John Rowley Grows Carolina Lavender

(This column first appeared in the September 2017 edition of Gaston Alive Magazine.)

Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up, and you’ll hear a common set of responses – police officer, teacher, doctor and lawyer – just to name a few.

What about a farmer? Farming sounds great at 9-years-old. It’s like Dwight D. Eisenhower said many years ago: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn fields.” When the bugs are biting, and the summer heat and humidity have worn you down, that doesn’t sound mighty easy at all.

As kids, we are good at the what. We aren’t so great at the why. At least not yet. That comes much later on, as life experience is acquired.

I wonder how a 9-year-old John Rowley would have answered that question. Would he have said farmer? Would he have ever thought he would one day be an actual farmer? That grows lavender?

Life is funny that way. The life we imagine in our heads rarely matches up with the one we end up with. And that’s not a bad thing – it’s just how it is.

One thing leads to another and the next thing you know, you’re 59 years old and you own a lavender farm.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say John is passionate about farming. But more importantly, John is passionate about lavender. Not just about growing the plant, but about offering the best lavender-based products he can.

But this isn’t a one-man show. John has enlisted his all-star team: his girlfriend, Sue, and her daughter, Joy. Collectively, they make up what is now known as Carolina Lavender.

Located in South Gastonia, the Carolina Lavender operation has been underway a little over a year. They currently grow five different varieties of lavender, some of which are grown for their oil production, while others are bred more for their ornamental or culinary qualities.

One thing you’ll learn from John pretty quickly is that he embraces a good challenge. He’s never owned a farm before. In fact, he had never driven a tractor before – that is, until he bought one. His time in the corporate world called for a lot of things, but I doubt it required tractor-driving skills.

Look up the words ‘due diligence’ in the dictionary, and a picture of John will be right beside it. He began looking into the idea of growing lavender in early 2015. After a solid year and a half of research, it was time to plant.

It’s one thing to be passionate about what you do, but more importantly, I think it helps to not be afraid to make mistakes along the way. Many people would find this venture quite daunting – maybe even impossible. Not to John and Sue. They didn’t let inexperience and fear get in the way of achieving their dreams.

As a result, they’ve all become experts. They’ve had to – it’s just the three of them. They are a true-to-life startup, making the most of what they have.

John refers to Sue as the “harvester-expert”, while he thrives on those meticulous details that goes into operating a farm. Little Joy jumps in with both feet, soaking up everything she can while still lending a hand where needed.

The first full growing season is coming to an end, and they’ll be making their second and final harvest of the season any day now. The hard work never ends. That’s the one thing that caught John by surprise.

But it’s truly a labor of love for John and Sue. It only takes one visit with them to realize this. Their satisfaction comes from not only making the best products they can, but interacting and connecting with their customers.

Those products can be found most Saturdays at the Charlotte Farmers Market. That’s where you’ll find their essential lavender oil, dried flowers, lavender-infused honey, and more. You can even grab a cup of refreshing lavender lemonade or lavender cranberry punch to quench your thirst.

Our nine-year-old selves aren’t very good at predicting the future. But I do bet that today’s 59-year-old John Rowley is doing what the nine-year-old John Rowley loved to do – and that’s making a connection with people.

It just so happens that the people he connects with these days the most are the folks that are interested in all the beneficial things you can do with this little plant called lavender.

Whether it’s on the farm, or at his booth at the Charlotte Farmers Market, John is passionate about spreading his love and passion for lavender. And it shows.

Some may say, that’s his ‘why’.

More information about Carolina Lavender is available by phone at 704-616-7114 or online at


Rock Art Rocks!

This column first appeared in the August 2017 edition of Gaston Alive magazine.

Summer can be a polarizing season. Especially in the Carolinas. You either love the summer, or you hate it. Or you are like me – it changes by the day.

I do love the long days and the slower pace of life. I could do without the extreme heat and humidity, but like most things, when you pick up the stick, you get both ends.

Autumn will be here before you know it. And with it, our routines won’t be far behind.

Summer has a predictable rhythm to it. By now, the heat and humidity have all but forced us into our air-conditioned homes. Except for folks like LuAnn Harden.

LuAnn is the creator of the Color Gaston Facebook group. It’s mission is to spread a little color around Gaston County, as well as a little happiness and positivity – all in the form of painted rocks.

LuAnn runs just one of the many Facebook groups in our area devoted to this new phenomenon involving the painting and hiding of rocks. Sure it may be a fad. Or it just may be a summertime thing. But it’s here, and mothers all over the place are jumping in with both feet. And they’re bringing their kids along for the ride.

Everyone is glued to a screen these days. And I mean everyone. But it’s the kids I think about the most – many of whom will never know a summer without on-demand television and endless video games. Unfortunately, it’s just the world we live in today.

After all, it was Ferris Bueller who warned us that life moves pretty fast. If we don’t stop and look around once in a while, we could miss it. We could miss out on these painted rocks. And the joy they bring.

It’s a simple formula. It starts with painting, you know, an actual rock. With real paint. It’s doesn’t involve some silly app on your iPad that allows you to paint virtual rocks. You have to actually put the screen down to paint these rocks. And even better – it forces interaction. With real people.

Adults interact with kids and kids interact with adults. I guess we can say that rocks bring people together. Imagine that.

Now technology does play a role in it. And that’s OK. But there is a system to this painted rock phenomenon.

You paint the rock, then you hide the rock. Others (hopefully) find it, snap a photo and post that it was found on one of the many Facebook groups. Lastly, you re-hide it for others to find.

LuAnn got the idea to create this Facebook group from her sister who was a member of a similar group in Burke County. LuAnn loved the concept and thought it was a great way to spread a little happiness and positivity in her own neck of the woods – one painted rock at a time.

She started her group at the end of May and invited as many people as she could think of. She kicked it all off by painting and hiding 43 rocks in and around the Cherryville area. It didn’t take long before some of her rocks were found.

Some of those rocks were found by Hayden Stout, a 7-year old boy from Cherryville, on a Sunday night right as the sun was going down.

Hayden was having a bad day prior to finding the rocks, according to his mom, Casey Stout. Hayden’s dad was going to have to work out of town during the week for a while, making him only available on weekends.

That’s hard thing to understand at seven years old. Especially when you are used to having your dad around. So you can imagine how Hayden felt on that Sunday night when his dad had to leave.

Casey thought LuAnn’s painted rock idea would be a nice little distraction for Hayden. So they set out to hunt for the rocks that LuAnn had painted and hidden.

That’s the beauty of summer nights. The sun hangs on just long enough so a sad seven-year-old boy can hunt for rocks. Within thirty minutes of their search, Hayden found his first rock over on Main Street in Cherryville. He was thrilled!

He kept looking and looking. Over the course of an hour and a half, he found three more rocks. Hayden was on cloud nine. His mom’s plan worked.

But more importantly, LuAnn’s plan worked. Or as she said, “Mission accomplished”.

Will painted rocks change the world? No, it won’t. Will it make you smile for a moment? You bet.

How do I know? I found my first rock the other day. And I wasn’t even looking for it. I guess you can say it found me.

In a world where negativity swirls around so easily, especially in our current political climate, then I’d like to cast my vote for more painted rocks.

If happiness is a painted rock, then I wish for a mountain of rocks and an ocean of stones. All painted. All happy. And for summer to stay just a little bit longer.


Therapy Dog Brings Happiness

This column first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Gaston Alive magazine.

It takes a special dog to be a pet therapy dog. But I wonder if it may take even more of a special person to be a therapy dog trainer/owner.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend one of our pet therapy friendship visits at Holy Angels – a residential facility for children and adults with intellectual developmental disabilities, many of which that have delicate medical conditions. My job that day was to snap a few pictures and capture the interaction between Zip, the therapy dog, and the residents he was there to visit.

So that’s what I did. And in those moments between the clicks of the camera, I stood there in awe. I knew the effect a loving dog could have on a person. After all, I’ve been around dogs my whole life. What struck me more than anything was the person behind the dog. That person was Suzanne Fairbairn.

I had never met Suzanne prior to this day. In fact, I knew very little about her, except that she worked with therapy dogs. However, in just a few moments, I could tell she was a kind soul just by watching her. She was friendly, warm and personable with each and every resident that she and Zip interacted with that day.

I expected Zip to connect. That’s his job. It’s what he was trained to do. But Suzanne connected with those residents far better than I could have imagined. But if you ask Suzanne, it wasn’t always that way.

You see, Suzanne claims she’s a shy person by nature. That surprised me. There’s something about a dog that seems to bring her out of her shell.

Or as she says, dogs just make her a better person.

Ask Suzanne and she’ll tell you that she has two passions. She loves dogs and she loves music. Music pays the bills. Her love of dogs pays too – just in a different way. It feeds her soul.

Suzanne is the Music Director at First Presbyterian Church in Belmont – a job she has held for the last 26 years. She loves the job, but admits it can be stressful and demanding at times. That’s where the dogs come in.

She and her dogs have been visiting Holy Angels residents on a consistent basis over the last 15 years. But that’s not the only place they go. One day it may be a visit to an Alzheimer’s unit at an assisted living facility and the next day it could be visiting with students at a local elementary school. People of all ages need dogs. And Suzanne knows this.

Wherever there’s someone that needs a little TLC, that’s where you will find Suzanne, with her sidekicks Zip or Pippin.

With pet therapy, some may think that the dog is the channel – the channel in which unconditional love and affection flows. And it probably is. But you can’t have a communication channel without a receiver and a transmitter.

Suzanne may be the transmitter, but I guarantee she is receiving as well. Watching her dogs connect to the people they visit is exactly why she does what she does.

Suzanne was once called in to spend some time with a young girl who was going through a difficult time at home. She had become emotionally withdrawn. She wouldn’t interact with her other classmates and would barely communicate with her teachers. School officials recognized this and decided to have Suzanne and her dog, Allie, meet with this girl for about thirty minutes a week.

Thirty minutes a week doesn’t seem like much, but thirty minutes with a loving dog can work wonders. Over time, this young girl began to gradually interact. First with Allie, and then with Suzanne. It wasn’t long after, she would interact with her teachers, and then finally her classmates. Over time, this young girl slowly emerged from her shell.

Just like Suzanne.

What is it about dogs? They some how find a way to force us out of our shells. That’s what they do.

So on second thought, maybe the dog isn’t the channel after all. It takes all three to effectively communicate and connect. Everyone transmits. And everyone receives.

At the end of the day, everyone wins. Everyone is in tune. Suzanne may even say, it’s perfect harmony.



Spotlight on…The Spongetones

The Spongetones - photo Ray Henderson The following column will appear in the June 2009 edition of Gaston Alive:

The Spongetones had plenty to celebrate last year. Not only did they release their 10th studio recording Too Clever By Half, but they also released a greatest hits compilation celebrating their first 25 years as a band.

So you would think, after a busy 2008, they might take some time off this year. But never underestimate the passion and drive of The Spongetones. Now in their 29th year, this band is still rocking on, releasing yet another collection of songs they are calling Scrambled Eggs.

The Spongetones’ music is rooted in the mersey beat sound – a pop music genre made famous by such bands as The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, and The Dave Clark Five. Its origins can be traced back to the United Kingdom around the early 1960s. However, long after the British Invasion, the Spongetones are still waving the mersey beat flag.

The one thing I love about the Spongetones is that they have never claimed to be innovators or pioneers of any musical sound or movement. They are four guys who simply love what they do – writing, recording and performing great pop music.

Even though they call North Carolina home, their music has national and international appeal. If you stay up late at night, you can catch their song “The Skinny” on ABC’s “World News Now”. In addition, they’ll be traveling to Japan later this year to play for their fans over there.

With twelve records under their belt, they are just as relevant today as they were back in 1983 when they released their debut album Beat Music.

They say there are over twenty ways to prepare eggs. The Spongetones have chosen to scramble them this time around.

In preparation for their big trip to Japan, the Spongetones are appearing at the Evening Muse every Wednesday throughout the summer.

Just leave your eggs at home. The Spongetones will have plenty for everyone.

WHAT: The Spongetones
WHERE: Evening Muse, 3227 N. Davidson St., Charlotte
WHEN: 8:00 P.M. every Wednesday night through August
COST: $7

For more information on The Spongetones, including music samples, please visit

Spotlight on…Blues Out Back 2009

John Dee Holeman The following column will appear in the May 2009 edition of Gaston Alive:

It’s hard to slow life down. There is always something else to do or somewhere else to be. And it seems, the older we get, the faster it goes by.

That’s what I love about the Gaston County Museum’s Blues Out Back concert series. It forces me, for just a few hours on a summer night, to slow down and do nothing.

Now you don’t have to love the blues. You don’t even have to know any blues songs.
All you have to be willing to do is to sit back and relax. And do nothing.

The Gaston County Museum does the rest. They create this place once a month, from May through September, so we can shut out the noise of the world and enjoy time with our friends and our families.

It’s a small glimpse into a simpler time – a time before air conditioners, televisions, cell phones, and computers. It’s a time where the only entertainment available was stories and songs.

For better or worse, we live in a different time. And in our world, we must shut it off if we are able to enjoy the present. So, turn off your computers and your cell phones. Leave you air conditioned home. The Gaston County Museum offers you the chance to live in the here and the now.

Blues Out Back Schedule

May 8 – Abe Reid
June 12 – John Dee Holeman
July 10 – Big Ron Hunter
August 14 – Drink Small
September 11 – The Harris Brothers

WHAT: Blues Out Back Concert Series
WHERE: Gaston County Museum, 131
West Main Street., Dallas
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on May 8,
June 12, July 10, and Aug. 14
COST: Free

Spotlight on…Dodd Ferrelle

The following column will appear in the April 2009 edition of Gaston Alive:

I am proud to say Dodd Ferrelle is back on my musical radar. The Athens-based singer-songwriter first popped up on my radar about four years ago, after releasing The Murder of Love with his band the Tinfoil Stars. But shortly after that – things went quiet.

It all makes sense now. With his first child on the way, Ferrelle decided to take a self-imposed break from recording and touring back in 2006.

Three years and two kids later, Dodd Ferrelle is back. And this time, with a renewed sense of musical purpose.

After spending the last ten or so years with the Tinfoil Stars, Ferrelle felt it was time to take on a project he could call his own. This new project would be all his – his words, his arrangements, and his ideas.

Three years in the making, and with the help of his trusted advisor and producer David Barbe, Lonely Parades was born.

Lonely Parades features eleven new songs written and arranged by Ferrelle. Now that these songs are out of his head and on CD, he is now excited about getting back on the road and sharing them with the musical world.

For Ferrelle, this three year sabbatical gave him a chance to step back from life on the road with a band to get refocused on what he does best – telling stories.

But it’s more than just telling stories and writing lyrics. As much as Ferrelle loves to put pen to paper, he has gift for what he calls “marrying the words to the music”.

After listening to Lonely Parades, he still has that gift.

I have always felt music is the best medicine for the soul. But when music is your job, and your job is getting to be too much, more music is probably not the answer.

After all, he’s been holding onto them for far too long. It’s time to share them with the world.

To learn more about Dodd Ferrelle and to hear samples of his music, visit his website at

Spotlight on…Laurie Koster

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The following column will appear in the March 2009 edition of Gaston Alive:

Some say life without passion is not much of a life. I tend to think life without music may be even worse.

That’s what I like about Laurie Koster. She’s passionate. Even better – she’s passionate about music.

If I were ever to forget about Laurie’s passion, it wouldn’t take long for me to be reminded. That’s because every Wednesday, I can expect an email from her chock full with more music news you could ever want. And this isn’t just any music news. It’s all about the music and musicians that live, play, and record in our backyard.

Her email newsletter is a weekly snapshot of what’s going on in our area. It’s an exhaustive list of concerts taking place that week, as well as concerts coming up that you should know about. It’s filled with music reviews, news, contests, giveaways, and special benefit concerts involving our local music community.

If you were to measure Laurie’s passion, you’d think she lives in either Nashville or Austin. Not so. This former Ohioan is now a Carolina girl, and she couldn’t be any more proud of her newly adopted hometown, and the music it creates.

Laurie’s not alone in her support of North Carolina musicians and their sounds. In fact, in a recent ranking issued by the Roots Music Association, North Carolina came in at #9 in states that support their local music scene.

As budgets and resources shrink in newsrooms everywhere, it is becoming harder to find good quality local content. Before you know it – national syndication becomes the norm.

This is what makes Laurie’s newsletter so special. It’s compiled by someone who loves the music.

When people move into town and ask me about local music in the area, I automatically refer them to Laurie. She’s the expert.

Waving the local music flag doesn’t pay big money. Most musical endeavors rarely do. But as one musical mentor and friend told me the other day, “music is a spirit quest – not a money one.”

I wonder if she has been reading Laurie’s emails too.

To learn more about Laurie Koster’s Charlotte Events Weekly Newsletter,visit her online at

Spotlight on…Why I Love Vinyl!

Vinyl Records
The following column will appear in the February 2009 edition of Gaston Alive:

I am only 33 years old. I shouldn’t love vinyl records as much as I do.

Musically, I came along in a time when vinyl was being phased out by most retailers in favor of the cassette tape. My record collection started out with artists such as Air Supply, Kenny Rogers, and Michael Jackson. That’s not anything to brag about – but it does provide a little context to my initial vinyl experience.

As we moved into the mid-80s, the cassette tape became the music medium of choice. And from there it became the compact disk and it has now evolved into the ever popular mp3.

It all comes down to convenience and portability. These prevailing thoughts have helped the retail music industry evolve to where it is today. And for good reason. Vinyl is too bulky to carry around and it would never make it in the car on a hot summer day.

But vinyl just won’t go away. No one gets sentimental about cassettes and 8-tracks. Yet vinyl still dazzles us today. Even in 2009.

Nostalgia certainly plays a role. Music has a way of taking us back in time, and even better, has a way of making those times seem better than they were. But perhaps the other reason interest in vinyl records seems to grow in today’s fast-paced world is the way it appeals to our senses.

I was in a record store the other day. Yes – an actual record store. You know, where they actually sell records.

It was an amazing feeling. It had that smell of a used record store. And each time I flipped through a stack of records, that musty old cardboard smell took me back.

From a visual standpoint, nothing can ever beat the vinyl record. It’s 12” X 12” cardboard frame often showcased some of the best eye-catching art known to man. It drew you in even before you could hear it.

However, people still love their vinyl because it’s tangible. You can hold it. You can buy it. And you can actually stick it in an actual record collection. Try holding an mp3 – I dare you.

Back in the day – you had to search for the music you loved. There was a commitment involved. You had to go through stacks and stacks of music to locate the one you were looking for. The thrill was in the hunt. And with the advent of the search engine, those days are over.

Yes, I am 33. And I know, I sound 63. But I love music – no matter the medium it is found on. After all, we are a culture who prefers things high-tech. We love our fast, convenient, and easy. But as much as we try to deny it, we are still a culture who needs our ‘high touch’.

And thankfully, the vinyl record fulfills this need for us music lovers.

Spotlight on…Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh
The following column will appear in the January 2009 edition of Gaston Alive:

Ten years is a long time to have the blues.  But it's not so bad when it's your job.

Meet Matt Walsh – a professional blues musician since 1998.  He was born in Statesville, NC, but was raised on a steady diet of Chicago blues – a type of blues that would become  famous by such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Bo Diddley. Walsh has just wrapped up his tenth year playing the blues.  And just like most blues musicians, it's more than just a job – it's a passion and it's a way of life.

Blues music will never be mainstream.  Most blues players know this.  But all you have to do is to listen to them to realize they don't care.  The blues is inside of them.  It's there job to share it with the world. I heard bluesman Elvin Bishop say the other day that in order to play the blues, you have to feel it first.  Walsh feels it – ever since he was first turned on to those old Chicago blues masters back when he was only 13 years old.

Now Walsh is playing over 200 nights a year.  And that's just the playing part.  He also handles all of his booking, publicity, and any other business aspect of what he does. He feels blessed to be able to effectively handle both the creative and the business side of his work.  Ask any musician – that's not an easy task to juggle. But if anything, Walsh knows the secret to his success.  It's all about hard work and patience. He's played small coffee shops to the large auditoriums. He's played the festival circuit as well as the smoky bars.  No matter the place or venue, he tries to give it his all in every performance.

Through ten years on the road cutting his teeth in this business, he has learned a lot.

  • Nobody owes you anything.  You got to prove yourself each and every night.  He realizes it's his job to entertain the crowd.
  • Be respectful of others.  This includes being on time and not taking long breaks in between sets.
  • Be nice to people.  This means being friendly and courteous to everyone you come in contact with.  Treat the wait staff like you would the owner/promoter.  He feels it's really important to speak to the people that pay money to see you.
  • Don't complain.
  • Never, ever, take any of it for granted.

Walsh knows he's not changing the world with his music.  That's not his job. His job is to entertain the people. For Walsh – it's through the blues. And he's plain grateful for the opportunity to do it. 

For more information on Matt Walsh, including music samples, please visit his website.

Spotlight on…The 35th Anniversary of The Double Door Inn

Home of the blues The following column will appear in the December 2008 edition of Gaston Alive:

The Double Door Inn turns 35 years old this month. And while that’s impressive in and of itself, the fact that it has been owned and operated by the same person in the same place is even more impressive.

Live music is not an easy sell. Let’s face it – it has a niche appeal. Some people get it and some people don’t. But the ones that do get it are very passionate about it.

Passion is one of the many reasons the Double Door has made it as long as it has. Owner Nick Karres is passionate about the music. If he wasn’t – he would have been gone a long time ago when times got tough.

The Double Door Inn has been Charlotte’s home for live, original music for 35 years. That’s remarkable in a city that is known for tearing down the old and building up the new. Anything that’s been around for 10 years or longer in Charlotte is considered a landmark.

Nick Karres, and his brother Matt, first opened the doors in 1973. It was originally designed to be a neighborhood bar. However, it didn’t take long for live music to make its way into the old house.

The Double Door has been the home of many musical genres over the years. However, it’s reputation for bringing in some of the best blues acts is known worldwide.

Over the years, many notable players have graced the stage including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Delbert McClinton, Leon Russell, and Merle Watson. Even Eric Clapton made a special appearance back in 1982 that is still talked about today.

Nick Karres has found a way to adapt the venue over the years. He has always found a way to keep it relevant to the live music conversation in the Charlotte area.

So, here’s to the Double Door! Going strong for 35 years and she shows no signs of stopping.

Sure, it may not be your father’s Double Door, but you can bet as long as Nick says there’s room in the Inn, there will be music.

The Double Door Inn will be celebrating its 35th birthday on Monday,
December 22 by throwing a party and celebrating the release of the new
book Home of the Blues: The Double Door Inn. Authors Debby Wallace and
Daniel Coston will have books available that night for purchase.

More information on the birthday celebration and the book is available online at