Daniel Coston tells NC music history through photos

For the past 20 years, Charlotte photographer Daniel Coston and his camera have been on the road, capturing iconic moments in music history and documenting legendary tours. Some 90 of those images are on display through January at the Charlotte Museum of History, in an exhibit titled On The Way To Here: Adventures In Photography, Music And Life. Many more of Coston’s images can be seen in his four books, which focus on the musical heritage of Charlotte and North Carolina.

Working for the Charlotte Observer, Charlotte Magazine, record labels, and the bands themselves, Coston has assembled a huge portfolio of images. These include promo shots, album covers and thousands of candids taken during concerts and on tour. The artists he's caught on film range from little known local bands to rock-n-roll royalty.

On the walls of the Museum of History, fans will find images of many music legends, including Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs playing together at MerleFest, Merle Haggard playing air guitar, Lyle Lovett in a casual moment at SXSW, Van Morrison at the Them reunion. The British Invasion is well covered with photos of the Rolling Stones, Ringo Starr, Sean Lennon and Paul McCartney. Coston caught concert shots of Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Wilco, Procol Harum, Small Faces, the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Les Paul, Nappy Brown, BB King, Janis Ian, Willie Nelson, and Pinetop Perkins. A place of honor is reserved for beloved local musician Loonis McGlohon, a man Coston knew well.

Not all the pictures on display are of musicians. Working as an assignment photographer for the Charlotte Observer gave Coston the opportunity to photograph Maya Angelou, Sugar Ray Leonard, wrestling stars Hulk Hogan and Rick Flair, Andy Griffith and many other luminaries passing through the city. And, in 2012, he was on hand to document the Democratic National Convention.

Coston shared many of his stories from behind the camera during a slideshow presentation at the museum. “I’m a music nerd,” he told the assembled audience. “And the patron saint of film.” Coston used film cameras, usually loaded with black and white film, for most of his career, only switching to digital six years ago. From the photos on display, he’s clearly able to capture excellent shots in either format.

Highlights of his career taking concert pictures include covering the Down From the Mountain Tour, featuring the artists and music from the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Coston developed a close relationship with the Avett Brothers, catching pictures of their earliest gigs at Charlotte’s now defunct Fat City in 2001. He followed their career as they rose to national attention, contributing photos used for two Avett albums, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions and Avett Brothers: Live Volume 2.

Some of the most moving photos in the exhibit are shots of Johnny Cash, taken just before his death. On a tip, Coston traveled to the Carter Fold, legendary home of the Carter family in the hills of Virginia, for the annual June Carter Birthday Concert in 2003, just after June’s death in May of that year. Her husband, Johnny, showed up to honor her memory, although in poor health himself. The pictures Coston took at the Fold that summer were some of the last images of Cash before his death in September, 2003, and were featured in Time magazine.

Daniel Coston is the author and co-author of four books that feature many of his pictures, as well as interviews and stories from his career. His latest, “The Briarhoppers: The Circle Rolls On,” published in Oct., 2014 via Fort Canoga Press, tells the story of one of the region’s most legendary, and certainly longest lived, string bands.The Briarhoppers started out on Charlotte’s WBT Radio in 1934 and 80 years later are still going strong, with new songs and fresh talent, but the same stirring musical style that provided one of the roots of Appalachian music. The book includes 12 years of Coston’s photos of the band, years that saw the oldtimers pass the torch to new members.

Another Coston book, “North Carolina Musicians: Photographs and Conversations,” published in 2013 by McFarland, gives a great overview of the important position North Carolina plays in a number of different musical genres. The book is a collection of pictures of 19 NC musicians and groups drawn from Coston’s archives, accompanied by interviews with the artists. Among them are Scott Avett, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, James Taylor, alt-rocker Ben Folds, Katharine Whalen of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Rick Miller from Southern Culture on the Skids, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple of the dB’s, Grammy winner David Holt, R&B wizards Maurice Williams and Nappy Brown, and bluesman Bob Margolin. Coston’s selections range from stalwarts on the Carolina club scene such as the power pop masters The Spongetones and Chapel Hill indie innovators Superchunk to relative newcomers including Roman Candles, the Rosebuds and Megafaun. The book also includes a section on the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy winning group founded by Rhiannon Giddens, now one of the hottest voices on the international scene.

Two other books by Coston were reissued by Fort Canoga Press in 2013. “There Was A Time: Rock & Roll in the 1960s in Charlotte, and North Carolina,” co-written with Charlotte musician Jake Berger, examines the Garage Rock and Psychedelic Rock & Roll scenes in North Carolina during the 1960s through interviews and pictures. The Double Door Inn, one of the oldest blues venues in the country, is the topic of “Charlotte's Home Of The Blues: 40 Years Of The Double Door Inn,” co-written with the late Debby Wallace. This edition, which is an updated version of the original 2009 book (“35 Years of the...”), adds new photos of the iconic blues club as well as previously unpublished photos of Eric Clapton’s drop-by performance in 1982.

Daniel Coston frequently hits the road for book signings and to give talks about his experiences. Check his blog for upcoming dates. Much of his photography can be seen on at danielcostonphotography.com.