It's been awhile. The last time that I experienced live music in Chatham County was at a party held at a friend's house every summer in the semi-wilds near Pittsboro. On that night, I saw the Backsliders (an outfit that, along with Whiskeytown and 6 String Drag, was at the forefront of the Triangle's alt-country scene) play a couple of red-hot sets in my friend's backyard. "Throwin' Rocks at the Moon" was unveiled that night, the punchy, John Hiatt-ish song that would eventually be the title track of the band's full-length debut in 1997.
So, as I said, it's been awhile. But that's clearly my fault and not Chatham County's. Although it doesn't sport the high-profile music clubs of Orange and Wake counties--your Cat's Cradle, Lincoln Theater, and the others with big ads in these pages--and to the best of my knowledge has never been called "the next anything," Chatham County has long possessed a vibrant music scene. Charlie's Barn has been the setting of weekly bluegrass and old-time gatherings for years, and merely a cross-section of the list of artists who live or have lived in Chatham County makes for an impressive read: Tommy Edwards and Snuffy Smith of the Bluegrass Experience, Trailer Bride's Melissa Swingle (who included a song titled "Chatham Co. Militia" on her band's self-titled debut), the county's "first couple" Bill and Libby Hicks, Tift Merritt, award-winning songwriter Jonathan Byrd, Siler City's Tony Williamson, and Bobby Gales & Gospel Grass.
If Wake County, which boasts the Triangle's two amphitheaters, is an arena show, then Chatham County, with its more intimate venues and earthier vibe, is a house concert. Granted, an already active scene has evolved to the point of relative hyperactivity over the last several years, with new hot spots emerging and an even wider range of musical choices becoming available. However, it's all happened rather quietly, at least when compared to the ruckus that pours out of Chapel Hill's Local 506 every summer come Sleazefest time. Maybe it's time we made just a little noise for Chatham County.
Regurgitating Woodstock-era quotes is always a risky proposition, but it's been sung that "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." It seems that a number of folks in Chatham County know exactly what they've got, and they're doing their best to hold on to it. The rapid growth that forces the Triangle to continue expanding outward to avoid the boiling over of its congested hubs is the very thing that makes people appreciate, in the words of Molly Matlock Parsons, "the sense of community that still characterizes the Chatham area." When Parsons and her husband Andy moved to Bynum two years ago, they quickly grew fond of the Bynum General Store, seeing it as the town's social center. "As 15-501 grows to four lanes, and Pittsboro continues to push its parameters further and further our way," offers Parsons, who at the time was studying in the Graduate Folklore Curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill and interning with the Folklife Section of the NC Arts Council, "our little mill village could so easily be erased, and our rich, unique history could grow utterly forgotten."
In talking with Jerry Partin, the owner of the Bynum General Store, Parsons learned that business at the store had declined 80 percent over the last few years and that it was in danger of closing. "The obvious answer seemed to be to find something that the store could offer that large grocery and convenience store chains did not," she recalls. With that, the Bynum Front Porch Music Series was born. In its three-year existence, the series has brought to the store's outdoor stage acts ranging from versatile songwriter/vocalist types such as Caitlin Cary, Thad Cockrell, and Kenny Roby to Raleigh guitar rockers Patty Hurst Shifter and the Louvin lovin' trio Hooverville, all of whom play for the contents of a pith helmet that gets passed through the crowd a couple of times a night. The series' biggest evening occurred in July 2001 when Merritt & the Carbines and Hobart Willis & the Back Forty were on hand to celebrate Partin's birthday. "Much to our surprise at the time, the event attracted over 500 people," recounts Parsons. "That was back when we thought we'd had a good night if 20 people showed up."
A crowd of 150 is considered a success for a show at the Bynum General Store these days, but it's easy to get the feeling that Parsons would deem a showing of a dozen equally successful, as long as there was some bonding. "Those of us who sustain live music recognize the power of music to bring people together in a central space and to help reinforce a sense of common heritage and values," she says. "I think the same especially holds true for the Pittsboro General Store Cafe."
The two couples behind the Pittsboro General Store Cafe in downtown Pittsboro--Joyce and Vance Remick and Alyson and Bjorn Book--have subscribed to the "if you build it, they will come" philosophy to grow and, in some ways, re-imagine the business. "We created a place that we ourselves would enjoy coming to and just keep adding to the place," explains Joyce Remick. Housed in an old Chevrolet dealership, the General Store Cafe has been open for close to 25 years, but for the majority of that time it was much more of an organic food-stocked general store than a cafe. When Richard and Becket McGough bought the store in the late '90s, they started presenting live music (Bill and Libby Hicks were the first to play), a practice that the current owners have kept alive--and then some. In addition to a steady stream of bluegrass and folk musicians, the General Store Cafe hosts an Open Irish Jam Session the first Saturday of each month and salsa lessons the first Wednesday of each month. Jafaar, a Middle Eastern jazz fusion group, is booked for mid- September, with reggae music on the schedule later in the month. And the every-Thursday jazz night started by Richard McGough is still going strong. Even if you can't get out of the house, you can witness the action thanks to the miracle of Webcam. (See Web site below.)
There are plenty of other opportunities to hear and play music in Chatham County. Both The Scoreboard Bar & Grill and the Farm Creek Deli periodically feature live music, as does the venerable Fearrington House. For those who prefer more of a hands-on experience, there's the pickin' session at Reno Sharpe's Store located between Pittsboro and Goldston that takes place the third Saturday of every month. Chatham Arts sponsors several concerts and festivals each year, including Clyde Fest and the upcoming Heart of Carolina bluegrass and arts festival. The Haw River Festival takes place in Bynum every May, and last April a new gathering was added to the mix: the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music, held in Silk Hope.
"Ah, Shakori Hills....The agony and the ecstacy," chuckles Jerry Withrow, a counselor and freelance writer from Elizabethtown, about the event spearheaded by eclectic upstate New York band Donna the Buffalo. "If not for the people and the music, the defining word for Shakori would have had to be mud. Mud in front of the stages, in between stages, and definitely in the parking areas. Serious mud." But as he continues, Withrow spotlights the true spirit of the festival, "In the face of terrible conditions, neither the good music nor the almost universal smiles were dimmed one whit." He cites Alejandro Escovedo, the timeless George Higgs, "outsider-folk" hero Michael Hurley, the Del McCoury Band, and especially sacred steel kings the Campbell Brothers as his favorites. "The Campbells seemed to delight in tearing through 'Jump for Joy' just to watch hundreds of folks directly in front of the stage send up mud-geysers. We had church in that Chatham County field on Sunday!"
That's Chatham County for you. Lively music anyplace that there's room, be it in clubs or first-rate cafes, stores or barns, fields or backyards.
For more information...
Chatham Arts: www.chathamarts.org
Bynum Music Series: www.mindspring. com/~raxter/
Pittsboro General Store Cafe: www.generalstorecafe.com
A little bit of everything: www.visitchathamcounty.com/festivals.shtml