"About eight years ago, I stole the idea from someone else because nobody was doing it in our area," says 40 Acres founder Gardner, who now is the Radio Director for Yep Roc records. "I had seen some house concerts in California and patterned it after that model." After moving to the area in '96, Gardner soon tired of waiting for music and started doing it himself in '97.
At that time, there weren't many places in the area that supported acoustic music. Bluegrass bands in particular had no place to play in Chapel Hill. "So they would always play in Asheville, and then would play in D.C., and then they would skip us," Gardner says. "I got sick of it."
Enlisting the aid of a couple of friends willing to open their house to strangers for a musical evening for a nominal fee, Gardner began putting on all acoustic shows. One reason was because of the obvious need, and the other reason was of a personal nature. "I'm a little bit lazy, and it's a heck of a lot easier to put on a concert when you don't have any amplification and there's no sound system. It's not really needed in a small room. I think people at the time weren't really thinking that way."
Gardner's idea caught on, but after five years he decided to move on. "I was ready just to go back to going to concerts and not having to haul folding chairs back and forth to the rental place," Gardner says. "When I started it, there was nobody doing it, but when it ended, there were about six different people in the area who were doing it, so I felt like it was easy for me to just let that go and let somebody else take it on."
"It's amazing how easy it is for this thing to just keep rolling along," Sayre says. "Bottom line is because it's a real grassroots musical experience." Even if some performers are not well known to the general public, there's enough of a fanbase to guarantee a good turnout, as was the case with a recent show with Greg Greenway. Even though Sayre had never heard of him, his partners assured him a crowd would show up, and they did--about 50 people, which is considered good business.
Forty people is considered adequate attendance, according to Kimrey, who hosts shows in his house. "I call 50 a full house, 60 sold out and 70 standing room only." 40 Acres can accommodate a bit larger crowd with two venues. The Campion's, a private residence, holds about 90 SRO, and their other venue, The Trails, a community center west of Carrboro, holds around 140.
The artists like the numbers. An average show can net a performer $500, not counting CD sales, which is better than most can do at local clubs. They also like the fact that their audience is actually paying attention to the music. But for some, that intense attention can be a bit disconcerting. "Just having people just sitting there just listening to you has made some artists quite nervous," Kimrey says. "They're so used to singing in front of an anonymous, smoky crowd that to have people actually listening to them and being right there in front of them, when the front row is literally three feet away--Kevin Gordon said it's taken him three or four times just to get used to it. But generally they like it."
Some artists like it a bit too much. "Everybody wants to come back," Kimrey laments. "Now they're 10 or 12 people who want to come back and I don't want to have a deal where all I'm doing is providing the same 10 people every year. I don't know how to get around that except to keep on going and invite some new people."
That's not much of a problem. "Because of the legacy that we're building, it starts to become its own engine," Sayre says. Agents who have clients doing house concerts are calling with other acts they have on contract. The artists themselves are pitching the concept, as a recent blind e-mail from Kevin Montgomery to journalists and PR people looking for recruits to host house concerts attests: "I'm working on next year's schedule and wanted to see if you would be interested in hosting a house concert," Montgomery writes. "I do a full show, and then we have a party."
Though it seems that the party would get crowded with everybody trying to attend, both Sayre and Kimrey agree there's plenty of room of everyone. "There's no competition at all. That's the beauty of it," Sayre says. "Nobody looks at it that way at all. We've been able to help people out back and forth just by sharing information." Kimrey says that from the first time he heard of what Gardner was doing and got interested in doing it himself, he was offered advice. "He was very helpful and told me how to do it," Kimrey recalls.
Although Gardner is out of the business, he still sees it as a viable, growing enterprise. "As long as there are people who are willing to do it, I think it would last forever," he says. Kimrey and Sayre are certainly willing to do their part, with a Spartan attitude about putting on the shows. "I've never cancelled a show, and I've never had less than I consider to be an adequate house," Kimrey says. "I've never had a complaint from anybody," Sayre adds. "We'll never cancel. No. Not unless we've got some ice storm or a power outage. It's just a thing to keep the gates open."
Gardener is bit more philosophical about the future, but he too believes that the gates will be open for a long time to come. "People come and go, but there's always house concerts somewhere. I think once that idea is out there, there'll always be a place for that."