By Sean Murphy
Photography by Chad Edwards
The Big-Ass fan cuts through the August swelter at Laurel’s Slowboat Brewing Co. on a Saturday night. City councilmen, mushroom foragers, day laborers and bankers mill through the once-dilapidated building in revitalized downtown Laurel.
A burly man with a deep, black beard zig-zags the building, grabbing a fresh keg from the walk-in cooler to be delivered to the bar. He gets the sound set up for the night’s entertainment, greets customers and tries in vain to find time to smoke a cigarette. His back hurts and muscles ache — a small price to pay for “living the dream.”
Kenny Mann had dreamed of a place like this since settling in to create his first home-brewed beer with his wife Carrie more than four years ago. The Laurel native gave up a good-paying job offshore, risking the safety of a regular paycheck to create a spot Laurel had never seen — a brewery and music venue.
“We are a brewery, and beer is priority No. 1,” Mann said. “But there are many more moving parts to this business. Although the listening room environment plays a big role, the music is just one of the many things I hope people will experience here.”
His collection of vinyl records is vast, and the influence records have on him and Carrie is evident every time someone walks into the brewery. It starts with the beer names for the three Slowboat staples — Wayward Son (an ode to the band Kansas), Dairy of a Madman (not “Diary” of a Madman for which people constantly ask, as a nod to Ozzy Osborne) and Into the Mystic, an ode to his favorite performer, Van Morrison.
Specialty beers are aptly named as well, including IV, the breweries fourth beer and a tribute to Led Zeppelin’s groundbreaking 1971 album by the same name, and a Yellow Submarine paying homage to the Beatles.
The brewery’s logo is an adapter used on record players to play 45 RPMs. Back when Mississippi did not allow direct beer sales and breweries were forced to give tours with samples, tokens for those samples were those same adapters.
There is no doubt at Slowboat, the owners — and patrons — care about their music. Each Saturday night the tunes flow in a town that owns a rich musical tradition but few places to hear it performed live.
“When I was growing up, it was not strange to see a great, young band every weekend if you knew where to look,” Mann said. “Given the history of our building and my personal love of music, I felt that the brewery was the perfect catalyst to really try to capture that again. I started booking some of my favorite bands on Saturdays at the brewery last summer and called it the Summer of Live Music.
Since Slowboat’s opening in January 2016, the brewery has attracted, on multiple occasions, acts such as Pine Belt icon Cary Hudson, New Orleans master Johnny Sansone, Molly Thomas and the Rare Birds, the entertaining Grayson Capps and a much-anticipated November 11 appearance by the iconic Webb Wilder.
“The evolution that has most surprised me is Slowboat and Laurel becoming a desired destination for touring bands,” Mann said. “We try our best to offer a comfortable environment, our customers actually listen/respond to live music, and musicians love the way it sounds in here. I’m very proud to offer this type of environment to bands and music lovers alike.”
Located where West 5th and North Magnolia streets intersect, the brewery is better-known by the locals as radio station WAML. The former station's studio is upstairs, while the bottom floor served as an auto shop and a transmission shop.
The facade was covered in graffiti when the Manns first went to look at it. One hundred windows were broken. Sheetrock, scrap wood, old appliances and several old-time video games littered the main floor. It took nearly 200 gallons of paint and the removal of seven 40-foot overflowing trash receptacles to even begin to make it presentable.
The revitalization goes hand-in-hand with a rebirth of downtown Laurel, thanks in part to the success of the HGTV series “Home Town.” The first season was so successful that filming has already begun for the second season. Throughout downtown, old buildings are getting new life breathed into them. Locally owned restaurants and shops are opening or in the process of opening. People have returned to the streets of downtown, where a recent recreation ordinance went into effect that allows for the open consumption of alcohol in a downtown district.
When Mann first announced his brewery in 2015 and the City Council unanimously supported it, Mayor Johnny Magee said, “People drink beer, whether they like to admit it or not. But I think it’s going to be good for the city. It’s going to be a great addition to the city.”
Earlier this year, the Mississippi Main Street Association presented the Manns with an award for best use of a repurposed building in transforming an eyesore into Laurel’s best music venue.
Much like the venue, the brewing operation is purposefully small, Mann said, to keep the beers special and unique. The brew system is capable of brewing about 150 gallons at a time, which takes up most of Mann’s week. The beer is distributed from Jackson to the Gulf Coast and has been featured in some north Mississippi cities on occasion.
Keeping up with the demand has been exhausting to Mann, but at least one night per week when not putting out managerial fires, he can lose himself in the music.
The stage is constructed of pallets covered in carpeted plywood with room for about four musicians to stand comfortably, although there have been occasions where there have been six people on stage. The shows, with rare exceptions, are free.
And while Mann is used to being on the musical production side, he recently joined the Pine Belt Pickers for a performance at the brewery. Mann played stand-up bass and said at first he was just trying to go along to get along, but he soon found his rhythm.
“Playing with the Pine Belt Pickers was an amazing experience for me. I got the opportunity to play my own stage, with one of my favorite bands,” Mann said. “I’ve since played with several of my favorite musicians on my home turf. At this point in my musical endeavors, nervousness is out the window. I’ve found that if I try to have fun with my friends on stage, the music works itself out in the best way.
Mann has also appeared several times alongside local music whiz Shelby Kemp, who is one set of the right ears away from busting through the music scene. Kemp, with his long, blond hair in a pony tail, has never had a music lesson, but has the gift of the ear, his mother once said. He is a regular at Slowboat and throughout south Mississippi. He first played alongside Mann during a gig at Hattiesburg’s Glory Bound.
“Kenny is a fantastic bass player,” Kemp said. “He has picked up new tricks every time I see him, and I couldn’t be more happy to be playing with him. Bluegrass, jazz, flat-out psycho-billy, he’s all over it.”
It is those acts, Mann said, that are special for Laurel. The talent is deep, and Kemp exemplifies that.
“Early on, it was me seeking out and asking musicians that I love to come play my venue,” Mann said. “I still do that often, but over time the word has gotten out. We get approached by some incredible talent on a regular basis now.
“Most recently, the legendary Webb Wilder reached out to me and is now booked for a solo performance on November 11. I get booking emails every day, and the best part of it all is that I get to listen to a lot of new music. I really wish we could give everyone a chance, but we tend to gravitate towards music that screams Mississippi, such as rock, folk, roots, bluegrass and blues. But there is really only one rule here at Slowboat — no cover bands allowed.”
Shortly after the 2016 release of the Hollywood movie “Free State of Jones,” the brewery hosted a Free State Jamboree, which brought eight bands together for one night of music highlighted by the likes of Kemp, The Strays and Paul Johnson.
It’s that welcoming feeling that attracted Laurel musician Shane Kelley, guitarist for The Strays.
“The most important thing about the brewery personally is that there is finally a place for a like-minded group of people to settle in and call their own,” Kelley said. “Previously a lot of these people didn’t have anywhere to be themselves and realize there were others like them.”
During the brewery’s infancy, Mann thought of renovating the upstairs into an air-conditioned taproom and music venue, but Mann likes the feel of the old industrial building with its concrete floor and tall windows.
In the back is a courtyard that is home base for a food truck during brewery operations. A once-dilapidated building that abuts the courtyard is being transformed into a restaurant and there have been discussions of teaming up to create an outdoor music venue in the courtyard.
But those plans are down the line. For now, the chalkboard on the window facing 5th Street provides about two months worth of entertainment listings. As usual, the calendar is full.
“Slowboat is the best listening room in Mississippi, in my opinion,” Kemp said. “There are a lot of bars and venues that have tried for years to create what Kenny has done in such a short span of time. The intimacy is the bread-and-butter of playing music, to me.
“When you stand on that stage it’s as if everyone in the room is clinging to every word/melody you throw at them. I will play there every chance I get ’til they get tired of me.”