The Patron Saints of Bohemiaville
It’s Friday evening in St. Francisville, Louisiana, and Cave Catt Sammy is heating up. Two little girls have been dancing and twirling since the soundcheck. Adults tap their toes as they eat dinner or dance in front of the bar. A dog is looking inside, her nose pressed against the back door. She will watch the whole show.
It’s difficult to imagine Americana and roots-rock thriving in a town where nearly 10 percent of the population needs to turn out in order to fill the room. But that doesn’t deter Robin Marshall and Kevin Ford, who run the Magnolia Cafe, from hosting a touring Americana band in its 100-seat restaurant-cum-music venue each week.
“We’re not a money market,” explains Ford. Indeed, the sleepy town, located about two hours northwest of New Orleans, is better known for its antebellum homes and romantic inns than its nightlife. But in Louisiana, where alt-country traditionally does not do very well, the Magnolia is able to offer a small but enthusiastic group of fans. That has been enough to entice an impressive array of musicians — including Dave Alvin, the Bottle Rockets, Billy Joe Shaver and Alejandro Escovedo — to stop at this little venue. Bands play for lower-than-usual guarantees, and locals shell out $15 or more in order to see them perform.
Most of the townspeople know little about the artists before purchasing tickets. Though they joke about the dangers of having Ford as a cultural arbiter, the core of new fans (including Marshall, who owns Magnolia) have chosen to trust his judgment. And with few exceptions, the people of St. Francisville like what they hear.
The result is a trickle-down effect that has introduced Americana into many corners of the community. Merchandise sells well at the shows — Lynn Wood, proprietor of Birdman Coffee & Books, plays CDs from past Magnolia performers in her shop, as well as roots-based music from Bob Dylan, Keb Mo, Alison Krauss and others. She promotes upcoming concerts by hanging posters or tacking up newsclippings about the artists coming to town. Marshall and Ford also continue to push past bands by stocking their jukebox with alt-country. Magnolia staffers may wear a company T-shirt or that of any band who has previously performed in town.
Because St. Francisville has relatively little nightlife, the arrival of a musician becomes the talk of the town. When I was there, in January, Ford had just booked Chuck Prophet to play his second Magnolia gig. Word travels fast, and within days the town was buzzing with the news that he was returning — in May.
It makes sense that Americana, in particular, is doing well here. The town prides itself on its hospitality, and the townspeople are as impressed with the band members as they are with the music. Anne Klein, a secretary for the Episcopal church, tries never to miss a show. “It’s good, clean fun,” she says. “By the end of the evening, everybody’s friends.”
Small-town life can seem quirky to outsiders, and when musicians are in town, things can get downright surreal. Magnolia Cafe is, first and foremost, a family restaurant, and has been for many years. The introduction of touring bands is much more recent — it started about a year ago — and it’s important to Marshall to maintain a family atmosphere.
The shows are always all-ages, and recently St. Francisville’s teenagers have begun to realize that live music at Magnolia is the coolest thing going, despite the fact that their parents will be there. When some high school kids stopped in after a football game one evening, the Bellfuries were treated to a cheer by the school’s uniformed cheerleaders. The Weary Boys made such an impact on one high school girl that she brought a large group of friends with her to their second show. “They walked in the door, and you would have thought it was the damn Beatles in 1962,” recalls Ford. “Fifteen-year-old kids loving Americana — that’s cool as shit.”
The lot on which the Magnolia stands includes the coffeehouse, an art gallery, and the state’s oldest motor hotel, the 3V Tourist Court. Marshall and Ford try to encourage artists of every stripe to spend time in St. Francisville, which is affectionately referred to by locals as “Bohemiaville.” Bringing in music is one of the ways they hope to attract other artists. Recently, two Los Angelenos looking for a getaway chose St. Francisville on the weekend that Dave Alvin was playing, thrilled to see one of their favorite hometown artists in such an intimate setting.
Demand is growing as people from outside the region learn about Magnolia and Ford is able to bring in more impressive artists through word-of-mouth. Still, many of the people in town who enjoy Americana don’t necessarily come to the shows, and even the core group of local fans miss some nights. Despite Magnolia’s best efforts and the band’s willingness to play for a relatively modest fee, the restaurant loses money on live music most of the time. They haven’t reached the 10 percent mark necessary to keep the house full, and Marshall has begun to grow weary of waiting for the rest of the town to catch on. But regardless of their frustrations, she and Ford continue to book bands they want the town to hear.
“If God sends you an angel,” Marshall says, “you just can’t say no.”