Intrepid Artists turns 25 years old in December. From left: Booking agents Will Johnston, Kevin Hopkins, president/owner Rick Booth, Jake Lankheit and Cameron Farquhar. (Don Muret / Staff)

Charlotte-based Intrepid Artists International relies on credibility with clients and buyers

Rick Booth’s office is tastefully decorated with music memorabilia he’s collected as president and owner of Intrepid Artists International. The Charlotte, N.C., booking agency, which turns 25 years old in December, represents about three dozen blues, zydeco and rock acts. 

The Gibson Flying V guitar signed by Popa Chubby; a rare black-and-white photo of B.B. King and Elvis Presley hanging out on Beale Street in 1956 that’s signed by King; and a large painting of Eric Gales, who some say is the greatest blues-rock guitar player alive, stand out among the mementos. 

Then there are the iguanas, which serve as Intrepid Artists’ signature logo. Lizard replicas of all sizes and colors are attached to the walls and adorn display cases. They reflect Booth’s love of reptiles, which he collected as a student at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

It’s Booth’s love of music that’s driven his career and longevity in a business where smaller agencies often get swallowed up by larger firms.

“He’s been able to build it and sustain it,” said Rob Savoy, national contract manager for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Booth has booked an act every year dating to 1993, when he worked at the old Piedmont Talent. “It’s a testament to how hard he works and the quality of artists he represents that he’s still around and continuing to grow. It’s also a testament to how long artists stay with him.”

Intrepid Artists International, which Booth founded Dec. 19, 1994, celebrates the milestone in Charlotte with two nights of live music Nov. 8-9 at Amos’ Southend and the Neighborhood Theatre. Gales, Kenny Neal, Vanessa Collier, The Empire Strikes Brass, Albert Castiglia and The Steepwater Band leading a special “Intrepid Does the Stones” set are among the agency’s acts scheduled to perform as part of the celebration.

The iguana serves as Intrepid Artists’ logo, and multiple lizards mark the agency’s Charlotte office. (Don Muret / Staff)

Booth, 54, has pretty much seen it all over the course of his career. The years have brought lots of ups and downs, and, like other agency heads, Booth has seen artists come and go. 

One of his best and worst days came in 2005 when two of his agents told Booth that they were leaving the firm.

Both agents gave him plenty of notice, but for a small independent agency, it left a big hole in the business. 

“I’ve never had adrenaline kick in like that in my life,” he said. “It took me 24 hours to get over it and then I focused on steadying the ship. It’s a tough business. You need to keep your chin up. Right about the time you think you got it made is when someone decides to stick it to you.”

These days, Intrepid Artists is a model of stability. The staff of five agents, including Booth, boasts a combined 60 years of experience, he said.

Booth unofficially got his start booking bands at fraternity parties at Wofford, where he served as social chairman of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. After graduating with a sociology degree in 1987, Booth worked at his father’s hardware store for three years before taking a job at Hit Attractions and later Piedmont Talent. Both agencies are now defunct.

In the early 1990s, Booth invested $7,500 to form his own agency. His first two artists were Jimmy Thackery and Chubby Carrier, plus two regional acts. Booth was scared about starting his own business, but word of mouth spread about how busy he kept his clients on the road and Intrepid’s roster grew.

“My thing was to put as much attention as I could into four bands, regardless of making money or not,” Booth said. “People opened up Pollstar magazine and saw Jimmy had a tour a mile long, as did Chubby. They were going around telling people, ‘This guy is working our butts off. He’ll do the job and he’s honest,’ which in the music business, you don’t find with everybody.”

Kenny Neal concurs. He’s been represented by Intrepid Artists since 1997 and ranks among Booth’s most long-standing clients. Neal’s 2016 record, “Bloodline,” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Neal, 62, a New Orleans native who now lives in Baton Rouge, has performed live for about 50 years.

The two have grown their careers together over time, Neal said. Early in their relationship, there were shows in which Neal’s band, which now includes his brothers Darnell (bass) and Frederick (keyboards), didn’t get paid much. Booth would pass on taking his commission so Neal could  afford to play the gig and show everybody what he could do. 

For both artist and agent, it became a long-term strategy for growth. “It’s not about the money if we have a vision,” Neal said. “I did a lot of that, because we knew once they see us perform, they’re going to want us back. Rick and I always worked together like that and that’s what made us progress and achieve what we were trying to do.” 

It’s part of the credibility Intrepid Artists brings to the bargaining table, said Paul Benjamin, producer of the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, Maine. Booth protects his clients but understands the talent buyer’s situation as well, said Benjamin, who has been bringing blues music to Maine since 1978 and has known Booth for more than 20 years.

“Some agencies you talk to and you’re gonna go back and forth 20 times on the price before you finally come to a conclusion,” Benjamin said. “What I found with Intrepid is they’re pretty close to what we’re willing to pay (from the start) … and you know you’re going to get a good artist.”

In that respect, Booth stacks his roster against anybody in the blues world. He never wants his acts to play the final headline slot at a festival.

“People leave during that last slot and if the set is over at midnight, they leave right after or before the set and you never get to sell your merchandise,” he said. “I’ve always believed my bands will blow anybody off the stage, so line them up to go after my (acts) and see if the headliner can touch them. The answer is usually no.”