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'I got tired sitting on the sidelines': Guitarist Justin Fedor on picking, grinning and giving back

justin-fedor.jpg
Lucia De Giovanni
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Charlotte-based singer, guitarist and benefit concert organizer Justin Fedor.

Justin Fedor's music identity isn’t just tied to recording, performing and touring (with psych-rock outfit Ancient Cities, roots group The New Familiars or newly formed The Denim Denim). It’s also tied to bringing the community together for a cause. Since 2013, Fedor has organized biannual tribute concerts to benefit the Levine Children’s Hospital, raising more than $70,000 in the process. As Fedor puts it, actions speak louder than words (or even a blaring guitar solo).

Fedor was in the news recently when he was among five "Local Legends" selected by actor Matthew McConaughey and Wild Turkey to receive $10,000 to donate to a community-based music initiative. The honor was intended to recognize musicians who contributed to their local music scenes during the pandemic.

Fedor selected DrumsForCures to receive his $10,000 donation.

Interview Highlights:

On his start in music:

I had two older brothers, and they used to teach me a lot of lessons. As younger brothers do, we locked ourselves away inside of a bedroom, and the only thing I had was a guitar and (I) just started practicing a lot. My sister had a piano, and I used to bang around on that a bunch. It was always finding quiet times around the house and making noise for myself.

I discovered my parents’ vinyl collection early on. My dad was into Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. That was middle school, for me.

On playing psychedelic rock and Americana/roots music:

Eventually, I settled down into roots/country because the acoustic guitar just lends itself to that so much more than it does for rocking out all of the time. I just find the acoustic guitar more fun for me; I write more on acoustic than I ever do on electric. MTV “Unplugged” definitely pushed me in that direction when R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Stevie Ray Vaughan (played on that show).I’ve been listening to country my whole life. My parents were more psychedelic rockers, but my friends were more country people because I grew up in the South. So there’s the balance between why I can play in Ancient Cities and do all of the Americana stuff that I do.

On starting his band The New Familiars:

I’d been playing with my friends Eric-Scott Guthrie and James Stratford, and we were playing bars and stuff. A band called Laury came down from New York City, and they were doing a residency at The Evening Muse for the Monday night Open Mic. And during that time, we taught them all of our songs and decided to do some shows with them being our backing band with the idea that every time we’d do the show, the songs would be the same but the backing band would be different. So the songs would be new, but familiar.

"I love being a part of the Charlotte music community, and I love being a part of something that is bigger than any one of us. Especially when it comes to doing something that benefits all of us."
Justin Fedor

On The New Familiars being an independent band:

It was testing. It was hectic. There was a lot of leaning on each other during those periods. We got a loan and bought our own van. We even landed a sponsorship with Highland Brewing. And it was awesome. You only get so many shots to grab your friends, climb into a van and travel around the country. And for me, it’s still some of the best times of my life.

It was really fun and really freeing. The freedom that you get from pouring all of your love into something and lean on your friends and to create and know that you can come home and your bills are paid … it’s an incredible feeling. I got to play with my heroes. We opened for Gregg Allman at The Fillmore. You don’t want to trade that for anything. It’s one of those fulfilling parts of your spirit and heart. (When I was younger), I never bought more tickets to see a concert than to see The Allman Brothers. And then to stand in the back of The Fillmore to chat with Gregg Allman? Come on. That’s fulfillment. That’s life fulfillment.

I wanted to buy a guitar, and I went to my folks and asked, “Could you get me this guitar?” My dad told me I could referee indoor soccer during Christmas break, save all of my money and buy that guitar. That sent me on the path of knowing that you could do it yourself. Nobody is going to do it better than when you do it for yourself. If you really believe in yourself and you want to do something, you’ve got to go do it.

You’ve got to do the math at the end of the day. If the math doesn’t work, there’s no longevity in it. You definitely have to sit down and crunch the numbers. And you have to be firm with people too. People are going to tell you that you can get great exposure. And that’s cool, but exposure doesn’t pay rent. I’ve had lots of great exposure over the years, folks; trust me, I’m not a rich man.

On being a part of the Charlotte music scene:

Getting a strong foothold in Charlotte has been more about getting into the Charlotte scene. The more you get into visiting venues like The Evening Muse, Snug Harbor, The Visulite, The Neighborhood Theatre, Smokey Joe’s … the more you check out other bands, the more you become a part of the community. We used to have a musician’s dinner every week, where people would bring a dish and an instrument. We would sit around and have dinner and wine and everyone would play songs. You know, music is a conversation, and if you’re doing all of the talking, then it’s kind of boring talking to you. You want to listen to other people and gather knowledge. That’s how I learned to play in the first place.

On organizing the Tribute to Benefit Levine Children’s Hospital concerts:

Some friends of mine lost their son who was born with a heart defect. And you sit on the sidelines, and you watch that happen, and you look at the state of affairs out there, and you think about your neighbors and people out there who are hurting. I got tired of sitting on the sidelines and watching parents struggle with seeing their kids alive.

When Ray Menzarek passed away, I was approached by The Neighborhood Theatre to put together a concert. And I was like, “What if we do a tribute to The Doors, and we take all of the money and give it to the Children’s Hospital?” And they thought it was great, so we did it. It was a huge show, awesome turn-out, thousands of dollars raised. Afterwards, I got a lovely little note from John Densmore of The Doors thanking me for putting on a tribute to Ray Menzarek but not taking the money home, but actually doing something good and healing with it. That got me thinking about what we could do with tributes to music.

It’s taking those moments of sadness and pain and actually figuring out a way to do something great and good with it. As a musician, I think I’m constantly out there being like, “Hey, look at me, listen to my band, check me out, support me!” One day, it connected with me that you can’t constantly ask a community to support you without trying to support them in some manner, as well. That’s my pledge to the Charlotte community: you guys have supported me for so long, and I will continue to support you guys by doing a concert twice a year at The Neighborhood Theatre to raise money for our Children’s Hospital.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Ancient Cities - “Marmalade”
The New Familiars - “New River”
The New Familiars - “Wait”
The New Familiars - “Iccarus”
Ancient Cities - “Supermoon Blackout”
Ancient Cities - “Spirits of Light”

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Joni Deutsch was the manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, at WFAE, where also hosted the Amplified podcast and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. Joni also led WFAE's and Charlotte's first podcast festival.