What do you do when a house concert outgrows the house? Move it to the barn.
That’s exactly what Bucks County residents Tom Oliver, who owns a fieldstone barn in Solebury, and Darrell Jennings have done.
“I bring people together who want to make music,” said Oliver about the private music series that has attracted an impressive roster of nationally known acts, such as International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2018 guitarist of the year Molly Tuttle and Gregg Allman Band’s guitarist Scott Sharrard. “That’s what this place is about.”
Originally hailing from Colombia, Oliver speaks in a slight Southern accent that he picked up from his Kentucky-born mother.
“I’m not a trained musician; I’m a racehorse veterinarian. But I can’t stand going into a bar and somebody’s playing something and you can’t hear anything. It’s kind of OK if it’s background music and you’re having a chat but if you really want to listen to somebody, this is what this space is about. It’s for appreciating live music,” said Oliver. “Today, in so many venues you go to, everybody’s got a DJ. And I’m not dissing DJs now, but I’m just saying that it’s nice to have live music that hasn’t been processed and it’s not perfect.”
Jennings, who books the artists, began hosting the events in 2011.
“I started the house concert series at my home, but as it outgrew the space of maybe 40 to 50 people, my friend Tom suggested we move the concerts to his farm. We did that in 2016 and started having shows in his garden … For one show, we ended up with pouring rain, so we moved the band [Suzy Jones from Nashville] into the barn. It was just an old barn at the time, but Tom fixed it up as best he could with a day’s notice,” said Jennings via email. “The show in the barn went so well that Tom decided to focus on the barn as the venue for future shows. He made it into a really nice space and added a great sound system.”
Jennings also owns American Musical Furniture, a business building humidity-controlled display cabinets for musical instruments, which allows him to meet a lot of musicians. The first show in the renovated barn was Sharrard and the Brickyard Band last year.
“This year so far we’ve got Mike Compton and Joe Newberry [this Sunday], Nels Cline [guitarist for the band Wilco, who will play Union Transfer June 2] and Julian Lage, and Scott Sharrard again,” said Jennings.
The pair webcasts each show over Facebook via The Fretboard Journal, a quarterly publication that covers stringed music and musical instruments. But if you want to go, you might be out of luck. Shows are invite-only, so you have to know someone who already has an in. Oliver and Jennings don’t sell tickets but donations to the band are encouraged.
Although the Philadelphia Folk Festival has been bringing powerhouse folk, blues, and bluegrass artists to the area for over 56 years, Philadelphia’s bluegrass scene is a relatively new evolution. Matt Royles, founder and project director of Philly Bluegrass, has noticed the bluegrass music scene in Philadelphia has grown over the past three years. “We’ve seen the emergence of new bands and jams, and an increasing number of shows. One Saturday night last month, there were no fewer than three local bluegrass shows at downtown venues: the El Bar, Underground Arts, and the Barbary,” said Royles. “The weekly Sunday bluegrass brunch at Heritage in Northern Liberties, which is going on its third year, has also helped the scene by giving folks a regular place to hear from the city’s bluegrass bands.”
Although a private venue, Oliver’s barn serves as another haven for players that might not have stopped in the area in years’ past. As a result, artists like mandolinist Mike Compton have found a new home.
“I have been [to Philly] a few times but I can’t remember the last time we played,” said Compton, a founding member of the influential Nashville Bluegrass Band and mandolin player on the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which Compton remembers as having communal recording session with “a constant intermingling between all the people that were involved.”
Much in the same spirit, Oliver strives to create a convivial atmosphere.
“It’s kind of like hosting a party and then getting the music set and the people are there listening,” said Oliver. “It’s working out great. We’ve had really good people and it’s a place for friends to come and enjoy it.”
In keeping with the feeling of community, the barn also hosts private flower workshops and other casual yoga sessions.
“This is a certified organic farm and one of my daughters is an organic flower grower. She grows flowers and provides them for weddings and stuff like that,” said Oliver. “My other daughter has her friends come to do yoga. People love to come to the barn and just do yoga.”
As the programming continues to grow, Jennings shared his thoughts on the next steps for the space.
“Our vision for the future is to continue to bring a range of high-quality music to the area and to improve on the webcasting. I would love to see us get known as a location that has great music in a noncommercial environment. Think a small Bucks County version of Austin City Limits.”