Crook Stewart seeks to make Panama City a mecca for musicians
The ground floor of Crook Stewart’s home in Springfield, next to Panama City, is devoted to a performance space, The Ghetto Palace, which plays host to informal, spontaneous jam sessions involving musicians young and old.
For Panama City, Music Matters isn’t just a movement; it’s a mantra.
Created by Crook Stewart and his wife, Victoria, Music Matters is a built-from-the-bottom-up campaign to reinvent downtown Panama City’s Harrison Avenue as a hot spot for local musical talent — à la Nashville’s Broadway street.
Crook Stewart was born in Panama City in 1956, but he’s been everywhere, man. Upon turning 18, the musician moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he became a stagehand. In 1989, while working in Atlanta, a friend recommended him for a job with Joan Baez as her tour manager. This would be the beginning of Stewart’s ongoing 27 years of tour managing, landing him gigs with Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Art Garfunkel’s and The Rolling Stones.
“In general, all the bands have a booking agent and a personal manager. Those two get together and decide where and when the artist is going to play. Once that’s been decided, they pass it along to me and I pretty much take care of the rest,” Crook Stewart says. “Tour managing is all of the logistics for the tour, as far as where everybody’s going to fly into at the beginning, when the buses are going to pick them up and arranging hotels.”
Stewart, who is currently on the road with Graham Nash, estimates that he will be traveling for over 10 months this year, alone. However, the Emerald Coast is still the place he calls home.
“I am fortunate enough to have been able to travel,” he says. “I’ve been able to go out into the world and soak up all the culture — and then enjoy paradise when I get back home! One of the things that I missed was that there wasn’t much of a music scene going on in Panama City, which is why my wife and I got involved with Music Matters. We always thought that it would be even more of a paradise if there was some culture to go around as well.”
Thus, the Ghetto Palace was born: Crook and Victoria’s Springfield home on the top floor and a rockin’ concert venue on the bottom.
“What we realized was that there were a lot of different talented people from our area who really didn’t have a place to go out and play, or be seen or heard,” Stewart says. “We open our doors at 7:30, and normally there’s a line down the block to get in. We go until about midnight, so usually that means about 20-25 different artists will be on stage throughout the course of the evening.”
With no predetermined lineup, musicians show up, sign in and take the stage. “It’s just us entertaining and having friends over to play and people over to listen,” Stewart continues. “We’re not a business in any form or fashion; it’s just our way to give back to the musical community.”
Stewart likes to keep an eye out for bands that may be the “next hottest thing.” Rather than have these artists move to places like Austin or Seattle to gain success, the couple’s goal with Music Matters is to make Panama City a location where these bands can stay.
“If you look in Austin and Nashville, both of those two cities were built on the backs of music. That’s what made those two metropolitan areas what they are. So I think music could do the same for our area.”
About two years ago, the Stewarts organized a meeting to ignite the Music Matters movement. The interest was evident: The mayor showed up, along with a few commissioners and support from the Downtown Improvement Board. A plan was formulated by which musicians played for tips only for a month, without being paid by the businesses in whose buildings they played. When that month was up, those businesses had experienced some of the highest grossing nights of their history, leading them to pay for live entertainment from then on.
“We really want to see the musicians rewarded a little bit better, because they kind of suffer in Nashville,” Stewart stresses. “They are the ones responsible for that city’s success, but they’re also the ones getting shut out by it because they’re working for tips only. The city becomes hot property, their rent goes up. If Panama City starts taking shape as a music and arts mecca, we want to see the artists rewarded for turning the city into something more than it was before.”
The best way to get involved, Stewart advises, is to support live, local music and buy art from resident artists. “Music Matters shows it doesn’t always take a government or taxpayers’ money to make this happen. What it really takes is people getting together and having a shared vision.”