollerson.
The 28-year-old Tollerson is a native of Winder, one of sprawling Atlanta's many suburbs. She has a bewitching voice and a fine sense of sweet melody, as evidence by her second CD, Wherever We Go, which was recorded in Nashville. She's a pretty good guitar player, too.
The child of an Army brat and a missionary's daughter, she got used to moving around a lot—Tollerson relocated to Savannah last fall after stints in Nashville, Boston and Athens.
She's played a few gigs around town, but like I said, there aren't that many here for acoustic performers.
She is often asked about her influences. "I have a hard time answering, because the most obvious influence is what I heard in my living room, growing up," Tollerson says. "Melodies and harmony. When people my age are listening to their 'throwback' music, it's stuff that's new to me. Because I didn't listen to the radio at that time. I was listening to a lot of the Beatles, and Cake. I made little mix tapes."
Dad Thom Tollerson, a guitarist and singer with a background in folk/harmony, is the proprietor of 106 West, a live music venue in Winder. He got the 14-year-old Sarah a guitar for Christmas, and soon thereafter she wrote her first song. She'd wanted to be an actress before the music bug bit; these days, she's got the fever and there's no known cure.
She left UGA to study songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Beantown, and after her 2008 graduation spent a year busking in city subway stations.
"It taught me a lot about performing," she explains. "It taught me a lot about people. I always went during commuter hours—for safety and for foot traffic. I made way better money than I expected to. I sold my CDs. I wish that Facebook had been big at the time, so I would've had a better way to build up my fan base. MySpace was kind of on the way out, and that's where I got all my people. Now they're lost in the wind."
By "getting out and doing it," you learn things they don't teach you in school. "I remember a group of 40 8-year-olds dancing as I played the Jackson 5's 'I Want You Back,' while they were waiting for a train," Tollerson smiles. "That probably wouldn't have happened in a bar or a restaurant."
She got restless, as she is wont to do. "I took my time after graduation. And I realized that no structure at all is not good for Sarah!
"I work well under direction. I always loved being in school because someone was always telling me what to do."
So, on to Nashville, where she worked in a urology lab by day and played "guitar pulls" and Open Mics by night. She made loads of contacts, organized a musicians' networking group, and, by the end of her tenure, had written and recorded the winsome Wherever You Go, backed by seasoned Music City pros.
Savannah beckoned when she met Army pilot Joe Davis in Nashville. He was due to report to Fort Stewart in the fall of 2013—and when he left, Tollerson went with him. They bought a condo downtown and have been making friends – and, in her case, connections—ever since.
"I'm a really 'follow your heart' kind of person," says Tollerson. "And Joe didn't have a choice. So we're beginning our life here together." See sarahtollerson.com