How music helped spin the culture of Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence, Kansas has a music scene that dates back to 1882 and has evolved over time. Many big acts come through Lawrence but it has also been home to many smaller acts, making a name for themselves.

The roaring music scene in Lawrence has served to impact the culture as well. It shows as Lawrence has so many music venues that they seem to be on nearly every block of Massachusetts Street.

There has been a decline in venues catering to local artists over the years, due to the demand for larger artists. Despite this, there are many local artists who are making big strides in gaining exposure. Hip-hop artist Cuee recently featured Silky Nutmeg Ganache, star of RuPaul’s Drag Race, on a song while singer Ellie LeBar is attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts on a full-ride tuition scholarship.

“Being able to have started in the smaller pond of Lawrence, and being truly welcomed into it, has given me an awareness to gigging and connections that is absolutely applicable to the community here,” said LeBar. “[…] Quite honestly, everything I learned in Lawrence is so relevant in the real world, and I’m so glad I have that raw, almost laid back but still so respectful view of the contemporary music world. I believe it has grounded me in some ways, and that has been invaluable in this fast-paced, insane huge gray city.”

With Lawrence being in the spotlight after winning the 2022 National Championship trophy in basketball, it’s important to look at what causes the city’s culture to look the way it does. As it is a college town, new influences are constantly rotating in and out of Lawrence and can cause changes to what makes Lawrence, Lawrence.

“The University is the largest contributor to Lawrence’s culture,” said Jade Brown, a local musician who attended the University. “From drawing national and international students [not just Kansans] and giving them a voice through KJHK & SUA, KU has been able to help Lawrence remain youthful and hip.”

Jade Brown is just one of many artists that have called Lawrence, Kansas home. Brown began playing in non-school bands in 1994 at age 18 and has consistently been an active member in at least one local band since then. Brown is currently a member of four bands locally: The Lawrence City Band, The Jazzhaus Big Band, Page 7, and The Band That Saved The World.

While some, like Brown, stay local, other artists have gone on to have a successful career. One such band is Kill Creek, an indie/alternative rock band who formed in the 1990s and signed to Mammoth Recordings, gaining national attention.

A band with comparable success is Paw. Paw was active from 1990 to 2000 before making two reunion comebacks in 2008 and 2018. Many other successful music acts laid their roots in Lawrence, KS and it shows that Lawrence is not just good for basketball.

Within the music community in Lawrence, one of the many highlights for artists is the support and collaboration offered. Many local musicians built their careers through the relationships established as they were starting out.

While the music scene in Lawrence is rich, it has been on a decline in the past 20 years.

“While Lawrence does have many devoted musicians, the opportunities to perform publicly (are) on the decline.” said Brown. “Events like ‘Day on the Hill’, ‘Farmers Ball’, ‘McColumn Battle of the Bands’ [a former dormitory], and Scholarship Hall Music Events just don’t have the draw that (they) once did.”

Brown mentions that today’s students seem less interested in live bands and more interested in DJs compared to the past which has shifted the types of acts venues cater to.

Lawrence has had a revolving door of venues since 1882 when Liberty Hall was purchased and renovated from the Herald of Freedom Abolitionist Newspaper to the Bowersock Opera House. The next venue to open was The Granada as a silent movie theater and was followed by The Gaslight, then called Bricks Cafe, that had been located at what is now the KU Student Union parking garage and moved over the bridge in the early 2000s. As the music scene became more and more lively, more venues began opening leading to the music-venue-rich town we have today.

“They all have their own charm and memories,” said Brown. “The Granada and opening for Real Big Fish during the Warped Tour, The intimacy and energy of performing to a sold out crowd in The Bottleneck, and that awesome sound [and feeling of legitimacy] that comes with performing on the Lied Center stage. But my personal favorite has to be Liberty Hall and the many years performing with the Victor Continental Orchestra, not to mention all the killer shows I’ve seen there over the years.”

While the music scene in Lawrence may be on a decline when it comes to local artists, It can still be seen as a musical hub with the revolving door of larger acts passing through. There are many, locals and students alike, that share a passion for music and supporting local artists.

Student-run programs, like the KJHK radio station and the Media Crossroads show Jayhawk Jukebox, dedicate time to getting the word out about local artists and how to support them. The town has yearly events like the Busker Festival and the Sandblock Block Party that are also great opportunities for local artists to garner exposure.

“People in Lawrence, for some reason, are so creative and proactive and just want to share art,” said LeBar. “Along with that, the surrounding community is so welcoming and supportive that it just grows bigger and bigger and bigger.”

No matter how much the culture of Lawrence has changed over the past 140 years and will change in the future; music will be a common point for many Lawrence natives. Massachusetts Street will continue to ring with the sound of local musicians busking.