I found him slumped at a bar-top. His eyes shifted and darted across the room and his mind seemed to be making manic calculations while he sucked contentedly on his mystery drink. It was the Swamp Hippie, or at least one of them.
Seeing him is like discovering some deep-seated psychological rift in the collective psyche of American culture. It's hard to know what to make of him. His appearance is a cross between Duck Dynasty and Woodstock circa 1969. Clad in dirt-stained jeans, a blue-and-green tie-dye shirt with "Swamp Hippie" scrawled across it in Scooby-Doo calligraphy, and barefoot, it's easy to imagine that animal control has a long-standing investigation on him. For all anyone knows, he is a long-forgotten Project MKUltra lab experiment running amok amid the poor hapless residents of St. Simons Island.
His name is Curtis McCarthy, and he is the de facto creator of Swamp Hippie. What is Swamp Hippie? Like Curtis, it's a bit of an enigma, both a kind of brand and an ethos. For Curtis, it's a social experiment as well as a movement celebrating local music and good times.
"Too often anymore, the only thing that seems to draw our attention is violence and negativity. So I figure, why not create something that makes people happy?" said McCarthy.
"I'm just tired of all the bad news. No one preaches
good news, happiness. We don't. That's part of what
Swamp Hippie is about. It's also a kind of social experiment, but it's mostly to help people, to just celebrate life.
"It's like what Jesus and Paul did. Now, I'm not a religious person, but look at what they did. They didn't go out and tell people what they were doing wrong. They just gave them a look at what they could have if they did it right."
According to McCarthy, Swamp Hippie owes its origins to Sapelo Island, and the Gullah-Geechee people who live on the island.
"Well, we was sittin' over there on Sapelo [Island]," McCarthy regaled us, in his panhandle-inflected tone. "And the Geechee people already call us ‘swamp hippies' anyway, but a buddy [Scott Perkins] and I were just sittin' over there, havin' just caught us some crabs, and he leans over to me and asks what we could do to keep livin' this kinda life.
"I said, ‘What? You wanna be famous? I could do it. I don't really want to. I'm about ready to retire, I'm ready to go live in the woods, but I'll tell you what, if you go over there by that bathroom and hold the hose over your head, I'll take your picture. We can make a thing of this. As if we had a sighting of the Swamp Hippie off Sapelo.'
"It was kinda like how Orson Welles did his ‘War of the Worlds' back in 1938, except I jus' borrowed from a bunch of folktales 'bout giants that supposedly lived in North America back in the 1500s. Really, I just took these old stories and replaced ‘giants' with ‘Swamp Hippie' and posted them on Facebook and stuff.
"I figured it's about time [for] Sapelo [to] have its own mythical creature anyway. The Scots got the Loch Ness Monster, Nepal's got the Yeti-we got the Swamp Hippie. So we just started making up random stuff, made a few T-shirts and it just kinda took off from there."
Sapelo Island is currently home to one of the last remaining communities of Gullah culture and tradition. There are people in this small island community who have rarely left its shores, and their self-imposed isolation has made them one of the last factions of a Southern culture that can't be found anywhere else in the world.
For Curtis McCarthy, this is something worth preserving, and the future of Swamp Hippie, at least for him, rests on the island. His plans are to build a kind of compound where local artists, musicians and those in the know can commune with one another in enlightened camaraderie. It's a 21st-century revival of Ken Kesey's La Honda house, minus the prolific quantities of LSD and biker meth.
"I actually just closed on a piece of property out there on Sapelo," said McCarthy. "It's actually perfect for my operations. Besides the Geechee, only about 12 people live there. There ain't no cops. There ain't no law, and the only way to get there is by ferry boat ...
"So that's what I'm gonna go do. I'm gonna go live on Sapelo and I have no intention of making any money from what I do. I'm gonna let all the Geechee people make the money."
Despite his unwashed appearance, there's a lot more to McCarthy than what you see. Born and raised on Georgia's St. Simons Island, he has gone from top real-estate salesman for Century 21 to restaurateur to owning two photography studios for the last 20 years.
"I was a photographer in a suit out on Amelia Island Plantation for about 20 years," said McCarthy. "I'd do all the portraits and group and beach photos for a lot of the guests that visited. It's called the Omni now, but when I was there it was Amelia Island Plantation.
"Well, I didn't actually work for the Plantation, but I'd act like I was an employee, ya know. You see, my wife and her friend owned Sea Island Photography out on St. Simons, so I decided to go down to Fernandina and do the same thing there."
McCarthy closed his studios in 2008 after the sub-prime mortgage collapse of the housing market. "The economy just tanked," said McCarthy. "A lot of our big money was groups ... and when I say ‘groups,' I mean
big corporations. All these big corporations was comin' in and spendin' money at the resort. Well, in 2008, that all came to a halt. It just stopped."
McCarthy has been semi-retired ever since, and now occupies his idle hours promoting and growing the Swamp Hippie brand. Still, it's easy to be confused as to what he means when he calls the Swamp Hippie a "social experiment."
"My question is, how can we look at the same thing and come up with totally different interpretations of it? ... You know, I did this as a test-with Swamp Hippie-it's a test," McCarthy philosophized.
"We're all different, every single one of us, and therefore what you see, and what I see, are not the same ... You can not see what I see by the very fact that you are not looking through the same prism of experience that I am.
"The best way for you to understand is to come with me to The Blue Door. It's a little music venue here in Brunswick, Georgia. You'll understand when you go."
The Blue Door or "Live at The Blue Door"-its official name-is a former art studio/storage unit turned music venue in the heart of a Georgia slum. Up and down the streets are steeled windows, grim housing projects and cheap liquor stores.
The venue's building isn't much better. Besides a large garage with a truck-loading platform and two blue doors on the side, the stucco-white edifice-at least from the outside-is anything but welcoming.
Slowly rolling in, we see the only available parking is in the dark, unlit alley beside the whitewashed building. As I walk to the entrance, faint bluesy-bass reverberated off the pavement and good, strong herb hung heavy in the cool night air.
Outside, young, upcoming folk-musicians smoked dabs and debated the technicalities of the night's performance, while madmen and lusting women circulated listlessly from group to group.
Inside, the stage glowed Technicolor while the sweating members of The Karl Davis Band laid siege to the senses. Vigorous and virile in blue jeans and suspenders, lead singer Karl Davis howled harmonious waves as sax man Michael Hulett, taller than the rest, blasted a glittering war horn for everything it had. The whole ensemble surged with power and logic and subtlety.
Curtis McCarthy, in the midst of the crowd, bobbed barefooted like a mad, unshaved shaman, utterly transported by the sound.
Not a single person spoke. The layout was small and cozy, tables and sofas for the lovers and the die-hard music enthusiasts. This is not a place for trivial conversation, this is high-art, a place for worship-nearing religious fervor.
In the front, Tammy Schulz took donations for the venue and spoke briefly about Swamp Hippie. "This is what it's all about. Swamp Hippie," said Tammy. "It's trying to bring attention and recognition to the local culture we have here.
"... It originally started as a kind of joke between Scott and Curtis. Some of the Geechee people used to call them swamp hippies and they thought that was a catchy name. Next thing you know, here we are."
"This is really about going back to
the basics, to simply having a good time and enjoying our local culture for what
it is. It's about forgetting all the politics
and tensions of the day. Anymore, people are just so stressed out and angry all the time. This is about calming down and letting the nonsense go. It's about celebrating out differences, not fighting amongst each other."
Multiple bands were playing that night: The Karl Davis Band, Custard Pie (a psychedelic-folk-rock band) and a whole eclectic collection of solo musicians who interchanged with and added to the main acts in seemingly random moments of inspiration.
At one point, Scott Perkins, Curtis' silent partner, clopped over to me and whispered "This is it, man! This is what it's all about," as he nodded toward the stage.
It was here I understood what McCarthy was talking about when he spoke about Swamp Hippie being a "social experiment."
I grokked why he went on about the nature of perception and the whole phenomenological foundation of our experiences and judgments.
For every person there, Swamp Hippie represented something different. For McCarthy, it was about having a good time. For Schulz, it was about supporting local culture. For Perkins, it was simply rapture in the moment. They were all sharing the same experience, yet having completely different experiences at the same time. Curtis had made his point.