Curtis Conley is not very musical. In fact, he admits to not even being able to play a single instrument.
“I’ve never played a musical instrument in my life,” he confesses. “I was the kid who couldn’t play the recorder in the third grade. I remember my teacher telling me at the program to just pretend like I was playing.”
Yet, the 34-year-old Carbondale resident’s name is synonymous with music in the community and in much of Southern Illinois. As the manager of the popular nightspot PK’s and as the founder of the Carbondale Music Coalition, Conley has become the leader of the music scene that he has always been around.
How did you become involved in music?
“I think just growing up in Carbondale, I was around it. Even when I was 14 and 15 I knew lots of people in local bands and I started paying attention to the local music scene, not because I thought I was going to be involved in it, but just because I was around it. I went to college at SIU at a time when the Carbondale music scene was thriving. It just became part of my day-to-day life.”
How did you go from music fan to promoter?
“A number of years ago I got invited to co-host a radio show on WDBX and I just sort of fell into being a bigger part of the music scene. As a manager at PK’s, I started seeing fewer big bands coming to town and a sort of a fall-off in some of the local bands. After the derecho, even some of the area venues were damaged, so there weren’t a lot of places to have concerts.
“At PK’s we had never done a ‘ticket price’ show before, but I talked the owner into letting me do something on a Sunday night. I booked a singer I knew who had just left a band called The Drive-By Truckers. His name was Jason Isbell. This was in 2009. The show sold out and it is still one of my favorite shows that I’ve ever done.
“From there, I started doing more and more shows and getting more experience. I’ve seen the shortfalls and the problems and obstacles to overcome in live music. I’ve learned from every single show, going through the growing pains.”
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
“I learned that there are just too many aspects of these shows to do it all myself. I started to bring in some strong partners from the venues and from the music side of things. They brought me credibility with the bands and performers, because it’s really difficult for me to go to musicians and say, ‘hey, be part of what I’m doing, and, by the way, I’ve never played an instrument.”
Was that the beginning of the music coalition?
“Yes. We wanted to create this organization to support live music in our area. We did all of the paperwork and then one night launched it on Facebook. The next morning, I was blown away, we had a couple thousand likes and people really wanted to support us. We did our first membership drive and it was a huge success. It just keeps growing.”
The Coalition promotes local live music, but you also hold a couple of big events, right?
“One of the biggest things we is actually something that started before the Carbondale Music Coalition existed, and that’s the Carbondale Rocks Revival. This year will be our sixth one. It’s a downtown music festival with lots of venues and lots of bands. It’s gotten to be a huge event — a sellout. I’m hoping this year to do a large, outdoor Revival in downtown Carbondale with a couple of stages. I’d like this to be the largest event I’ve ever put on — even bigger than the Live on Main show.”
Let’s talk about that event. You mentioned Jason Isbell earlier. You had him back this year for a larger show.
“I’ve actually had Jason perform here in town seven times now. He was my first show and so it is perfectly fitting that he was also my ‘biggest achievement show,’ so far. It was great to have a show with someone like Jason and to actually close down The Strip (U.S. 51 in Carbondale) for a concert. It was really cool and it was an honor to do that show.”
So what’s next?
“Besides the Carbondale Rocks Revival, we’ve done a few ‘Live on Main’ events. We’re hoping to do three more shows this year and grow that into a concert series. It doesn’t do any good to bring everybody out for an event one weekend, if they stay home the next three. We want to bring exciting events and keep Carbondale known as a music town.”