Not much traffic on Persimmon, especially on a cold Sunday evening in mid-January. And just when you get your bearings together as to how far you must travel down the road, Grouse Mountain Trail appears in the headlights.
Pulling up the steep road, which the pickup truck barely fit onto, you start to wonder if this is the right place. Meandering up (and up) the winding path, you soon find yourself atop the mountain, in a driveway amid an array of vehicles with dirty license plates stating “South Carolina,” “Tennessee,” “North Carolina” and “Kentucky.”
You’ve arrived. Welcome to the Grouse Mountain House Concert Series.
“This is what real life should be — friends, family, good food, and real original music,” said singer-songwriter Scott Low. “Turn off the radio and the phone, and find something original.”
Low co-hosts the series with his wife, Nicole Kelley. The newlywed couple has held the monthly events at their home for the better part of the last year (since they moved in). Track down a few bands on tour passing through the area. Put the word out. Bring a dish (though Low always barbecues for the shows) and bring your own beverages if you’d like (but be prepared, Rabun County is dry on Sundays).
“As people start to pour in, I get very excited to see old friends and new faces, and I’m proud that we can provide a place for original music to be heard,” Kelley said. “It’s being part of this movement in Rabun County. Not only are we opening people’s eyes to a sense of community that has been lost because everyone is so self-serving and ‘busy,’ but we’re also making connections, getting people to feel again, to experience something totally different than what’s at the local bar.”
Stepping into the home, one is immediately greeted by any and all within reach. Big bear hugs to familiar faces, hearty handshakes to strangers who will soon become friends over a plate of barbecue or frosty beer. Folks here are as friendly as they are genuinely interested in being an active participant in the multiple conversations pulsating around the room. Topics hover around life on the road, what’s next for each musician, or simply just curious questions and responses as to how we all came to converge on the evening, seemingly from all directions as the crow flies.
“I grew up here, and there was never a place for music or for the arts,” Kelley said. “I feel like our home is a place where artists of many talents can come inspire our community as well as be inspired by the community here in itself.”
Tonight’s bill includes Louisville-based Nick Dittmeier & The Sawdusters, Nashville’s own Kristina Murray, and Andrew Klein from just down the road in Athens. Low dims the living room lights to signal it’s time to find a seat or beanbag chair, a corner or couch, and relax quietly into the impending showcase.
“These shows are shockwaves of music and people, where you tell someone, and they tell someone, and that someone tells someone else — that’s how the scene grows,” he said. “I’m a musician and things like this are part of how we make our living. Tell your friends. All of these people playing tonight are on the road — this is love, this is life, this is real.”
And with that, Klein launches into his half-hour set. A member of popular Athens rock act Sam Sniper, he is now by himself, vulnerable to the crowd, with just his acoustic guitar and voice to prove his talents and passion. A voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison, Klein’s lonesome prairie yodel echoes throughout the two-story house, filling every inch of the 30-foot vaulted ceiling. The audience is silent, hanging onto Klein’s every word and guitar note, with raucous claps welcoming each release of tension between songs.
“It’s different playing to a crowd like this — it’s a lot more intimate,” Klein said afterwards. “And that can make me a little nervous, so naturally I’ll be playing with a little more sensitivity. I’m way more vulnerable, where everything I thought I was good at all of sudden becomes a little difficult. The audience notices that intimacy, and so do I, so the back and forth bounce grows into this beautiful, intense silence.”
Low flicks the living room lights back on. A few folks head for the bathroom, others for a quick cigarette outside. Ten minutes later, the lights get dim again, with Kristina Murray standing in front of the joyous faces. A rollicking brand of roadhouse folk-rock, Murray is a captivating singer (reminiscent of a young Bonnie Raitt), one who is perfectly complemented by her band of intricate finger pickers. Murray found out about the concert series from mutual friends of Low, who is a road warrior musician in his own right, finding himself (and Kelley) in numerous artistic circles around the southeast and greater America.
“The acoustics are great in this room. I like being able to sing and play guitar without a microphone,” Murray said following her set. “This crowd is a listening crowd, which is very much appreciated when you play bar after bar.”
Murray noted that in a day-and-age when artists rely more on touring than record sales to survive, having house concerts (which are becoming more popular) is another vital avenue to not only create a fan base, but to also get their music directly in the hands of those who are sincerely interested in what she (and other groups) are all about — onstage and off.
“There are so many bands out there, and to be able to have people like Scott and Nicole looking for great music to showcase to people is what it’s all about,” Murray said. “And I know plenty of bands who solely do house concerts. A lot of bars and venues want live music, but the pay is so low, and a lot of times you’re just playing for a non-listening crowd in a really loud room.”
And beyond providing a platform for up-and-coming bands, the series also offers a place to stay and recuperate in a sometimes-unforgiving industry.
“I’ve traveled almost the whole United States with Scott on tour, where a clean bed and homemade food on the road are a couple of things that can restore your faith in humanity,” Kelley said. “I love being able to put fresh sheets on the spare beds and couches, cook up a ton of food, and set out the merchandise table for their wares. We want to create a safe and warm place for everyone — seasoned musicians and those who are just finding their way.”
Those are sentiments also echoed by Dittmeier.
“It’s a lot better than the bar food we’re used to,” he chuckled on the porch before his set. “Everything about this atmosphere is dialed down, where you get to play and be part of an unobstructed space. Everything becomes one single unit, of musicians and listeners. It’s a culture of listening, and of offering something of yourself as a performer.”
The final performance of the evening, Dittmeier and The Sawdusters are a wild, well-oiled musical train, making stops in the realms of honky-tonk, outlaw country, bluegrass, and straight up rock-n-roll. A truly powerful sound, the ensemble mesmerized the audience with three-part harmonies, walking-the-dog thumping bass and a freewheelin’ attitude only found in the presence of true nitty-gritty musicianship.
Following The Sawdusters, the bands pack up their gear. The audience hugs each other goodbye. Until next time. See you soon. Time to head back out along the ole dusty trail that is the journey of life.
Frozen engines rumble to life as taillights can be seen drifting down the Grouse Mountain Trail, back home or onward to the next gig in some faraway town. The living room furniture is put back to its original place. And for those staying the night, hands grab for nearby instruments as all gather around the dining room table. There are more songs to be sung, with several hours of storytelling at their fingertips before the duties of tomorrow come-a-callin’.
“In all the years I’ve been touring ‘round and singing my songs, I’ve met and become great friends with many amazing under-the-radar players. Talent and being able to guide an audience through an artistic journey is what really matters here,” Low said. “We open up our house, cook a bunch of food and pick all night — it all kind of just falls into place.”
Want to go?
The next gathering of the Grouse Mountain House Concert Series will be at 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21, just over the Western North Carolina border in Clayton, Georgia.
Performers will include Danny Hutchens of acclaimed Athens rock act Bloodkin, Heidi Holton (blues/folk), and The Breedlove Brothers (folk/jam). Comedian Ben Palmer will also take the stage.
Admission is by donation, with $10 suggested. Capacity is limited to 50 people, so find out ahead of time as to being in attendance. For more information, search “Grouse Mountain House Concerts” on Facebook.