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Swanee Theatre Renovation Drives Revival of Kannapolis Music Scene

Nashville band The Woods return to West Avenue with local help on April 12

a portrait of a theatre's authentic sign, located in Kannapolis, NC
The Swanee Theatre’s newly renovated marquee (Courtesy of Swanee Theatre)

Though the repeated “Charlotte tears down its history” trope may be rote (albeit without the lessons learned), there are surrounding towns focused on progress through preservation. One such town is Kannapolis, about half an hour north of the city. 

Before Charlotte ever saw its first social district, the West Avenue District was branded and opened three years prior to Charlotte’s Plaza Midwood. Sidewalks along parts of West Avenue, Cannon Baller Way and Main Street, among others, are open for patrons to grab a beer from spots like Old Armor Beer Company on their way to other spots or just simply sit outside to sip, unencumbered by the walls of a specific establishment. 

This foresight entices patrons to visit newly opened shops and restaurants, keeping the streets alive and bustling in a way the town has not seen in decades.

The rejuvenation of West Avenue has also had its effects on the Kannapolis arts scene, as the historic Gem Theatre is currently undergoing its second round of renovations and will soon screen movies again as it did in its 20th-century heyday. 

Nearby, Swanee Theatre has also been meticulously restored to its original aesthetic, complete with a marquee featuring the original art deco font prominently on West Avenue. Owner Ken Lingafelt even went as far as to procure a 1941 Ford adorned with the same lettering to sit out front on show nights. 

Kannapolis’ downtown has undergone significant redevelopment and revitalization, thanks in large part to the vision of mayor Darrell Hinnant, who made Kannapolis his home in the 1970s to work for the Cannon Mills Company.

Like many North Carolina towns, Kannapolis began as a mill town, leaning into the late 19th-century textile boom thanks to Cannon Mills Company, from which the town’s name was derived. As with many manufacturing hubs, the legacy slowly dissolved, the plant being tossed from owner to owner after multi-million dollar acquisitions before ultimately being demolished in the early 2000s.

The layoffs that came with the mill’s demise brought uncertainty to the city, whose population around this time had sat steadily just below 40,000. The mill was purchased by its former owner, David Murdock, who laid the groundwork to transition from manufacturing to research through the development of the prestigious North Carolina Research Campus, which would soon comprise eight universities focused on health and nutrition. 

Incentives were implemented to attract business and would-be residents with the promise of a transformation into sustainable and higher-paying jobs and now, nearly 20 years after this transition, Kannapolis is seeing the change promised by its leaders.

a portrait of Chapel hart singers performing at Swanee Theatre
Chapel Hart performs at Swanee Theatre (Courtesy of Swanee Theatre)

In the 1930s and ’40s, downtown Kannapolis served as the town’s cultural center. Movie theaters provided entertainment and respite for mill workers. So engrossed were the downtown theaters with the then-thriving textile community, a whistle from the roof of Swanee Theatre was blown to signal shift changes for mill workers. 

Swanee was opened in 1940 as one of four single-screen movie theaters and closed in the early 1970s. The historic venue saw many iterations — a welcome center for the town, an admin building for a community college — and in 2021, Kannapolis City Council approved the building’s sale to an entertainment group with a vision of restoring the theater to its former glory, only this time as a music and events venue.

True to its locale, the stage of Swanee Theatre is often filled with country-adjacent musicians and tribute bands playing the sounds of Allman Brothers and Zac Brown. One would be remiss not to mention that Kannapolis was home to NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt and the Southern roots run deep in the music filling the hall of the theater.

How The Woods came to be

Coming back to the stage for the third time on April 12 is The Woods, a Nashville-based band that has gained enough acclaim to secure a spot as Tim McGraw’s Standing Room Only Tour opener for the first six shows. 

The Woods’ played on Nashville’s public station WMOT’s Finally Friday series, (somewhat) akin to NPR’s tiny desk concert series, and was featured on NPR Music’s Live Music Sessions. Their single “Road Trippin’” got the attention of Billboard and made its way to the Music Row Country Breakout Chart.

The Woods is a three-piece getup making way for three-part harmony, with Dan O’Rourke’s singer-songwriter vibe at the helm; multi-instrumentalist Raquel Cole, a Canadian country solo artists, bringing her myriad talents to the group; and Leland Rooney, a classically trained vocalist and multi-genre guitarist.

Like many newer musicians, The Woods had to endure the shutdown of 2020 and kept the artistry alive through social media live streams, “mostly to keep ourselves sane because the music industry had shut down,” O’Rourke says.

These streams made their rounds and soon venues around the country began reaching out for a chance to get the group on stage. Ken Lingafelt of Swanee Theatre was one such venue rep. “He said, ‘Let’s just get ya out here and get ya playin’,” O’Rourke says, and thus began the trio’s relationship with Kannapolis and the Swanee Theatre.

The first show at Swanee was an acoustic set, when O’Rourke says he was hopeful “people like music enough just to show up for music they haven’t heard of.” 

After playing in Nashville, O’Rourke and the band never knew what they were getting into as they booked smaller venues in not-so-well-known towns, but they were pleasantly surprised with the quality of sound and equipment present at Swanee, which he says makes it “easy to go back there.”

Like many music hopefuls, especially of the country set, O’Rourke moved to the capital of the country music world after graduating from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania where he double-majored in history and education. 

Read More: Featherpocket Is a Little Less Country, a Lot More Rock ‘N’ Roll

Music had been a hobby, with a few bands formed here and there, and O’Rourke was focused on finding a teaching job. After time spent in Denver and Seattle, with a stint at a California boarding school, O’Rourke secured a teaching job in Arizona just before securing a spot on The Voice. Although O’Rourke never made it on television, he made a lot of Nashville connections, enough to inspire him to make the move both geographically and philosophically.

A portrait country-adjacent band, The Woods, performing at a music venue
The Woods perform at a venue called The Basement in Nashville. (Courtesy of The Woods)

“It was time for me to start taking music seriously,” he says, and he decided to step away from his earlier goals of teaching to build his budding music career.

While at the University of Scranton, O’Rourke met Rob Killian, a fellow music-hobbyist and currently a teacher at Hopewell High School in Huntersville, in an education class. “Dan was also going to be a social studies teacher,” Killian says, “but we were probably talking music when we were supposed to be listening to whatever else was going on.” 

The two created a bond but didn’t talk much after that class until Killian got another band together and was looking for people to play with. In a serendipitous encounter, a fellow musician told Killian he thought he had someone. 

The two hopped in the car and drove to what Killian could only describe as a “sketchy, haunted-looking” mill in Chester, Pennsylvania, when he says “Dan popped out.”

They played together and had “a good little jam session,” Killian recalls, and formed a band called Open Road. Together they played outside the Philadelphia area for a short period of time and had what Killian calls a “productive amount of time musically.”

A friendship of shared dreams

Killian was doing construction in summer and working as a substitute teacher during the school year, which left him with ample time to pursue music. But, unlike O’Rourke’s trajectory, Killian says he hit a crossroads. 

He continued his pursuit of teaching, which would come to fruition after applying to schools up and down the East Coast, a process that would eventually lead him to teaching at Bessemer City Middle School (BCMS) in Gaston County.

Killian transitioned into the life of an educator, teaching middle schoolers social studies as his music fell to the wayside, saying, “Dan took off out west and the band went its separate ways.” 

Once O’Rourke moved to Nashville with his newly realized fervor, he got back in touch with Killian. “Once he got there, he asked if I would do some bass work on songs he was writing. He would send his music through mail like [the band] The Postal Service. I would listen to what he was working on, write and record my accompaniment, and mail it back.”

portrait of The Woods sitting outside on the porch of a house with a brick-wall as the background
The Woods (Photo by Justin Cook)

Killian and O’Rourke continued their shared long-distance musicianship, leading to a closeness and a trust that can so often be uniquely bred through the arts — O’Rourke even played the first-dance song in Killian’s wedding to his now-wife, Jamie, who he met while teaching at BCMS. 

Killian and Jamie are frequent concert-goers, their shared love of music often leading them to any show they can get to — which is not as many as they were once able to attend, Killian says, since the pair now has two children at home. They make the most of the shows they can attend and Killian said each time he’d see musicians lost in their melodies on stage, a longing would exist within him, a nostalgia for his days on stage. 

“After going such a long time without playing, the ‘live music bug’ can go dormant,” Killian says, and he didn’t want to forget how it feels.

After The Woods played their first set at Swanee Theatre and spent time in town with Killian and his family, O’Rourke and his band were asked back to play in the revered Kannapolis venue again. 

Taking a different approach than their first largely vocal melodic set, this time The Woods decided to bring the full band, complete with Killian playing some of the bass lines he had developed through the mail.

Killian readily accepted, though he felt a bit concerned about how the other band members would feel about “this random guy [O’Rourke] went to college with playing their entire set.” Killian recalls, “I’m not sure how much convincing [O’Rourke] had to do but I’m grateful for their confidence.”

Killian now gets to “root for The Woods success,” but also looks forward to more opportunities to play music. He’ll be playing the April 12 show in Kannapolis before flying out to play with the band in Nashville. 

“They are in Nashville, which has no shortage of great musicians, so the fact that they are willing to ask me to play with them is flattering and humbling at the same time,” Killian says. 

He sees himself sort of as a “hired gun” role with The Woods. 

Killian and Jamie got a fold-out couch for their playroom to make sure the band has a space to stay at the house when they come through and Killian says he “counts himself lucky that on a whim he can go play and Jamie is supportive with no questions asked.” 

The Woods performing in Jackson, TN
The Woods performing in Jackson, Tennessee. (Courtesy of The Woods)

Killian largely keeps his musicianship out of his classroom in Hopewell High School, where he teaches juniors and seniors economics and personal finance. 

If the topic comes up, he’ll play past recordings for his students, who Killian says find the difference in his “teacher voice” and his “music voice” surprisingly different, much like the dual roles he holds as a teacher/dad and semi-traveling musician.

Projects like the Swanee Theatre’s renovation serve small towns. 

Big developments like the North Carolina Research Campus can give rise to business, industry and the arts after a devastating loss of a once-thriving mill infrastructure. 

Preserving the architecture of a town allows it to keep its identity in the midst of industry shift, yes, but the shared experience of musicians and their listeners hearing and feeling the harmonies reverberating off the walls of an unsuspecting theater is how the history of a community is kept alive.

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