If you are a fan of live, acoustic music, at some point straining to hear over a loud bar crowd, you may have thought, wouldn’t it be great if my favorite performer could play at my house instead? It might surprise you to know the performer may be thinking the same thing. For this month’s Artscape, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Chuck Hinman examines the growing phenomenon of house concerts in the Ocean State.
On the back patio of a house on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Rumford section of East Providence, homeowners Bill Jette and Dixie Carroll get ready for their latest house concert. It’s their third in just the last several days. The other two featured one of their favorite performers, singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham of Austin, Texas.
On this evening, the husband and wife team is expecting about 40 people to come see Gurf Morlix, another well-regarded musician from Austin.
Jette says his home is becoming a music mecca, all thanks to a chance encounter he had in the retail store he runs with his wife in Providence.
“We have a lot of music on the playlist in there,” said Jette. “I had two or three Gurf Morlix songs on a playlist, and a woman came in the store, and she was there for a minute or so, and she came walking up to me and just said, 'that’s Gurf Morlix.’”
The customer was friends with the Texas-based musician, and after Jette mentioned he planned to host concerts in his home, she asked if he might be interested in hosting Gurf Morlix as well.
“She said, ‘here’s his phone number, he doesn’t have a cell phone. Just call the house, and if his wife answers, just tell her I gave you the number, and everything will be okay.’ And that’s how it happened,” said Jette.
Jette’s wife, Dixie Carroll, worked for a time in the music business in Nashville. Because of what she describes as "splintering" in the music industry and a changing entertainment landscape, Carroll believes the house concert has evolved to help musicians cope.
“There are so many ways to access music and so few ways for artists to make money playing and making music, that a lot of the artists are having to find different ways to fuel their careers,” said Carroll.
Carroll cites musicians like Jon Dee Graham, of Texas, among those who see house concerts as a valuable tool.
“He recognized early on that he could make a lot more money, have a more engaged audience and have a whole lot more fun if he went and played in a house for 30 people, who were all there to see him and would all be quiet and focused on the show,” Carroll explained.
But putting on a house concert is not going to make you a lot of money. In fact, if you do it the way Jette and Carroll do, it will actually cost you some money. They ask their guests to put a suggested donation of $20 into a hat, but they say the money is not for them.
“Our theory is we want to invite people to come, and we’d rather they spend their money on the artist, so that the artist has enough money to make it to their next location,” said Carroll. “So we subsidize those other costs so that people have an added incentive to come.”
Musician Jon Dee Graham says house concerts have always been around, but he has noticed a recent increase in their popularity.
“It was definitely an underground thing,” said Graham. “In the last ten years, they’ve sort of started creeping up, but the last five years it really sort of exploded, and it’s a movement.”
And for a working artist, house concerts can be lucrative, according to Graham.
“I probably make more money at house concerts, in the long view, than I do at venues,” said Graham. “It seems to help connect with the audience better, plus they have money to buy CDs and stuff after because they haven’t been spending $9 on a drink every hour. [And] suggested donations, not once have I come up short.”
On the night of the Gurf Morlix concert at the home of Bill Jette and Dixie Carroll, the sounds of a guitar echo through the East Providence house.
Morlix has arrived and is doing a sound check. In another hour or so, the crowd begins to build.
Morlix could be called a musician’s musician. A singer-songwriter, he is also a multi-instrumentalist and producer. He’s worked with just about everybody in Americana, folk and roots rock. He says he’s been doing house concerts for nearly a decade.
“The first one was seven or eight years ago, and I was deathly afraid of it, because, you know, the people can see your nose hairs,” said Morlix. “And I found out that I just absolutely loved it.”
Like Jon Dee Graham, Morlix appreciates the informal, casual way most house concerts come together. There are networks and websites that advertise the house concerts, but Morlix says most of his concerts are promoted by word-of-mouth.
“If someone finds out I might be in the area, they say ‘hey would you mind coming and playing at our place,’ and I say sure.”
That’s how he ended up in the suburbs of Rhode Island on a warm night in May. By show time, about 40 people have arrived. They bond over music, food and a shared feeling of something special. Gurf Morlix’s final song, a version of the Scottish-Irish traditional song of farewell, The Parting Glass, feels fitting.
“Of all the money that e'er I spent, I've spent it in good company," Morlix sang. "So fill to me the parting glass. Good night and joy be with you all.”
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