Jon Reed

Journalist in Birmingham, Ala.

Tag: Tuscaloosa

Songwriter looks back at career as local frontman

by Jon Reed

The Dexateens were effectively banned from the bar for it, but that didn’t matter. Blaine Duncan and his band, the Lookers, played their set, drank their fill and were ready to leave the makeshift stage on the floor of Egan’s Bar and rejoin the crowd. Ashley Hill, then the manager of Egan’s, wanted just one more song.

Duncan gave it to him. Then, he took the guitar from his shoulder and drove the neck of it through the bar’s low ceiling tiles, destroying three of them.

Duncan feared he wouldn’t get paid. He feared he wouldn’t be invited back, just like the Dexateens weren’t when they took their instruments to the ceiling. Instead, Hill gave the band more money than he had ever given them before, as extra thanks for a great show.

Egan’s only admits those 21 and older, so no high school students were in the crowd that night. If they had been, though, there’s a chance they would have seen Duncan a few days later, teaching their English class.

Duncan, 35, had already become a fixture on the Tuscaloosa music scene when he started teaching at Tuscaloosa County High School in 2008. At first, he didn’t tell anyone. His students didn’t know for sure, though some would ask him about it. When he told his fellow teachers after a few months, they were excited about it. They asked him what it was like to be in a band. They told him to tell his students, but he didn’t want it to become a distraction. To this day, he still brushes off questions about it in class, thinking students are just asking him in order to get him off task. This year, though, Duncan is more willing to talk about his guitar-slinging, folk-country singing side job with some students.

“It’s the good students who seem to ask me more about it, who I wouldn’t mind seeing [at a show],” he said. “They’re mature enough to have a discussion about a song like ‘I Don’t Smoke Dope with Satan.’”

Duncan will play what may be his last show with the Lookers Saturday night at 9 p.m. at Green Bar. The show will be open to anyone 21 and older, and there will be a $5 cover at the door. The Bear and Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil, both bands from Muscle Shoals, will open for the Lookers.

Playing guitar backwards

Born in Sulligent, Ala., Duncan got into music for a simple reason: He wanted to impress girls. At age 16, he started playing drums with a band of his high school friends.

“I was a bad drummer,” he said. “I got to where I could keep a beat, but that was about it.”

They only played four shows, mostly high school get-togethers. When the band would practice, Duncan started playing around with his bandmate’s guitar, and the lefty took some abuse for the way he played.

“I picked up his guitar and turned it the wrong way,” he said. “I remember everyone saying, ‘You’re playing that backwards, you’re playing that wrong,’ but it felt right, it felt great.”

When Duncan arrived at the University of Alabama in 1997, he started playing guitar regularly. He and a friend would play together two or three times a week, and Duncan learned how to play guitar, continuing to play a right-handed guitar left-handed, the strings upside down.

Duncan didn’t start writing songs until he was in his twenties. While he was in high school, he drew inspiration for his drumming from contemporary bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Once he started writing his own songs, though, his tastes shifted to folk music and old country music. His songs draw from talents as diverse as folk singer John Prine and Tuscaloosa music staples the Dexateens. In his song “I Don’t Smoke Dope with Satan (Since He Left Me at the Mall),” Duncan bemoans contemporary country music, singing, “I don’t listen to country music radio anymore. They don’t play Merle Haggard like they once did before.”

Duncan said he’s always agonizing over his songs and feels like they’re never finished.

“It creates a lot of stress for me because I’m never satisfied with a song, with its lyrics,” he said. “I’m not very productive. It takes me months to write a song.”

The rise of the Lookers

Duncan’s songwriting ability and belief in original music gave birth to the Lookers during his second time around at UA, when he was studying to become a teacher.

Duncan was playing an open mic night in 2006 and performed a song he wrote as a tribute to local, original music. Mikey Oswalt, now 37, was in the crowd and liked what he heard.

“I thought, ‘I want to be in a band with this guy,’” Oswalt said.

The two met that night, and Oswalt began playing drums for what became the Lookers. After going through a few bass players, they settled on Ryan Akers. David Phillips joined on guitar.

The Lookers started out playing the two bars in Tuscaloosa that would take a chance on original music: Egan’s and Little Willies, which is now called Green Bar. The band toured across Alabama and Mississippi, all while Duncan continued teaching at County High. His full-time job limited practice time and show opportunities to days he doesn’t have to give quizzes or grade papers.

“We’re weekend warriors,” he said.

The Lookers and other local musicians form a tight-knit community in Tuscaloosa. Since the Lookers came on the scene, they’ve shared the stage with major acts from around central Alabama, including the Dexateens and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. The camaraderie in the scene is apparent on and off stage. Sweet Dog, the drummer for the Dexateens, was in the studio when the Lookers recorded their self-titled album in 2009. Ham Bagby, who now takes the stage in Tuscaloosa with his own band, the Siege, played bass for the Lookers for a while. These musicians pursue the same goal Duncan is so passionate about: They focus on their own original music.

“He’s really big on the original music scene,” Oswalt said. “He doesn’t like playing covers. If he plays a cover, it’s usually from a local band or something really obscure.”

Duncan’s attitude toward cover songs limits the places he can play in Tuscaloosa, but he still does his best to draw crowds by playing as passionately as he can.

“Bars are going to book what brings money,” he said. “If people aren’t coming to see Blaine Duncan and the Lookers, that’s not the bar’s fault. That’s not students’ fault. That’s Blaine Duncan’s fault.”

Duncan said he likes playing venues where the crowd is close. The band’s CD release party at Little Willies was one of his favorite shows because the fans were excited and involved in the performance.

“He always struck me as someone who’s easy to approach after a show,” fan Wes Webber said. “He’s very easy to have a conversation about music with.”

One last look

Oswalt will step back behind the drum kit for the Lookers Saturday for the first time since tennis elbow and his job forced him to leave the band in 2010. Oswalt has always remained close to Duncan and the Tuscaloosa scene, even playing on a bowling team with Duncan’s wife.

Though Saturday’s show will be a reunion of sorts, the Lookers have not been able to maintain steady growth in the past few years. Duncan routinely drives to McCalla to practice with his bandmates, who live across the Birmingham area. The drive has put a strain on the band’s progress.

“That’s part of our hiatus, which very well could lead to our demise,” he said. “Once we got to practice, we would just be sort of tired and watching the clock and not progressing.”

Duncan said, despite the lack of growth in the band’s music the past few years, he still wants to keep playing, regardless of who shares the stage with him. He also said he’s always up to play an acoustic solo show.

“It’ll probably be more sporadic, not as regular,” he said, “but as long as I’m healthy, I’ll probably keep playing, even if it’s by myself.”


This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2012, edition of The Crimson White.

Tuscaloosa rebuilds after tornado

by Jon Reed

Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, the face of Tuscaloosa was dramatically changed. An EF-4 tornado, with winds upwards of 190 mph, cut a gash six miles long and half a mile wide through the middle of the city, stretching from the Rosedale housing project near I-359 through the neighborhoods of Alberta and Holt.

As of Tuesday morning, city officials confirmed that 40 people in the Tuscaloosa area were killed, though some officials expect that number to rise as more areas are searched. The storm system also hit Birmingham, Huntsville, Cullman and other communities in Alabama, as well as Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The tornado demolished homes and businesses from Rosedale through Forest Lake, 15th Street, Alberta and Holt before continuing for another 80 miles and hitting Birmingham.

As residents pick up the pieces, the city looks ahead to a recovery that will take months and years, not days.

‘Beyond a nightmare’

UA senior James Fowler, former president of the Student Government Assosication was at the Delta Kappa Epsilon house on University Boulevard when the tornado hit. Fowler watched as the tornado formed on the other side of Bryant-Denny Stadium, and then saw the destruction afterward on 15th Street.

“You can see clear from the Wendy’s on 15th to Midtown Village,” he said Wednesday night. “There’s nothing there. The trees and the buildings are all gone.”

On 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, the tornado leveled restaurants and businesses familiar to UA students. That night, word spread quickly that Milo’s Hamburgers, Full Moon Bar-B-Que and other locations were completely demolished. Students walked from their homes and apartments to see the area with their own eyes.

Thursday morning, the daylight revealed just how widespread the destruction was. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox surveyed the damage from a helicopter.

“This is going to be a very long process,” he said Thursday. “The amount of damage done is beyond a nightmare.”

Maddox estimated Thursday that the damage would total in the tens of millions of dollars, but by Monday, as the destruction across the city became even more clear, the estimate for just debris removal became more than $100 million.

Across the city, though, the cost of the storm is not only measured in dollars. It’s measured in lives.

Six students from the University of Alabama, two students from Shelton State Community College and one student from Stillman College have been confirmed as being killed in the storm. As of Tuesday, the city confirmed that 40 people were killed. Even six days after the tornado hit, though, that number is not final.

Search and rescue teams from as far away as Louisiana have continued to comb the debris, and the area of destruction is so vast that it will take a long time before every impacted area is searched, officials said.

Teams with cadaver dogs began searching the Holt area Sunday, and many areas of the city and county remain unchecked by search and rescue teams.

“A lot of folks don’t realize how long this tornado was,” Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge W. Hardy McCollum said Tuesday. “We have about another 15 to 20 miles beyond Eagle Cove Marina that has yet to be searched.”

Although that area is sparsely populated, McCollum said debris from Tuscaloosa could have been carried into the area.

Maddox said that once the search and rescue phase has ended, likely on Saturday or Sunday, then debris removal and recovery can begin.

‘This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon’

As soon as the storm hit, the people of Tuscaloosa began mobilizing to help those in need.

The University of Alabama opened up the Student Recreation Center to refugees, the city turned the Belk Activity Center into a shelter and many local churches and organizations mobilized to provide food and safety for those who were displaced by the storm.

Druid City Hospital Regional Medical Center treated more than 800 victims Wednesday night.

After the storm, volunteers began to line the streets of the affected areas, providing victims with food and water as they searched the debris of their homes.

In Alberta, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a command center at Leland Shopping Center on University Boulevard, where volunteers also coordinated their efforts to help residents. In Holt, FEMA set up at Holt Elementary School.

The Mid-Alabama region of the American Red Cross used its resources to coordinate more than 1,000 volunteers across the state, serving more than 49,000 meals on Tuesday alone.

“This is not a sprint,” said Chris Osborne, director of marketing and public relations for the Mid-Alabama region. “It’s a marathon.”

Osborne said the Red Cross is currently working to identify the needs of individual families. Although right now the primary concern of most victims is food and water, different needs will arise in the future, and the Red Cross is working to coordinate those for the families that need them.

“We work with all of our partners, like FEMA, to make sure we’re helping get people on the road to recovery,” Osborne said.

UA students have played a major role in providing aid to victims. Monday, the UA greek system provided more than 11,000 meals to victims and volunteers. The DKE house served as a major launching point for sending aid throughout the city.

Students have provided aid in any way possible, some even going to their homes throughout the country and returning with food and supplies.

“One of the remarkable stories that has come out of this event has been the generosity of our students,” Maddox said. “We see hundreds, if not thousands, of students out volunteering on a daily basis. Students are giving back to Tuscaloosa in an unprecedented way and I guess it’s easy to understand why. This is your city and you become attached to it.”

‘A new day will dawn’

Maddox and other local officials know the city is hurting, but they also believe it can rise up from the destruction and be rebuilt.

“Recovery is going in to places that have already been removed from the map and beginning a new day,” Maddox said.

In Holt, the destruction of Brown Greenhouses did not mean the end of the business.

“Our customers told us not to quit,” said Margaret Brown, the owner of Brown Greenhouses.

Judge McCollum is optimistic about the area’s recovery.

“We will come back from this,” he said Thursday, “and we will come back even stronger.”

A year from now, Maddox said he believes Tuscaloosa will still be reeling from the desolation, but that the storm will not break the spirit of the city.

“A year from now, we will begin to see neighborhoods come to life,” he said. “What I hope to see is that this spirit of unity, this spirit of compassion and resiliency will carry us through and make a new life here in Tuscaloosa.

“We’re still here, we’re still fighting and we refuse to be defined by what happened on that terrible night. We decide for ourselves that what people will really remember us by is the fact that we got back on our feet. We refuse to quit, and we’re going to make this city a shining city on a hill.”

This article first appeared in the May 5, 2011, special edition of The Crimson White.

Video: Forest Lake, Tuscaloosa, May 4

by Jon Reed


This video, shot for The Crimson White after the April 27, 2011, tornado, shows the cleanup effort in the Forest Lake community of Tuscaloosa. It was part of a package that earned 7th place in the news category of the Hearst Journalism Awards competition, along with “Tuscaloosa rebuilds after tornado.”

Holt ‘a little bit forgotten’

by Jon Reed

Wednesday night, Margaret Brown saw her house fall around her and her business destroyed.

Sunday, she vowed to pick up the pieces.

Brown, who owns Brown Greenhouses on Crescent Ridge Road in Holt, was at her home on Cherrywood Circle when the tornado hit. She and her daughter, Ann Marie, sought shelter in the bathroom, but it was a friend of her daughter who ultimately saved their lives, she said.

Michael Bujalski went to work at Kozy’s restaurant at 3 p.m. Wednesday, but Kozy’s sent him home when they had no power. Instead of going to his home, which was not in the tornado’s path, Bujalski went to check on the Browns.

“I don’t think I would be here without Michael,” Margaret Brown said. “I think God put Michael there.”

Bujalski held Margaret and Ann Marie Brown to the floor of the bathroom as the tornado picked up the house three times and stripped away the walls.

“If he hadn’t been there,” Ann Marie Brown said, “We would’ve gone up in the air.”

When it was over, all three escaped uninjured.

“God and Michael were with us,” Margaret Brown said. “God held us all together.”

Sunday afternoon, volunteers swarmed Brown Greenhouses to help the family think about starting over again. People from as far away as Florida helped salvage what plants remained in the Browns’ 16 greenhouses, while others used the parking lot of the business to prepare food for residents and volunteers.

The family’s business has served Holt for about 24 years.

“Our customers don’t want us to quit, so I guess we’re not quitting,” Margaret Brown said.

While the Browns are thinking about rebuilding, others in Holt are still surveying the damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a command center at Holt Elementary School, and police with cadaver dogs began scouring what remains of neighborhoods.

People lined Crescent Ridge Road handing out food and water to volunteers, residents and anyone who passed by. But all of the food and water coming into the area does not fill every need of residents, one volunteer said.

“Yesterday, when we were in Alberta, it was mostly workers needing food,” said Kelly Greene, a volunteer from Tuscaloosa. “Here, it’s families needing everything.”

Greene said residents often need small items most volunteers don’t bring. One resident needed diapers and formula for a newborn. Another, a diabetic, needed something sweet, and a volunteer supplied lollipops.

The Holt area is still in need of everything, Greene said.

“It’s completely different here than what we found yesterday in Alberta,” she said. “This place seems to be a little bit forgotten.”

Power companies from Georgia and South Carolina put new electrical poles up along Crescent Ridge Road, but rebuilding Holt will take far more than that, Greene said.

“They’ve got the poles up, but there’s nothing to hook it to,” she said. “Holt Elementary and the water tower are still standing, but there’s nothing else.”

Rafeal Nevels returned to his home Sunday to salvage his car. The wall around the back of his house was missing, but a bookshelf and other pieces of furniture still stood in the house, fully visible from the road.

Nevels said he had spent much of his time out helping others, and that his own possessions had fallen victim because of it. Looters had taken his flat screen television and his computer monitor.

“I know it’s gone, but it’ll get replaced,” he said. “I’m not pitching a fit about it; I just thank God my life is here.”

Residents said looters were using back roads to get around police after curfew, since residents were not allowed in the area either after 8 p.m.

Nevels’ mother-in-law, Shirley Billingsley, said despite all of the problems and the looting, she has seen the best of the city rise up in wake of the crisis.

“It’s rough out here,” she said, “but you know what? First time in my life I ever saw Tuscaloosa – black, white, Puerto Rican, Mexican – working together. Hallelujah, God is good.”


This article first appeared on The Crimson White’s website on May 1, 2011.

Video: Alberta Neighborhood, Tuscaloosa, April 30

by Jon Reed


This video was shot for The Crimson White in the Alberta neighborhood of Tuscaloosa after the April 27 tornado.