The 4 Man String Band may seem new to Atlanta’s local music scene, but that doesn’t mean it’s a group of rookies. The four members are local boys who are done with their day jobs, and between them, they have over 198 years of musical experience.
The first time the four — George Eckard, Clark Brown, John Miller and Charles Absher — got together to practice was in January 2019. Their first live performance followed just a month later at the Intown Coffeehouse. “We really enjoy playing together, and I think our fans can see that in our music,” Brown said.
As they keep playing, band members have maintained a sense of humor about the project. “Our fan base is mostly friends and family, plus folks from the Central DeKalb Senior Center, where I think we’re the ‘official’ house band,” Absher said.
That may be in part because band members can relate to their audiences at the center. Eckard is 70 years old. Brown, Miller and Absher are 68. “I think it’s important to note that I’m the youngest in the band,” Absher said. “I’m not sure the other members of the group appreciate me pointing that out.”
“We think he’s young, but shows promise,” Eckard said.
Meet the band
Eckard, who lives in Decatur, plays guitar, harmonica, banjo and mandolin. He has been in the Atlanta area since he was 11, when his parents moved the family from Baltimore in 1962. “I’ve played music all my life, and now that I’m retired, this how I spend my time,” he said.
Eckard played guitar in a rock ‘n roll dance band in high school and did some solo singer/songwriter performance in college. After receiving his business degree from UGA, he worked in the information technology (IT) field. “From 1985 until I retired in 2017, I worked for a financial services company, Primerica, doing various IT related activities,” he said. “It was a great career. I went from punch cards to the internet.”
In the late ’90s, Eckard got together with a group of friends to play music socially; after a while they started performing as The Unusual Suspects. He said that’s when his interest in songwriting was renewed. “I made a little money as a musician over the years,” he said, “but realized early on that the benefits and retirement plan were a little meager. For me, playing music is an excellent and enjoyable retirement activity.”
Brown contributes mandolin, guitar and foot tambourine. Until recently, he lived in Brookhaven, but now hails from Adairsville. He was born in Montgomery, Ala., and was brought to the Atlanta area when he was six months old, after “my father got his first real job at Lockheed, where he worked the rest of his life,” Brown said.
For most of his own working years, Brown was in the printing business. He started playing guitar in 1966, he said, and his first gig was a graduation pool party in Decatur in 1968. He picked up the mandolin about 1975.
“I have played in groups throughout my life,” Brown said. “I have been playing to somewhat earn a living for the last 10 years or so.” He added that this is the most organized band he’s been in. “We just play for fun because we enjoy entertaining people, and in turn, it entertains us.”
Miller and Absher, from Decatur and Avondale Estates respectively, add their guitar skills to round out the band.
Miller started playing guitar about age 11 in his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, “so I’ve been playing for more than 50 years,” he said. But he really got going after he retired in 2010.
In 1970, Miller moved to Atlanta to study engineering at Georgia Tech. “Jane and I married in 1973 and we’ve lived here pretty much ever since, except for a dozen years in northern Virginia,” he said. “We returned after retirement because our grandchild is here.”
Miller worked as a civil engineer. “My day jobs included 30 years of federal service, which consisted of construction inspections on hydroelectric projects for eight years and 22 years directing various inspection programs for multifamily housing,” he said. He also had 30 years of U.S. Navy service, mostly in the reserve Seabees. “All this tended to impede my musical progress,” Miller said.
Absher, born in Fort Belvoir, Va., moved with his family to East Point when he was just three months old. They settled in DeKalb County in 1966, when Absher was a freshman in high school, and he has pretty much lived there ever since. Absher worked as a civil engineer for 30 years. Before that, he worked in construction-related industries. “Before that I did try music as a living,” he said.
“I played in The Bluegrass Band in high school and late teens,” he said. “We were the bluegrass band in Lick Skillet at Six Flags for three years and were in a Crystal Pistol show (Pistol Packers on Parade) for one year. However, we couldn’t keep the group together after high school.”
In his early 20s, he said, he played in a several bluegrass, country and folk/rock bands — Corporate Square and the New Deal String Band in Underground Atlanta, and Saturday Session at the Chelsea Pub at Powers Ferry Landing. “I made a feeble attempt to tour but that never worked out,” Absher said. “Once I met my wife and we started having kids, playing music was not a very steady profession, so I hadn’t played professionally in many, many years.”
He took a musical hiatus for about 10 years when he went back to school at Georgia Tech to get a degree at the age of 36. “I’ve been playing as a hobby since about 1995,” he said. In the 2000s, he played in two bands — Acousticlectic and HapyDady.
Since he retired, music has become his go-to activity. “I derive great enjoyment from music and have been songwriting more frequently since retirement,” Absher said. “I have also been attending songwriting workshops which I find very enjoyable and fulfilling.”
Absher said he feels very fortunate to have found the 4 Man String Band. “I’ve played music all my life (with about a 10-year hiatus when I returned to college), but I’ve never had as much enjoyment and fun playing music until this part of my life. I hope to be able to play and sing well until I take my last breath, whenever that happens,” he said.
How the band got together
All four lend their voices to the music which, Brown said, they classify as Americana. The band covers songs by artists they admire, according to Absher, and arranges them for their acoustic instrumentation: guitars, mandolin, banjo and harmonica, plus some light percussion.
“We take songs from all genres,” Brown continued, “and we arrange them for guitar, of course, and add mandolin and banjo. We also have a number of songs on our set lists that band members have written.” Their song list includes Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell,’ Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit,’ Bob Seger’s ‘Turn the Page,’ and a couple of Beatles songs.
Absher claimed that Eckard was the catalyst for getting the four of them getting together. “I had heard that music was being played at Woodlands Garden [in Decatur], so I emailed the director, who directed me to George and his wife, Phyllis. They were coordinating the music and invited to me to come out and play,” Absher said.
He said he remembers Brown was part of one of the song circles that they would do in the Gazebo at the Garden, which is where he believes he first met him. “Subsequently, I was putting together an environmental concert, ‘Voices for the Earth,’ at my Church, Holy Trinity Episcopal, and invited George to come and play in the concert. He in turn, invited his friend John Miller.”
The underlying connection has been the Frank Hamilton School of Folk Music in Decatur. “George and Clark teach there, and John and I have taken classes,” Absher said. “About six months to a year after George, John and I played in the ‘Voices for the Earth’ concert, George called me and asked if I would be interested in joining a band with Clark, John and himself — a band named the 4 Man String Band. I said yes, and the rest is history.”
The four band members get together regularly to practice and work up new material. Eckard said, “My wife likes how Clark once described our rehearsals as ‘like a book group, but without books or wine.’”
Places to play
The 4 Man String Band has performed at several coffeeshops in the area, including Wallers, Intown Coffeehouse and Lena’s Place. “We also played at the Decatur Arts Festival, the Decatur Book Festival, Oakhurst Porchfest and the Mountain Moonshine Festival in Dawsonville,” Absher said.
The band played live on WRFG Radio and did a Decatur-ish “Twitch” broadcast from Miller’s garage. “We’ve played at farmer’s markets — Peachtree Road, Norcross and Tucker — and at the Oak Grove Festival, the Central Dekalb Senior Center, a number of private parties and some civic and charitable events where one or more of us has a personal connection,” Miller added.
Pre-pandemic, the band played at retirement communities, including Wesley Woods and King’sBridge. Eckard said that while COVID-19 did change things, it didn’t slow them down for long.
“After the pandemic began, we had some dates cancelled but started playing outdoors at Briarlake Forest Park, Frazier-Rowe Park, Waller’s Outer Space and, again, at various retirement communities outdoors, including King’s Bridge and The Holbrook,” he said.
The band will perform free on Oct. 29, 6 p.m., on the front porch of a home at 1122 Berkeley Road in Avondale Estates as part of AvonWoodstock. Miller said that the group will also play the next day, Saturday, October 30, from 2-4 p.m., at Frazier-Rowe Park on Lavista Road. The band lists other shows on its Facebook page, facebook.com/4ManStringBand.