There’s No Place Like Home
God isn’t real. Or so Robbie Fulks sang to me and around 50 other folks on a brisk Sunday night last November. Fair enough — but then how was it I was sitting five feet away from Fulks in someone’s living room at the time, with an icy Harpoon India Pale Ale in hand and a couple more coolered at my feet? It all sure seemed heaven sent.
In the summer of 1996, Steve Gardner moved from Southern California with his wife Celeste and their daughter Kareena to Carrboro, North Carolina — a town darn close to heaven in its own right, especially for roots-rock/alt-country fans, with the Backsliders, Two Dollar Pistols, 6 String Drag, and other nationally known bands within shouting distance. However, Gardner did find the place lacking in one respect musically.
“I saw some house concerts in California and it just seemed like a great idea,” says Gardner, one of those boyish-looking guys who’s going to seem the same at 60 as he does his present 30 — like Dick Clark in a “Get Right With Gid!” T-shirt (as in Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers). “When I moved to North Carolina, I innocently thought that house concerts probably weren’t needed because you can see old-time and bluegrass music everywhere. Boy was I wrong. After a year of waiting, I just decided to bring the people to town by myself.” Eight years of radio experience in California had earned Gardner a lot of contacts; soon after he hit Carolina, Duke University’s WXDU had welcomed his popular “Topsoil” show with open arms and a prime Sunday afternoon spot. All that was lacking was a place to hold the concerts.
When a friend, Hank Williams aficionado and Fulks look-alike Bill Tolbert, moved into a house out in the wilds of Durham County, the opportunity arose. The locale had the three crucial features: a large living room, a long driveway for ample parking, and understanding neighbors. Hell, it even already had a name. Explains Gardner: “When Bill rented the house, there was an old wooden sign broken down the middle that said simply ‘Pine Hill Farm’. Bill glued it back together, put it back on the lightpole, and a venue was born.”
The first Pine Hill Farm show featured Dan Levenson of the Boiled Buzzards, an Ohio-based old-time band. Although the crowd wasn’t as big as Gardner and Tolbert would have liked, they were encouraged enough to try it again. Next up was Rounder duo Jones & Leva; the show was nearly a sellout, beginning a string of wildly successful unamplified productions.
The list of the other performers who have appeared at Pine Hill Farm is an impressive and eclectic one: Fulks, Kevin Johnson and one Lineman (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my WXDU show “Border Radio” co-sponsored the Johnson show), singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, mandolinist/vocalist Don Rigsby from the Lonesome River Band, and ace fiddler/picker Bruce Molsky. The Freight Hoppers scheduled for November, and no doubt several other events will be held between now and then. Among the artists at the top of the Pine Hill Farm wish list for some of those open dates are Buddy and Julie Miller, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, Cordelia’s Dad, Skip Gorman, and Alejandro Escovedo.
The rustic living room, all hardwood floor and exposed rafters, is a perfect setting, and the “stage” is an area in front of a fireplace whose mantle plays host to a collection of country and roots music treasures. An original copy of Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light LP is propped up next to Jean Shepard’s Got You On My Mind album, opposite posters for Uncle Dave Macon and the Collins Kids (“DANCE! SHOW! ARMORY!”). A couple Hank Thompson 45s share real estate with Johnny Horton’s “North To Alaska” single; just to the right of those are an 8-track version of George Jones’ Bartender’s Blues and a vinyl copy of Johnny Cash’s The Holy Land, complete with some kind of proto-holographic cover. It’s not unusual to find yourself momentarily distracted (“Is that a giant Stuckey’s pecan log?!”) mid-song, but that’s all part of the fun.
“The great thing about house concerts are that you’ll see things that you’ll never see in a ‘regular’ show,” Gardner says. “Don Rigsby stood and lined out ‘Amazing Grace’ for us all to sing in the old Primitive Baptist style. Robbie Fulks played us some of the horrid and hilarious songs that he wrote while spending time in Nashville trying to make it big as a country songwriter. Slaid Cleaves sang a handful of Hank Williams songs when he found out that Bill is a huge Hank fan. The interaction between the crowd and the artists are always what makes the show. I’d say that at least half of our artists have said that it was their favorite show of the tour.”
Are you listening, Buddy and Julie Miller?