Arthur Bouldin, with the big white cowboy hat and the stand-up bass, couldn't be more sincere as he leads the house band in a rendition of "Wabash Cannonball." It's par for the course at Charlie's Barn in Pittsboro, where a spirited musical gathering has taken place every Friday night for more than a decade. It's even outlived Charlie, Arthur's brother, who passed away last year.
"Friday Night at Charlie's" is just one of a growing crop of places to hear and play traditional and old-time music around the Triangle. Family-friendly, frequently free, and pleasing to the ears of the good Lord and the faint of heart, these venues have something you might not find on a typical night at Alltel Pavilion. They're intimate. They bring communities together. They preserve, protect and defend a musical heritage. And they're not, in the words of one venue owner, "a costume party"--they're about making music that's real.
At Charlie's, what's "real" is what you might call classic country, before it became a slogan on the radio. We're talking Patsy, Hank and Tammy here. The seven-member house band lights into "I'll Fly Away," "John Henry," "Satisfied Mind" and "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." There's Pepsi and cookies on a card table as you walk in, and a big tub of "Free Tomatoes" next to a stack of paper bags. Tractor caps and cowboy hats pop out of a sea of unmatched chairs and couches, carefully arranged in straight rows. The crowd is mainly retirees, but folks still get up and dance a few--husbands and wives, as well as white-haired ladies. There's a poster inviting you to join Ralph Spicer's "All-American Cowboy Honor Club," where you'll learn to be loyal, obedient, considerate, honest, careful, thankful and helpful. You can't help but think that these folks are already card-carrying members.
After awhile, Arthur starts calling folks out of the audience to do a number or two with the band. Penny comes up to sing "Uncloudy Day." Then Tim livens up the proceedings with a fiddle. Lanelle, who used to do duets with Charlie, takes on Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home."
Paul Isling, who moved to nearby Fearington Village after taking early retirement from the Department of Veterans Affairs, says he visited a few times before asking Arthur what it took to get invited up on stage. That was all it took.
"This is a magnificent forum," Isling says, "because they'll let anybody come in, stand up there and do what they want to do." Tonight, Arthur beckons, and Isling applies his baritone to Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" and "Give My Love to Rose." (Friday Night at Charlie's, Route 64, six miles west of Pittsboro, north on Buckner Clark Road, west on Hillside Music Road.)
Musician Gail Gillespie has been the de facto organizer of the Thursday night old-time jams at El Chilango, a Mexican restaurant in Carrboro where a host band, Three Stripped Gears, perhaps, plays at 8, and facilitates the jam which starts at 9. On a typical night outside of festival season, you might find eight jammers on hand--maybe even old-time pros like Carl Jones, Fiddlin' Bill Hicks, Brad Leftwich, Todd Woerner and Alice Gerrard--not to mention a few flatfooters.
"You're not talking about any old jam," Gillespie says. "Some of these people are world-class old-time musicians." Not to worry, though--it's a welcoming group, and, as she puts it, "We're all learning from each other." (506 Jones Ferry Rd, Carrboro: 960-0171.)
The Bynum General Store is one of the newer venues to present live music--at least in terms of an organized schedule--and it's also the only place in town where you can pick up your mail and a can of Betty Ann Greecy Greens. "Send a Little Bit of America for as little as $3.75," reads a sign hanging over the post office inside; but it won't even cost that much to attend the Front Porch Music Series, which is free. And jammers are welcome on the porch after the main show.
On a typical night, between 30 and 150 people--who sit on chairs in the parking lot or on the grass across the street--might assemble to hear Hooverville or The Accelerators. But tonight, it's storeowner Jerry Partin's birthday, and one-time Bynum resident Tift Merritt is putting on a show with Hobart Willis and the Back Forty that eventually draws more than 500 people.
"This is the most people that's been in Bynum in a long time!" says Jeff Herndon, and he should know: He's lived here for all of his 45 years. "But it don't bother me. It's good for Jerry's business."
Described as "a community project," the series is sponsored by the residents of Bynum, Storage on Board, Ltd., The Chatham County Art Council and the UNC Curriculum in Folklore. Since the demise of the town's mill in 1979, longtime locals have found themselves co-existing with artists and other newcomers. As the last remaining retail outlet and focal point for community exchange, the store can accurately be described as the only thing standing in the way of Bynum's transformation to a bedroom community. Organizers see the series as a way of building community by keeping Partin's business going.
Although alt-country, old country and bluegrass have been on the schedule so far, organizers are bringing in local old-time groups like Big Medicine and The Hushpuppies this fall. Gospel, blues and local Latino artists remain an interest in the future, along with a possible daylong music festival for charity. (950 Bynum Rd, Bynum; information: (919) 542-1858.)
Down the road at the Pittsboro General Store Café, Efland singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd is entertaining a casual crowd of fans. Because of the café's former incarnation as a car dealership, it benefits from floor-to-ceiling showroom windows, ample headroom, and factory air conditioning. Off the performance space is a sitting room with couches and tables and a bulletin board that paints a picture of the evolving Pittsboro community: There are notices for yoga classes, horse boarding, sustainable farming and intentional community living.
"The store has always been a place where local artists and others have posted information about their work," says Richard McGough, who co-owns the café with his wife, Becket. "When we bought it two years ago, we turned it into what it is now, principally a café. But the whole expectation that it be a place at the disposal of the local artistic community, and the others who live here, remains."
That's why, on a typical night, you're likely to hear anything from local players the Off the Road Band to an Andean music fundraiser for the Chatham County Arts Council or a benefit concert for the local Hospice. The café also hosts a monthly Open Irish Session--one of the few regular places in the area where you can jam, Celtic style. (39 West St., Pittsboro: 542-2432.)
At the Hyphen Coffeehouse, named after that little dash between Fuquay and Varina, Kurt Fortmeyer and wife Nina are likely to host an eclectic assortment of acoustic groups including Kid Sister (Durham Lilith Fair champions), Americana brother act Meanflower and Heritage (a bluegrass and good-time group that packs the joint with retired farmers).
"I think there is a groundswell of what I would call 'real music,'" Fortmeyer says. "A lot of people are tired of manufactured stuff. People are trying to get more in touch in people and less in touch with business." Here at The Hyphen, even the coffee beans are locally roasted. (135 South Main St., Fuquay-Varina: 567-0303.)
The folks at PineCone (Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, www.pinecone.org) couldn't be happier with the growth of old-time venues, not only as places to hear but to play the music. "I feel like we've had a large hand in building that audience," says executive director Susan Newberry. "Having been here since 1984, when nobody else was doing any of this stuff, it's real gratifying to see how that audience has grown, and deepened. And we have such a great opportunity to keep building it."
PineCone has managed to present just about every North Carolina Folk Heritage Award winner who plays music. Its "Music of the Carolinas" series at the N.C. Museum of History presents nine free shows per season from September through May. There are eight shows a year in Garner, shows in the works for Apex and Wake Forest, and other shows in conjunction with various Wake County parks, not to mention the Hayti Heritage Center, N.C. Museum of Art and N.C. State's Stewart Theatre (Ricky Scaggs, Tim O'Brien, Dirk Powell, Mary Black and others are scheduled during the 2001-2002 season).
On the strictly bluegrass side, Banjo in the Hollow (banjo-in-the-hollow.org), established in 1990, is another prime source for weekly and monthly public picking sessions. It hosts outdoor concerts at Bond Park in Cary, a "Fall Camp & Pick," and is a sponsor of the Bluegrass in Garner series.
The list could go on and on. Cary's Six String Café which opened in April, presents a variety of acoustic folk, blues, bluegrass and old-time, and hosts a monthly "Tops in the Triangle" show (three sets by three notable local acts, who then jam together). Sweet Tea & Grits in Raleigh began offering live music in its cafe three months ago and features an equally eclectic lineup--they recently hosted the Athens, Ga.-based duo Claire and Bain's Maple Yum-Yum (banjo, kazoo and musical saw, anyone?). Lu-E-G's in Hillsborough continues to host its Friday night music series, which taps local talent aplenty (Alysson Light, Lobsterboy Quintet). (For addresses, check our music calendar listings.)
And that's not to mention the house concerts, dorm-room jams, and even the open fields where folks get together to listen and play. Says the Hyphen's Fortmeyer, "With 'rootsy' music right now, it seems like there's 15 shows that you'd want to go to, every weekend."
For those of us lucky enough to live in the Triangle, that's not what you'd call a problem.