It was a prank that got Charleston singer/songwriter Luke Cunningham on stage for the first time.
Cunningham was attending Winthrop University in Rock Hill where he was a member of the men's soccer team when his roommates jokingly signed him up to play an open mic night at a bar they frequented.
"I had never really been on stage before and I was petrified," said Cunningham, who will perform May 25 at The Smokehouse on Hilton Head Island. "It was a total joke but I went up there and sang some of the songs I had written. Afterward, the guy who owned the place came up and asked me if I'd be interested in playing there regularly. I guess the joke was on them."
Within a year, Cunningham's music career had taken off, thanks, in large part, to his accessible, radio-friendly brand of alt-rock. He was soon opening for bands such as The Fray and Gin Blossoms and later dropped out of college to pursue his dream.
That journey took him to Los Angeles for about three years before the 32-year-old Kentucky native moved back to South Carolina, this time settling in downtown Charleston, where he became part of an increasingly lively and thriving local music scene.
Cunningham quickly took a shining to Charleston and the other musicians who called the city home.
"What I like most about Charleston is that if you're a good person and you work hard, people will look out for you and really embrace and welcome you," he said. "But if you're an (expletive), you'll weed yourself out of the scene pretty quickly."
Cunningham's work ethic and willingness to collaborate with others seem to have earned him a place in the first of those two categories.
The singer/songwriter was asked to perform at the Charleston Tea Plantation's seventh annual First Flush FesTEAval last weekend and took the stage right before bluegrass icons Old Crow Medicine Show and recently collaborated with Tyler Mechem of Crowfield and Ryan Bonner of Ryan Bonner & The Dearly Beloved on a folk-inspired side project called The Dubious Battles.
Though Cunningham says it's unlikely the trio will produce a full-length album -- he is busy working on the follow-up to 2011's "Heart Pressure" -- he said the side project has been a fun distraction.
"We're really in that honeymoon stage right now and trying to figure out what is and isn't possible," Cunningham said. "It would be a little cumbersome for me to put out a record with them right now since I'm working on my own stuff but I could see us releasing a song a month or something like that."
As he records his upcoming EP, an album slated for an early fall release, Cunningham will stay busy with upcoming dates around Charleston, in Charlotte and on Hilton Head, where he says he likes playing when he can find a suitable venue.
"Hilton Head has really been a tough place for us to figure out in terms of venues," Cunningham said. "We seem to have settled into a nice situation at The Smokehouse where we can do a little three- to four-piece thing, get on stage and make some racket. It's a lot of fun."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick .
Video of Luke Cunningham's "For the Best"
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