A sprawling ranch house in Duke Forest territory just off Mt. Sinai Road has been the scene of a number of terrific living-room concerts over the last half-dozen years. The list of artists who have played Pine Hill Farm, as the house was christened in time for the inaugural show, ranges from such big names (at least in Americana/"alt-country" circles) as Alejandro Escovedo and Robbie Fulks to the under-appreciated likes of Tim Carroll and the Mary Janes. The house concerts began as a partnership between Steve Gardner, who in 1996 had moved from Southern California to Carrboro and was looking to organize the type of living-room shows he enjoyed on the West Coast, and Bill Tolbert, one of several guys renting the aforementioned sprawling ranch house at the time. Proving that when music lust meets volunteer spirit, wondrous things can happen, the Pine Hill Farm concert series took off. Tolbert bought his own place a couple of years later, passing his half of the torch to fellow Ericsson employee Kurt Hickey, a large Nordic type originally from the Upper Midwest.
But now Hickey is moving out of Pine Hill Farm, and despite the existence of three other well-established house concert series in the Triangle--Forty Acres and Afternoon Nap in Chapel Hill and Vocal Folkus in Raleigh--it feels like the end of an era. So to celebrate the six years of shows at Pine Hill Farm, Gardner and Hickey coordinated a two-night grand finale.
Friday night began with Peter Blackstock, co-editor of the alternative-country bimonthly No Depression, presenting Hickey with a framed blowup of the magazine's current, Johnny Cash-sporting cover. (No Depression helped sponsor the shows.) The shot quickly joined a variety of other Cash photos that adorn the brick wall that serves as the backdrop for the performers, with that wall providing a touch of irony: In the intimate confines of Pine Hill Farm, the wall between artist and audience is nonexistent. A broken guitar string has always been just another opportunity for performer and crowd to bond.
Next, Hickey delivered a heartfelt speech about what the Pine Hill Farm shows had meant to him. It's not often that you see a Viking mist up. Then it was time for the music, with sets from three out-of-towners, starting with sweet-picking Tim Easton.
Easton, equal parts Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, and Freedy Johnston and the youthful possessor of an old-soul voice, actually considered moving into Pine Hill Farm at one time and making the Triangle his homebase. (He landed in Athens, Ga., instead.)
Up next was Patterson Hood, whose band, the Drive-By Truckers, were responsible for the two rowdiest and most brain-damaging Pine Hill Farm shows ever. Alongside a handful of songs destined for the next Drive-By Truckers' next release in the spring, Hood (supported by Truckers drummer Brad Morgan and auxiliary Trucker, pedal steel hero John Neff) shared the only Christmas song to ever feature both a heroin sting and extramarital elf sex.
The third set belonged to Nashville's Bobby Bare Jr., accompanied by gifted multi-instrumentalist David Steele. A sniffling, slightly jittery ("I was beaten up pretty bad last night by a guy named Jack Daniels, plus I'm adjusting to the weather"), and genuinely engaging performer, Bare Jr. filled the room with roots-pop gems and memorable lines like "the halo falls not far to become a noose."
Saturday night's message could be summed up thusly: In addition to supporting music that's made in local living rooms, be sure to support music that's made by local musicians. Driving that latter point home was the appearance of five of the best that the Triangle roots/country-rock community can offer: Chip Robinson, Thad Cockrell, Tift Merritt, Chris Smith, and Kenny Roby. Each one writes emotion-dripping songs, with the difference lying in delivery and solo presence. Robinson and Smith come off tightly coiled and intense in contrast to the exuberant, pure-voiced Merritt and Cockrell. Roby, ping-ponging between boisterous and whispery, is a category unto himself. After their solo sets, the five artists assembled--a sofa now replacing the lone chair--to share more original songs, some inspired covers (a verse-swapping take on the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations," "Girl from the North Country"), and plenty of good-natured, nothing's-sacred jabs at each other and themselves.
Friday night had also ended with a round-robin session, and it encapsulated the Pine Hill Farm experience in all its ragged glory. There was Nashville gossip and back-of-the-van talk, false starts and audience participation--at times maybe too much audience participation, crying out for some type of house concert intervention or, at least, a gentle shushing. Covers were plentiful, including a countrified version of Slade/Quiet Riot's "Cum on Feel the Noize," "Sugar Mountain" (with a crowd member invited to tackle two of the verses), David Bowie's "Five Years," and the ailing Warren Zevon's "Play It All Night Long."
And there was room for originals too, with Hood's high-octane high-school memoir "Let There Be Rock" and Bare Jr.'s open letter to rock royalty, "Dig Down," among the highlights. During the latter, the audience chimed in, cue-less, with perfectly timed, "Sympathy for the Devil"-style woo-woos. It was the kind of Pine Hill Farm moment that will echo long after the Johnny Cash artifacts are packed away, a spontaneous and joyous noise.