From the mid 1990s through the early 2000s, NoDa was a different planet. Where high-end condos, upscale eateries and cocktail bars now proliferate, punk rockers, skateboarders, gay bikers, drum circles, fire-eaters and starving artists once congregated.
It was a bustling, grungy cross section frequently fueled by drugs and alcohol — a haven for the fringes, ranging from the hip to the homeless. Located at the epicenter of this alternative Charlotte scene, standing at the corner of North Davidson and East 35th streets, was Fat City.
By day, the dilapidated, DIY-decorated restaurant served classic homestyle meals, including the best damn falafel in the Queen City. By night, the small but eclectic music venue became the eye of a whirlwind Saturnalia — a jostling, bustling endless party zone, throbbing to the pulse of punk rock, alternative pop and nascent spikes of hip-hop.
There was a dark side to the kaleidoscopic carnival, however. If Fat City encompassed Charlotte’s walk on the wild side, it also harbored the danger and exploitation that sometimes comes with the giddy exhilaration of embracing risky business.
Rumors swirled around club owner K.C. Terry and his allegedly predatory behavior toward young men inside Fat City.
To some, Fat City has become legendary, says singer songwriter Jason Cline, like a 21st-century gloss on a 19th-century murder ballad, but instead of Stagger Lee pumping lead into unfortunate barflies, this legend-soaked tune is about the improprieties and exploitative behavior of a notorious business owner.
As the founder and leading musical light of boisterous, country-adjacent alt-rock band Featherpocket, Cline wrote “Fat City,” an imaginary and immersive deep dive into the myth and legend of the infamous venue.
The single dropped today, Feb. 10, coinciding with a Featherpocket gig at Tipsy Burro Saloon & Cantina set to take place tonight.
Over bassist Zach Ferrell’s and drummer Colin Ray’s rollicking country rock groove, embellished with Jeff Small’s locomotive wail of smokestack-black pedal-steel-style guitar, Cline’s flat twang sets the scene:
“I wanna say something witty ’bout Fat City/ But I never could tell the truth/ ’Bout how a rundown part of town/ Went and poisoned up all the youth/ and all the prettiest boys around went up into the backroom…”
The very first line is a disclaimer, says Cline. At 33 years old, Cline has never been to Fat City. The fabled restaurant/club opened in the spring of 1995 and closed in 2003, when the singer-songwriter was only 12.
“The song is not allegations. I’m not accusing anyone of anything,” Cline says. “It’s an exercise in imagination … of what went on at Fat City, based on what I heard about Fat City, and … the owner.”
After Fat City closed, venue owner Terry briefly became co-owner of Krazy Fish restaurant on Central Avenue alongside Giorgio Prisco, though the two had parted ways by 2011. It was at Krazy Fish where Cline met Terry.
“Some people I was close to spent a lot of time with K.C. He’s like the Tiger King of Charlotte … without the tigers,” says Cline, likening the beleaguered restaurateur to Joe Exotic (Joseph Allen Maldonado), operator of an Oklahoma big cat park who was convicted and jailed for hiring someone to murder a business rival.
Terry’s trail turned spotty after he left Krazy Fish. By 2013, he had moved to Georgetown, South Carolina, where he was subsequently arrested for soliciting sex acts from teenage males. Prosecutors said Terry videotaped and later uploaded those sex acts to the internet.
He was charged with seven counts of prostitution, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, promoting prostitution of a minor, simple possession of marijuana and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia. During court proceedings, law enforcement officers said the young men involved in the case were not underage.
Terry moved to Asheville in 2014, where he told The Asheville Citizen Times that he was railroaded in the Georgetown case because of his sexuality. He was arrested again in Virginia that same year for allegedly stealing a barbecue smoker from a restaurant in Virginia.
There has never been any proof provided to the stories that surrounded Terry’s time at Fat City, which is why we aren’t publishing the specifics, but rumors of the unsavory activities swirled back then and still spin like a cyclone today.
Amid Greazy Keyz’s (Jason Atkins) jolly organ swells and soaring catchy backup vocals by Steven Hall and Clint Lemonds, Featherpocket’s galloping “Fat City” drops the listeners into that drug-induced spiral, placing them into the shoes of one of those allegedly unfortunate men.
“If you didn’t think once then you couldn’t think twice/ about what you were gonna do/ With ice on the brain head full of cocaine/ Strung out on the blues/ a hole in your mind havin’ a time/ helpless with tattoos…”
Channeling the frequently tawdry yet tenderly empathetic approach of The Velvet Underground and Nico, one of his favorite albums, Cline inserts an apprehensive edge to the jocular rave-up with his harrowing lyrics, while a cross-stitching of The Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” vibe propels the barstool-balancing honky-tonk ramble toward the finish line.
“It’s another Monday night out higher than a kite you can do whatever you like/ It’s a high-flyin’, good-timin’, glass-smashin’, fine-fashion/ bathing in the neon light…”
As a coruscating lead by Small kicks in, a rapid-fire rant courtesy of Lemonds brings the roller-coaster party monster of a tune to a resounding crescendo.
“I played that song a lot at the Thirsty Beaver [and] Thomas Street [Tavern],” Cline says. “There’s a lot of old heads who remember Fat City. I asked them [about the rumors]. A lot of people were surprisingly tight-lipped about it.”
Cline says he’s never talked to anyone who disappeared into the supposed backroom. In fact, Cline assumed he had conjured up that dark place with his imagination. There are a few people, however, open to sharing their truth about the most (in)famous place in NoDa.
“When I’m playing that song, I’m always like, ‘Who remembers Fat City?’” Cline says. “[I say,], ‘I’ve never been there but this is how I imagine it to have been. Tell me how accurate I was.’”
Even though Cline had thought the stories from Fat City’s back room were fabricated, he says one person approached him after he had played the song and told him how the lyrics about that room hit home. It was an unexpected validation for something the songwriter considered merely an exercise in imagination.
“I’ve heard some stories,” Cline says. “I know K.C. I’m not uniquely qualified to [write this song], but I felt like I knew enough, and no one else is going to do it.”
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