With the proliferation of alt-Americana on pop airwaves, and country stations squeezing out a steady rotation of Millered-down twang-pop and hick-hop, it would seem reasonable to posit that rural musi
With the proliferation of alt-Americana on pop airwaves, and country stations squeezing out a steady rotation of Millered-down twang-pop and hick-hop, it would seem reasonable to posit that rural music in this country has kicked the slop bucket, or else mutated into something at best incomparable – at worst antithetical – to its original character.
But while traditional Americana music might be over the hill, it’s certainly not declining. The Porch: Listening To America, which opened at the Firehouse Theater this week, is an honest voice speaking strongly among the clamor of auto-tuned artifice.
Curated by Christian D’andrea, a documentary filmmaker, The Porch series brings the most authentic musicians from the porches of Virginia’s piedmont to Richmond’s cultural stage. This unadulterated showcase embraces the philosophy of shunpiking, which D’andrea describes on opening night as “not just exiting, but knowing which exit to take.” As the show gets underway, it becomes clear that D’andrea has taken exactly the right exits.
The set is a nearly impeccable replication of an Appalachian porch, missing only the ambient intimacy of crickets, and kitchen clamor muted against the screen door. It captures the amber of evenings strewn with blankets and coffee cups and deep county constellations — worn rocking chairs and wood planks that creak under the footfalls of some vague regional memory.
It feels like a home you’ve maybe never had, or one you always wanted.
Standing on a makeshift porch that feels both ancient and vibrantly present, D’andrea says that “Porches aren’t just things we put on the front of houses. They’re places where actual magic can happen.” He believes porches unite us — that they are the locus where people welcome us into their lives.
The audience appears to have spent more time in the seats of John Deere tractors than black box theaters, and it’s likely most of them were steeped in American heritage music like tea bags in ice pitchers on the porches of their own histories. These are not urban academics with provincial curiosities or fashionable urbanites with backroad affectations. They are folks with hill country woven into their clothing, piedmont valleys folded into the creases of their eyes.
The performers for opening night all hail from around Galax, Virginia, and the first is Stevie Barr of Barr’s Fiddle Shop. He ambles casually into the stage lights from behind the front door with a pristine banjo and perches casually on a stool. He has an inside joke kind of smile, and speaks with an even lilt of twang and drawl as he explains that in spite of playing bluegrass with finger picks, he “kinda grew up on old fiddle tunes. Launching into a rendition of “Old Time Sally Anne,” he exhibits a kind of frenzied precision, a style that suits the wholesome mischief of his demeanor.
D’andrea and Barr talk a bit about the history of Barr’s Fiddle Shop, how Barr’s dad was “in the monument business” and brought his sculptural prowess into fiddle and dulcimer making. D’andrea jokes about how Barr kept tabs on him the entire time he was in the area, and eventually offered to take him an hour over the mountains to a place spoken of in hushed reverence: the home and workshop of Wayne Henderson, sole proprietor of Henderson Guitars.
Henderson emerges (along with longtime friend and musical accomplice Herb Key, an upright bassist), and a barely audible gasp rolls over the audience like a gathering mountain storm. If there’s any credence to the notion of a “living legend”, Henderson lends it selflessly. Red-faced and white-bearded, he wears sneakers and a baseball cap that he refers to as “formal wear.” His guitar appears timeworn, and with good cause: he made it thirty-seven years ago from mahogany and Appalachian red spruce. It was one of his first. He’s now made 675.
Henderson speaks of his hometown, Rigby, with a casual amusement, and jokes that the population there is 7 — because “every time a baby is born, somebody leaves town.” He addresses his craft with the same sort of humor, explaining his process simply: “You use a good wood and a sharp [whittlin’] knife, and you cut away everything that don’t look like a guitar.” If you didn’t already know, it would be impossible to tell that his creations are sought after worldwide — or that Eric Clapton had to wait seven years for a Henderson guitar.
Henderson grew up working on farms, and used porch picking as a way to get off work from time to time during the summers, when he played with his cousins and the legendary Doc Watson. He grins and brags about how great the sound was “comin’ down the holler.”
When he, Key, and Barr play together, there is a nonchalant holiness. They do a Carter Family medley that feels hymnal without proselytizing, as much an embodiment of a lost spirituality as musicality. The songs draw no separation between the landscapes that birthed them and divinity. Herb sings as though he’s never needed to project, despite the deliberate absence of amplification. His voice is as easy and smooth as creek water after a rain — quiet, but never drowned out.
Between songs, Henderson talks about the waiting list for his guitars, and how he can be swayed to expedite the process with good food, passionate musicianship, and especially by members of what he considers to be his musical family. He made Clapton wait seven years because he already had plenty of guitars. Money seems to be the one thing that doesn’t make him work faster. Offering him twice his asking price is an insult. Flipping one of his guitars after buying it is a damnable offence – he will never make you another one.
It would be tempting to refer to him as “Christ-like” if it weren’t so clear that he’d object. But the parallels are undeniable – he works with wood, provides to those in need over those of means, cares for his community, and eschews wealth in favor of genuine human camaraderie. If nothing else, his humble demeanor serves to underscore rather than detract from the association. Sorry, Wayne.
When Henderson disappears inside the squeaking screen door, a second set of performers arrives on stage one by one — starting with Willard Greyheart, who owns Front Porch Gallery and Frame Shop in Woodlawn, Virginia. Greyheart is a pencil artist who specializes in realistic portraiture and images of local folks playing music. On porches. Prints of his work displayed in the lobby during the show, displaying the serendipity of The Porch series, not its production.
After singing a song about his Henderson guitar (a testament to lore, not an endorsement), he is joined by his son-in-law Scott Freeman, and Scott’s daughter, Dori Freeman. They play a song called We’re Gonna Have Ourselves A Workin’, and the harmonies are transcendent — it’s the stuff of music too pure for categorization. This is the most important and authentic representation of Americana music I have ever seen.
As the three alternate playing songs individually and together, they flow seamlessly between gosptels and original compositions, traditionals and instrumentals, embodying the effortless charm of those rare musicians able to supplement technical ability with emotional honesty. There’s a palpable, angelic lineage running through the three generations that share the stage.
The youngest of these generations, Dori, has a gracefully pixyish appearance. She plays a Henderson half her size and much smaller than her siren’s voice. Her grandfather calls her a “gift from god to our family.” (Rolling Stone is apparently pretty fond of her)
It seems appropriate that she plays “A Gift From God” by Rosalee and Doc Watson, a song Rosalee wrote mostly while sweeping her porch. Dori reluctantly tells a story about playing the tune for Doc once, and bringing him to tears. She seems to have that effect on people — me included.
There is a point at which it becomes easy to forget that this is a stage nestled against the gentle slope of a theater setting, not a porch nestled in verdant hills. There are no microphones, no amplification, no cues or script. This is not a concert or musical theater, but some kind of gestalt incorporating both.
Joel Bassin, the Producing Artistic Director at the Firehouse Theater who helped bring the Porch series to fruition, gushes about the authenticity of it all:
“What I love about it, is it’s a synergistic thing – it’s storytelling, it’s music, there’s a scenic aspect to it that creates an illusionary world that all plays do. They’re not really acting, but they’re performing, which is the best theater.”
In a post-show interview, D’andrea is happy to underscore the sentiment that the line between theater and musical performance isn’t the only one The Porch series swings across:
“The porch is one of the few places on planet earth that’s a hybrid between private and public…And most of us have gotten used to living with a really sharp divide between [the two], and it’s bad for society. There’s no common ground. So the porch is a place which is a little bit of a fusion between the two. It’s still private, it’s still my porch, but I want you to come on up, and you don’t have to ask if you can walk up onto my porch…And that’s why something semi-sacred happens with the music.”
D’andrea speaks about the project and its participants with the type of lucid adoration usually reserved for creative writing majors and their favorite poets.
“The show is designed to expose people to this kind of music, but the difference is, it’s not quite the same thing as saying “here’s this old time bluegrass festival.” I’ve been to those and they’re wonderful, they’re magnificent, but it’s typically almost entirely aficionados. When it’s leavened/spiced up with the stories and the lore of these people, it adds a whole other dimension of attraction…”
“…we’re talking about tradition and how one shares it and so forth, and my idea is that the porch is a great doorway for a lot of people into this world. It’s a nice location and it’s a nice artifact, and it’s a way in for a lot of people… I want these good rivers of American cultural identity to begin to mix…I want them to be flowing everywhere so people can get access to them, experience them so they can be shared.”
The Porch: Listening To America is a doorway to the actual, non-mythical world of Virginia’s Appalachian communities, and one that many are unlikely to step through otherwise. D’andrea goes so far as to remark that it “humanizes” the Galax region that it features in its first week. The Porch series brings something intimate and immutably honest to the stage — and it’s not just music, but what it means to share space with each other, and how that reflects upon us.
“Porches really are the fusion of public and private… When you hang out on a porch… we can get a better sense of what we’re made of, and I mean that in terms of community. We can get a better sense of what we’re made out of.”
Though he plans to expand the project to other regions throughout the country, he may have picked the perfect place to start. Richmond is, after all, the fall line between the Piedmont and Tidewater, the North and the South, the past and progress. It draws from the mountains as surely as it stands along the river that flows east from their peaks. In a town so preoccupied with feeling out its identity against the tides of trend and tradition, sometimes it’s best to focus on what unites us, rather than what divides. D’andrea’s point is that a porch may be the perfect place to start.
The Porch: Listening To America runs throughout the month:
Monday, February 15 @ 7pm
“A Real Original” — featuring Red and Allie Knierim
Monday, February 22 @ 7pm
“From SW VA, to Fame and Back” — featuring Mac & Jenny Traynham, and Larry Burnett