At least Chris Tamplin remembers his role at Tir na nOg when he began working at the downtown Raleigh Irish pub in 2005. He was part-time help, manning the door as needed and, on Sundays, stepping behind the bar to serve drinks and make a little money aside from his job peddling clothes at a shopping mall department store. But after six years at the bar, and only two months before he will quit the job to manage a new Durham music venue full-time, Tamplin’s job description isn’t quite so simple.
“I don’t know if I actually really have a title. I mean, really, I guess, I’m, I’m … ,” he says, staring across Fayetteville Street from the patio of The Foundation. As he starts and stops, Tamplin, 40, furrows his brow. “I guess I’m a bartender slash booking agent. Before that, I was just a bartender.”
No matter how amorphous or undefined, Tamplin’s role at Tir na nOg and, by extension, within the Triangle music scene has been a pivotal and transformative one. For at least one night a week almost every Thursday for the last four years, Tamplin turns his unlikely spacea cavernous Irish pub built with bricks and stones, with enthusiastic Gaelic décorinto an ad hoc rock club.
Each week, the setting matters less than the sound: Mixed crowds of fresh-faced college students, grizzled scene veterans and casual passersby mix in a dining area that, by day, holds plates of fish and chips and pints of Guinness. With his Local Band, Local Beer series, Tamplinwhether or not his job description called for suchhas created a wide, welcoming berth into a swelling local music scene.
“You can walk into your job every day and do what’s expected of you, but it’s the people that have passion that define their own role not just at their job but in their community,” says Kelly Reid, the former music director at N.C. State University’s WKNC-FM 88.1, who first partnered with Tamplin in 2007. “Over at WKNC, we say, ‘We love local music because it loves us back.’ He understood that at the beginning, and he used the platform at Tir na nOg to spread that.”
In 2006, Tamplin was eavesdropping on a conversation between his boss, Tir na nOg owner Pete Pagano, and the company’s marketing director. They were discussing strategies for finding new clientele when Tamplin, circling the bar where they sat, tossed out the idea of pairing local bands with local beers on a weekly basis. They loved the notion, pursued it and, at least at first, got it very wrong. Working with the then slightly alternative radio station 100.7 The River, Tir na nOg hosted the bands and the brews on Tuesdays, a traditional dead night that a new music series wasn’t going to vivify.
When the station changed its format to classic rock in 2007, Tamplin saw his opportunity. Downtown construction had forced Kings, the hub of Raleigh’s growing music scene since the start of the decade, to close just two months prior. And Tamplin knew that the best local bandsand, for that matter, the newest ones still looking for the first fanswould soon need a consistent stage. With the pub’s schedule of cover and Irish acts, he knew the restaurant couldn’t be a rock club every night, but he knew there were enough people to support some series.
“I said, ‘We need to do this with WKNC because nobody does North Carolina music better, and we need to move it to Thursdays,’” says Tamplin, a Virginia native who moved to Raleigh in the mid-’90s after dalliances with marine biology and business management degrees in Wilmington. “As soon as we did that, it kind of took off.”
Kind of is key: Tamplin managed a band back in Wilmington, and he’d played a little music, too. But his first decade in Raleigh had been spent largely in retailfirst Belk’s, then Brooks Brothersthen in rock clubs like Local 506 and Cat’s Cradle. He’d seen a lot of shows, sure, but he’d never taken the time to ingratiate himself with local bands. And now he was trying to convince them to play his themed bar with no financial guarantee or rock history. It was painstaking politics.
“‘Yeah, I know we’re an Irish pub, but we’ve got a PA,’” says Tamplin, reciting the sort of lines he spent more than a year giving to any bands that would listen. “‘We’ve got a sound guy. We’ve got a stage. We’ve got plenty of room. I want to turn this into something different. I want people to think of this bar in a different way. I’m not asking you to play Irish music. I’m asking you to play your music.’”
Slowly, word began to spread that Tamplin’s pleas weren’t bluffs. Bands mostly left happy, and they told their friends. Despite the lack of a cover charge, Tamplin feeds his bands and keeps them in beer. Several locals say that, at the end of a good night, Tamplin doles out some of the best area paydays from bar sales. He’s worked to expand the bar’s sound system and stage, too.
Though the Thursday shows are still Tir na nOg’s trademark, the bar hosts as many as four nights of live, local music each week. These days, if you’ve got a favorite young act in town, from I Was Totally Destroying It and Lonnie Walker to Red Collar and Hammer No More the Fingers, chances are they’ve played “the pub,” as Tamplin always calls it, several times. And if you’ve got a band that needs a gig, Tir na nOg is one of the best and most rewarding places to start.
In September, Tamplin will leave Tir na nOg and Raleigh to work in Durham. He’s looking for a house to reduce the commute to Motorco Music Hall, the new rock venue he’ll manage on Geer Street. But he’s recruited his own replacements, so he feels good about Tir na nOg’s future. With Kings’ reopening imminent, he feels good about Raleigh’s venue scene, too.
Tamplin’s work at Tir na nOg has been more than a simple stopgap between iterations of Kings, though. Tir na nOg has helped grow the audience receptive to bands in their own backyard. By taking a consistent riskthat is, promising to pay two or three bands something each week while collecting nothing at the doorthe bar gave new listeners a low-risk entry point to local music. And now, he’s just going to try that somewhere else.
“There’s such a deep talent pool in this area that I feel that people need to hear bands,” says Tamplin. “I don’t know if it’s civic duty or whatever, but I felt a responsibility that I needed to expose people to these bands.”