Reunion Concert Celebrates Musical Legacy of Doubting Thomas
Band will play Sept. 17 at Neighborhood Theatre
Gina Stewart fondly remembers a gig that her groundbreaking Queen City band, Doubting Thomas, played in the mid-1990s at Hartigan’s, a now-closed pub once located in Uptown Charlotte. As the band launched into its first number, the crowd began to sing along — and they continued singing for the entire set.
“[There] was consistent strong energy playing at Hartigan’s,” Stewart recalls. “[We] were seeing the same people — and they started to know every single word.”
Stewart’s bandmate and group co-founder Brenda Gambill says these spontaneous singalongs were not confined to one venue. Countless Doubting Thomas shows were marked by fan devotion conjoined with the band’s connection to the crowd. It was a tangible energy, she says.
“Whether there’s two people or 300,000, it’s contagious when the energy is right and everything is coming through you,” Gambill offers. “You become the vehicle for your instrument. It’s not about you.”
Perhaps this devotion to its listeners is one reason that Doubting Thomas, a band that officially disbanded in 2001, still maintains its hold on Charlotte’s musical imagination. Historically, the city’s rock and pop scene is arguably built upon the legacies of three local acts — The Avett Brothers, Fetchin’ Bones and Doubting Thomas. Of the three, Doubting Thomas is the only one not to score a major label record deal, and while they’re beloved by many, Stewart and Gambill’s female-fronted group rarely gets credit for helping to break down gender barriers in Charlotte’s male-dominated music scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Similarly, the combo was an early supporter of LGBTQ rights and visibility, which is how they found themselves playing so many gigs at Hartigan’s, one of the city’s few clubs catering to a lesbian clientele at the time.
Doubting Thomas also forged its legacy with a sound that is varied yet cohesive. The group is often shoehorned into the country rock genre, and while there are echoes of 1970s folk-inflected Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters and sympathetic rockers like The Eagles in Doubting Thomas’ early songs, tunes like the title track of its 1993 debut album Blue Angel pull from a much broader sonic palette, including contributions from guest players Peter Buck and Bill Berry of R.E.M. Here, Stewart and Gambill’s swarming harmonies entwine in a braided stream of vocal lines surrounding Tim Hill’s pointillist crystalline guitar:
“Flying on a dare across the blue skies / There were arms around me there/There was magic in the air…”
As the voices cradle and enfold each other, the cantering rhythm section of bassist Glenn Kawamoto and drummer Paul Andrews smoothly switch keys and time signatures.
“What we were doing was so interlaced — it was a whole lot of melody, and it was pretty complicated,“ Stewart says. “Toward the end we didn‘t do so much of the changing time signatures and things like that.”
The band’s 1998 album Who Died and Made You King illustrates the band’s later, more simplified and direct approach. The collection’s title track couples bright and swaggering saxophone with soulful call-and-response vocals traded by Stewart and Gambill. The production sparkles but remains tethered to the heart and spirit of storytelling honky-tonk.
Despite changes in approach, however, Doubting Thomas‘ music always feels grounded, animated and alive, whether its sashaying across the dance floor or chugging like a runaway locomotive. Similar to its shape-shifting music, the group’s timeline is also fluid and in flux.
“We had 10 final gigs,” Gambill says with a laugh.
“We retired more times than Tina Turner,” Stewart adds.
There were several one-off reunion gigs throughout the 2000s, including a set at the Atlanta Pride Festival in 2009. In 2020, the band members attempted to set up another reunion, but COVID kept forcing postponements. After three reschedules, Doubting Thomas finally nailed down a date that sticks, Gambill says.
A Sept. 17 gig scheduled for Neighborhood Theatre will be much like an extended family reunion, Stewart adds.
“The core group is me and Brenda, plus [multi-instrumentalist] Matthew Davenport and [bassist] Bill Carroll,” she says.
Guitarist Hill is coming in from Atlanta for the show, and will be joined onstage by second guitarist Mike Corrigan. Percussionist Kris Krull is slated to be a surprise guest, and new member Lenore Prisco will play keyboards and banjo. Stewart says some good friends of the band will also pop up on stage to play songs toward the end of the evening.
Gambill acknowledges that the roll call could lead to a stage packed with performers.
“We had quite a few members over the years in different configurations, and we played with so many talented people,” she says. “It’s such an honor to write a song and then have everyone put their talent into it, perform it and be willing to go out onto the road for barely nothing.”
Fetchin’ Bones, R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls
Stewart says she began her love affair with music when she first heard Linda Ronstadt sing. Meanwhile, her older sister was dating musicians exclusively. Exposed to this parade of talented suitors for her sibling, Stewart picked their brains for musical knowledge. In return they taught her to sing, play guitar and understand music theory. By the time Stewart attended North Mecklenburg High School, she was smitten with The Eagles and southern California rock.
Meanwhile, Gambill was growing up in Ohio. She describes herself as the little girl who sat with her ear on the speaker of the stereo, learning the harmony parts to every Beatles song. Her family moved to Charlotte, where Gambill attended Garinger High School and sang in various choirs while studying violin.
In the mid-1980s, Stewart attended UNC Charlotte, where she studied dance and drama. The biggest obstacle to graduation, she says, was her high school friend Hope Nicholls and her band Fetchin’ Bones. Stewart played bass in an early lineup of the band for about a year, appearing on a demo produced by Don Dixon at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem. By the time the band recorded its debut album Cabin Flounder, Danna Pentes had replaced Stewart on bass.
“I stopped playing in Fetchin’ Bones because I needed to finish college,” Stewart says. She’d already quit school several times because she wanted to play in rock ‘n’ roll bands, Stewart says, and her parents were running out of patience. One night after playing with Fetchin’ Bones in New York City, Stewart hopped a flight back to Charlotte just in time to take an exam. She finally stopped burning the candle at both ends and graduated in 1986.
By the time she met Gambill, Stewart was playing in The Blind Dates, a trio inspired by 1960s girl groups that included guitarist Deanna Lynn Campbell and drummer Penny Craver. Stewart and Gambill hit it off and started writing songs together. The pair had been writing together for about a year when Gambill let it drop that she was an accomplished violinist.
The Blind Dates wound down in 1988, and Stewart and Gambill launched Doubting Thomas with guitarist Dale Alderman, drummer Paul Andrews and Andrews‘ brother Mike on bass. Mike Andrews subsequently left to be replaced by jazz-trained bassist Glenn Kawamoto. The band was initially quite different from the proto-Americana act it eventually became.
“There was a marriage of theatre and music because I majored in theatre,” Stewart says. “In the early stuff you can hear the influence from musical theatre with so many vocals and harmonies going every which way.”
The material proved to be difficult to adapt for live performance. While the band grappled with that challenge, it composed music for theatre troupes including Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and the now-shuttered Charlotte Repertory Theatre.
In 1990, Doubting Thomas was selected for the North Carolina Music Showcase in Chapel Hill. Music critic Jim Desmond compared the band favorably to 10,000 Maniacs and Fleetwood Mac, calling Doubting Thomas the highlight of the festival.
Soon after, Doubting Thomas opened for the Indigo Girls at Ovens Auditorium. Charlotte attorney Bill Diehl was duly impressed. He helped the fledgling band find financing and the necessary contacts to record an album.
“We dreamed of making an album of our original songs, and [Diehl] made that dream come true,“ Stewart says. After searching for a producer who was making their kind of music, Doubting Thomas recorded with John Keane at his studio in Athens, Georgia. At the time, Keane was working with the B-52s, Widespread Panic and R.E.M. Keane recruited R.E.M.‘s Buck and Berry to play on the Doubting Thomas debut Blue Angel.
Blue Angel was released on independent label Big Diehl Records. Stewart and Gambill say they had second thoughts when it came to inking a deal with a major label.
“A lot of friends that got signed didn’t have the privilege of making up their own minds in the studio,” Gambill says. “Not to say that every decision made by a record company is bad [but] they would take a song and totally rearrange it if you didn’t have guidelines in ink that you could do it your way.”
Doubting Thomas never signed a deal with a major label.
The band’s follow-up album Two was recorded in Atlanta with producer DeDe Vogt of cowpunk band Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Charlotte musician and reverend Christy Snow came down to the sessions to sing. Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls lends vocals to two songs on the record, “Tiny Lights” and “How High.” Vogt also performs on the album, released in 1994 on Doubting Thomas’ own indie label Oh Very Records.
The record was financed through contributions from fans, says Stewart.
“We were ahead of our time, because it was pre-crowdfunding,” she says. “We made a record and paid back all our investors. Everybody made money.”
Orphan songs, Americana and the end?
The origin of Doubting Thomas’ 1997 release Cut It Out, a collection of demo tapes and orphaned songs, led to a Charlotte music tradition and the beginnings of a successful promotion company.
Stewart entered the now-razed Elizabeth music venue The Double Door Inn one Tuesday night and noticed that the place was dead. She approached venue owner Nick Karres with a proposition: If Karres would let Doubting Thomas practice onstage with the venue’s P.A. on Tuesday nights, the band would encourage their fans to pay $5 a head to see the show.
Soon, the place was packed, and Stewart and Gambill decided to share their good fortune. They invited other Charlotte bands and performers like The Rank Outsiders and David Childers to take part in the Tuesday night gig, and thus Americana Night at The Double Door was launched. Greg McGraw became inspired to promote the players taking part in the show, and his work on Americana Night fueled the launch of mighty Charlotte-based music promotion company MAXX Music, say Stewart and Gambill.
Doubting Thomas had been recording songs during Americana Night with the idea of launching a Charlotte-centered record label, which would feature performers from the city’s vibrant music scene. Unfortunately, the idea went south and Doubting Thomas decamped the weekly event to launch another Tuesday night residency across town. To find a home for the songs the band had recorded for Americana Night, Doubting Thomas released Cut It Out.
In 1999, the band returned to Athens to work with producer John Keane again on the soulful, horns and Hammond organ-fueled Who Died and Made You King? At this point, many players had entered or moved through Doubting Thomas’ orbit, including Bill Carroll on bass, keyboardist Bryan Williams, Mark McColl on drums and a cadre of guitarists comprised of Irwin Bostian, Mike Corrigan and Tim Hill.
“We were usually playing three or four gigs a week, so most of our writing happened at sound checks,” Stewart says. The talented ensemble’s connectivity meant jams would often come together as songs. “That’s how Who Died and Made You King? happened.”
During this process, bassist Bill Carroll became indispensable, Gambill says.
As a solo artist, Carroll appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand TV show in 1988 with his song “When We’re Apart.” He also branched out into orchestral composing and arranging.
“Most of the time Bill was writing, and he’d bring in finished songs for us to collaborate on and add to, and he’d do some arranging,” Gambill says.
She considers Carroll the third lyricist in Doubting Thomas, in addition to herself and Stewart. “Working with him now is amazing because he’s better than ever.”
The band recorded and released a live album in 2000. As Doubting Thomas toured the album, they started changing the band’s configuration.
“We would go out there with three or four of us. It wouldn’t be six people going out every time,” Gambill says.
Then came the end to Doubting Thomas’ 11-year run. Stewart calls it a strange, but not dramatic, end.
“It wasn’t a fight,” Stewart says. “We all looked at each other after a gig and went, ‘I think it’s time we stopped.’”
The band never really ended, however. Though Stewart and Gambill formed the acoustic folk-rock trio Volatile Baby with Allison Modafferi, they kept hearing the call from fans to reform Doubting Thomas at least for one more night. The band’s road manager Tammy Whisnet, who also acts as Doubting Thomas’ archivist along with Scott Rutherford, encouraged the reunion, Gambill says.
Recent rehearsals have gone so well that Gambill and Stewart hope to play many more gigs with Doubting Thomas — just not three or four a week.
“We won’t ever do it in the way that we have, but we’re not done,” Stewart says. “My favorite quote from someone who followed us closely for a long time was, ‘You were the soundtrack of my 20s and 30s.’”
She cherishes that feedback, but says it inspires her to write about today rather than just play songs from the past.
“When I go out to hear music, it amazes me that people are still writing things that everyone can relate to,” Gambill says. “Then I think, why am I amazed by that? We did that as well.”
“I think the point of writing songs is lessening the loneliness of being alive,” Stewart adds. “That’s what songs do. There is something about the emotional communication of a song that expresses the inexpressible and leaves you with [the thought] ‘Somebody knows what I’m feeling. I’m not the only one who’s ever gone through what I’m going through.’”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.