Members of the Lynchburg band Black Excellent Men get ready to open for Everclear at the Academy of Fine Arts in August. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

Pyewacket, Black Excellent Men and Exhale, three bands started by young adults in Lynchburg, have risen to fame in the local music scene. Each has a connection to the Madison House of the Arts, the nonprofit that helped cultivate the talents of each band member and helped them grow into what they are today.

The graffitied blue house on Madison Street started as the home of Carrie Robinson. Ten years ago, she opened her basement and backyard to residents who wanted to share their art and music. 

After Robinson decided to move away and sell the house, Chris Townsend said that he knew that the house and the creative outlet it had cultivated needed to be cherished. In 2021, he and another donor bought the house and turned it into the Madison House. 

The stage in the backyard of the Madison House of the Arts. Shows are held almost every week. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

Townsend, now the director of the Madison House, wanted to create a healthy atmosphere for young musicians and help them develop coping mechanisms, he said. As a travel photographer for some world-renowned bands, he had seen too many talented artists become addicted to drugs, and he wanted to make sure that these young musicians didn’t follow that same route.

“They needed an outlet; the outlet was bigger than putting murals on walls,” Townsend said. “It was bigger than just building an art scene. They needed a community outlet. … They needed to be able to say, ‘OK, here’s my art, this is what it means. I need you to hear me.’”

Townsend has worked to create a community of expression without hate. 

“I want them to be able to express their feelings. Because obviously, they have a need for that,” he said. “But let’s try it through art. Let’s not go out in the community and raise hell. Let’s do it here and get out of your system on canvases for free.”

Townsend wanted the Madison House to be more than just a place for music — he wanted to be able to give back, so the nonprofit works to feed and support the community around it. 

“I know five people on this block that don’t have water,” Townsend said. “And it’s not just drinking water. They need water to bathe their children.” 

Most shows hosted at the Madison House charge admission in the form of suggested donations of water. The piles of water and other donated items at the end of each performance are a heartening sight, tangible evidence of each band’s talent, he said. 

The Madison House of the Arts prohibits the use of drugs and alcohol on the premises. However, Chris Townsend, the director of the nonprofit, said they meet people where they are and work to help them overcome addiction. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“And they can see that they’re actually genuinely making a difference,” Townsend said.

The Madison House is also a refuge for those dealing with addiction. Thomas Smith, the 20-year-old vocalist and one of the guitarists of Exhale, a grunge rock band, said it’s the only sober venue in the area.

“​​You can’t drink or smoke drugs. And it’s not that you can’t come there,” Smith said. “If you’re still struggling with addiction, we meet you where you are, and walk with you.”

The Madison House offers resources for drug addiction as well as free Narcan and fentanyl strips, no questions asked, Townsend said. 

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The members of Exhale, from left: Jaden Brooks, Sebastian Parker, Luke Reed and Thomas Smith. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

Each show serves the community but also serves the artists; music is cathartic, Smith said. When creating and performing music, Smith feels like themself, there is comfort in performing, and there isn’t judgment.

“There’s stuff I don’t like talking about, but I can write about it. And I can write songs about it in a way that to other people, it just sounds like words but it means something to me,” Smith said.

The music scene in Lynchburg has not always been like this. Siblings Lea and Dan Sharpe have been the singer and guitarist for their alternative rock band The Mums since 2016. They said that as their music style has changed, so has the city’s music scene. 

Most bands that frequent the Madison House are younger than Lea and Dan Sharpe, who are both in their early 20s. When they started out, there weren’t venues like the Madison House; they started off playing at and going to college parties to see their other bands perform. 

With their knowledge of how starting a band works, the Sharpe siblings are working to help the Madison House’s younger bands and those who come to their shows.

Sebastian Parker, the 19-year-old bassist of Exhale, said Lynchburg has become more accepting, which has allowed Exhale to grow. 

“[Lynchburg] is very art-focused now, especially since the [Madison] house has gotten there,” Parker said. 

The Madison House and his bands have changed the trajectory of Parker’s life. Before joining Exhale and his other band, he said he was socially awkward and didn’t put himself out there. The music scene gave him the opportunity to express himself, he said.

“I couldn’t even imagine who I would be and what I would be doing right now without the music scene around us,” Parker said. 

Sayeed Mumin, the 19-year-old drummer for Black Excellent Men, a classic rock band, said the music scene has given him a sense of purpose. 

The member of Black Excellent Men, from left: Elijah Pope, Jerry Johnson, Sayeed Mumin and Tyjae Jeff-Miller. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“I didn’t feel like I had any talents or passions, I just kind of stayed in the house. And I wanted something to do,” Mumin said. “The drums really helped me out. There is always progress I can make.” 

One of Black Excellent Men’s guitarists, 19-year-old Tyjae Jeff-Miller, said music helps him connect with himself. 

“I have a problem expressing myself. I’m not good at talking about how I feel,” Jeff-Miller said. “I feel like music is the only way I can really be myself without actually telling people.”

Jerry Johnson, a 20-year-old singer and guitarist for Black Excellent Men, shared similar sentiments. The music scene gave him connections to other people, he said, and through those connections he was able to find a solid community, set down roots in Lynchburg and continue his passion for music. 

The singer for Black Excellent Men, 20-year-old Elijah Pope, said it has been hard being a Black man in music. 

“It’s been a dream since I was a little kid to be in a rock band,” Pope said. 

Mumin said that being a Black man in rock music comes with stigma from both sides. 

“Even I’m guilty of it. My brother was into all rock music and I’d make fun of him for not listening to rap,” Mumin said. “But there’s always work to be done, and that’s why I’m positive.”

For a Black History Month event in February, Townsend, with the help of Johnson, persuaded the four men that they needed to create a band to celebrate their heritage. He saw the progress each had made with their instruments and knew they could be successful. 

“Chris got me into [the Madison House]. He showed me what there was to offer in music and I fell in love,” Jeff-Miller said. 

The members of Pyewacket, an all-girls alt-rock band, said they sometimes encounter stigma as women in the scene.

“A lot of people don’t take us seriously. I don’t think any bands really believed in us,” said Chloë Denton, the band’s 18-year-old guitarist. 

Claire Snyder, the band’s 17-year-old vocalist, believes some of these feelings are rooted in them being women. 

The members of Pyewacket, from left: Chloë Denton, Claire Snyder, Haley Piercy and Gray de Ornelas. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

“If we were a mediocre boy band, people would be like ‘Rock on,’ but as a mediocre girl band, they’re not,” Snyder said.

But their 17-year-old bassist, Haley Piercy, said the support from each other and from Townsend has been overwhelming. 

“Chris is one of our biggest supporters, along with our parents,” Piercy said. “He’s gotten us many opportunities.”

Pyewacket’s start in the music scene has also sparked inspiration for other all-girl bands, Denton said. 

“Other girls are believing in themselves, it’s never been like that in the scene before,” Denton said. 

Gray de Ornelas, the 18-year-old drummer for Pyewacket, said the music scene in Lynchburg is slowly becoming more welcoming but it was overwhelming at first.

“It was different than what I was used to,” de Ornelas said. “But Chris at the Madison House, he’s unbelievably supportive of us, he’s trying to get us gigs, everywhere as much as he can. He’s kind of the reason we have the Everclear gig.” 

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Members of Black Excellent Men, Pyewacket and Exhale listen to an encouraging pre-show voicemail message from Chris Townsend, director of the Madison House of the Arts. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

Townsend had done photography for a previous Everclear tour, and when he learned that the band would be performing Aug. 17 at the Academy of Fine Arts in downtown Lynchburg, he reached out to their management.

His goal: to get three Madison House bands on stage as openers.

Townsend was a success. Before the main act, Exhale, Pyewacket and Black Excellent Men performed a few songs each to the crowd. 

Nerves were high for each member, but the support of their fellow bandmates helped create a safe environment for expression of worry and excitement. 

“I don’t think this will feel real until I’m up on that stage,” Jaden Brooks, the 19-year-old drummer of Exhale, said the day before the show.

Playing in front of their largest audience yet, in a theater that holds more than 800 people at full capacity, they had a lot to live up to. But each band took the stage with poise and confidence. 

“I think it allowed them to finally see, hey, this is what it’s like to play,” Townsend said. “It gave them an audience that wasn’t their peers, and they held it together.” 

It took a lot to get them up there, Townsend said. There were bumps in the road, but it was a good lesson in what the rest of their lives will look like as musicians and the importance of being there for one another.

“I’m very proud of them. I was cheesing up there [in the balcony],” Townsend said. 

* * *

The Madison House of the Arts offers open jam sessions and band rehearsals in the basement. The second floor of the house is home to a writing room for artists to work together on songs. Photo by Amy Jablonski.

Luke Reed, a 18-year-old guitarist for Exhale, said Lynchburg’s music scene still has a lot of room to grow.

“We’re just trying to do the same thing everyone else is,” Reed said. “I want to just be a musician and see the community grow and meet new people like everyone else.”

Brooks said the growth could come in the form of more venues for bands to play at, but also from the constructive criticism provided by others in the scene.

“I often will get comments like, ‘Hey, I liked the way you did this but this could work a bit better,’” Brooks said. “I think constructive criticism can really go a long way to get us to thrive.” 

Jeff-Miller said the scene feels like a family; it seems like everybody knows everybody. 

“Everyone supports each other despite having our differences. We show love in our own ways,” Jeff-Miller said. 

Above all, the scene isn’t just for those in a band.

“We have kids here that aren’t even in bands. But they broke out of their shells. And they go to these shows,” Townsend said. “That to me is a music community.” 

Audiences find comfort in these bands, Smith said.

“We are very awkward people, but on stage, I’m going apes—, breaking records,” Smith said. 

The Madison House and Lynchburg music scene need new faces, Mumin said. 

“I know there’s some kid out there who’s been playing drums since he was 10 but he just isn’t in the music scene,” Mumin said. 

Townsend said he works to support the growth of each person who enters the Madison House and sees connections happen at every event held. 

“You have one kid [perform] and then another says, ‘Hey, I think I should form a band, we have like-minded ideas, I’m feeling what you’re feeling,’” Townsend said. “They are people emotionally connecting with each other through the arts.”

All three bands already have more shows lined up for the rest of the year all over Virginia. Townsend hopes to continue to work with everyone who comes to the Madison House and build a brighter future for Lynchburg. 

“If you’re going to build up the future, the city, you need to know the future of the city is the kids,” Townsend said.

Amy Jablonski is a summer news intern for Cardinal News based in Lynchburg. She is a junior at the University...