Unable to get a ticket to the Americana Music Festival & Conference in Nashville, Tenn., this month? Do not fret. The little Village of Peninsula is hosting its own Americana music festival on Sept. 28, which promises to be a more intimate affair with its own internationally known headliner.
Jed Hilly, executive director for the Americana Music Association told Billboard Magazine in its July 30, 2013, issue that Americana music is not defined by record companies or DJs. "The boundary goes around American roots traditions. If you can't taste the dirt through your ears, it's probably not Americana," Hilly says.
Peninsula's Music on the Porches celebrates the musical fabric of the Cuyahoga Valley by featuring local performers strumming and thumping and singing on, well, a porch. Ironically enough, the idea for this type of event was conceived on a porch located in this very earthy town just a few miles west of Hudson on Route 303.
Setting the stage
About five years ago, Diane Seskes, secretary of the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Log Cabin Gallery, visited with her friend, Downtown Emporium owner Rhonda Russell, shooting the breeze on Rhonda's front porch. They were once again thinking of new events to bring people into their unique little town and the proverbial light bulb went off. Music on the Porches was born. According to Seskes, it wasn't difficult to drum up support from Chamber members and a few residents who were more than happy to host musicians and visitors on their porches and patios, in their lots and under tents set up on their properties.
Once the venues were lined up, Seskes and Karen Walterss of Crooked River Creative, and a Peninsula Foundation member, set about to find local musicians who would be comfortable performing on a different kind of stage. They started with a short list of local acts that had played at Foundation receptions and invited participating businesses and residents to hire their own acts as well. The list has grown exponentially over the years, with many hosts hiring the same performers year after year.
"It wasn't too difficult to plan," Seskes says, of the early days. "People tended to book their own musicians; there weren't a lot of expenses." Chamber members, including the library, G.A.R. Hall, and Downtown Emporium, as well as the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, hosted the first few events. However, by 2012, Diane estimates there were roughly 30 venues where people could listen to music on a fine Saturday afternoon. The 2013 event promises even more venues, including two residential porches, the CVNP, Trail Mix, Brandywine Country Club, all Peninsula shops, Village Hall, and the green next to the historical Bronson Church. The G.A.R. Hall will host two ticketed events that evening.
"It seems like more people are saying 'We want people to play on our porches'," Seskes says. "In fact, musicians now contact us."
In addition, Seskes has a good friend who is well-connected in the local music scene through his affiliation with Woodsy's Music in Kent and several musical groups, and who has been instrumental in referring her to musicians who might want to participate. Sometimes, securing musicians can be difficult, however.
"The challenge in securing musicians is the fact that they are playing in the middle of the afternoon and their payday might not be as good as the evening," she says. Some musicians play multiple venues as well. At press time, Seskes and Walters were in the process of finalizing the acts and schedule for the day.
A Mix of all-American sounds
"Peninsula is a small town with an artsy feel to it. We have so many artists and musicians," Seskes says. "We are not Cleveland or Akron -- we're a bit more countrified." And so the music one will hear throughout the town of Peninsula on Sept. 28 will be pure Americana: fiddle, mandolin, folk, celtic, steel drum, blue grass, a bit of rock and roll, and maybe some alternative, and a mix of all of the above. Guests of the 2012 Music on the Porches event enjoyed such diverse sounds as acoustic guitar from Peninsula resident Buddy Milhoan, folk guitar and keyboards by Peninsula's own Greg Canda, techno music by Circuitry Room, the hammered dulcimer by Tina Bermann, folk and blues guitar by Dale Galgozy, and an 1880s Estey pump organ played by Hazel Broughton. Seskes will once again host Billy Crowbeak Faluski who specializes in Native American woodland-style flutes. Seskes' Log Cabin Gallery sits atop a hill that overlooks the Cuyahoga River, creating an ethereal experience when the music begins to play. Many of these same artists -- and more -- will play once again at this year's event.
Hands-on educational workshops
Listening to so many talented musicians play a wide variety of unique and rare instruments no doubt begs for some explanation of what exactly the instruments are, where they came from and how they are played. Some musicians give a short lesson prior to playing and still others prefer to let their instruments do the talking. That said, the Foundation decided to strengthen its collaboration with the Chamber and offered to coordinate special workshops taught by participating musicians and available to the public. Karen applied to the Ohio Arts Council and secured a grant to fund these workshops, which will take place at the G.A.R. Hall and the Bronson Church.
The arduous task of putting these workshops together was made easier by the musicians themselves. Walters consulted with Brent Kirby of headlining act, "Hey Mavis," Jen Mauer of headlining act, "Boy=Girl," and others to structure the workshops in such a way that people could learn about the instruments creating the beautiful and unique sounds being heard throughout the Valley through both lectures and hands-on experiences. Budding songwriters can attend a songwriters workshop taught by "Hey Mavis'" Brent Kirby and Laurie Caner.
"We have so many local artists who have so much to offer," says Walters, who also spent much time consulting with John Mosey, one of the people behind both the Kent Folk Fest and the Kent Blues Fest. "Brent Kirby holds his own prearranged open mike night at Brother's Lounge in Cleveland for singer-songwriters," she points out, emphasizing the expertise of the people who helped put together the workshops. Laurie Caner has facilitated songwriting workshops at First Night Akron and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, among other venues.
The educational opportunities are not only limited to adults. The Foundation is hosting a "Petting Zoo" of sorts for kids who might be interested in trying their hand at string instruments. A variety of strings will be available for kids to touch and a musician will be on site to show them a few tricks of the trade.
When the line at the Winking Lizard or Fisher's begins to look like the mythical Peninsula python, food options become very limited -- or non-existent -- if one forgot to pack a few snacks and some bottled water. Walters realized the problem first-hand last year when she spent a good deal of time trying to procure water bottles for parched musicians throughout the Valley. The Pierogi Lady and the Green Machine Food Truck, among others, are scheduled to be on-hand to feed famished music-goers so that their grumbling stomachs do not drown out the music.
From Woodstock to Floyd, Virginia's Bluegrass Festival to Coachella, all great music festivals feature headliners. Music on the Porches is no different this year, boasting local acts "Hey Mavis" and "Boy=Girl" for the price of one ticket. "Boy=Girl" will open the show at 6 p.m., performing its mix of contemporary songs in traditional styles. Comprised of Jen Maurer, bandleader of Mo'Mojo, on upright and electric bass, Cajun accordion, guitar, piano and vocals; and Paul Kovacs of Hillbilly IDOL on five-string banjo, acoustic and electric guitars and vocals, "Boy=Girl" is well-versed in the art of playing intimate shows but don't be surprised if they kick it up a notch or two during their set. Twenty plus-year veterans of the local music scene, both band mates share a love of all-American music styles, including bluegrass, country, and the blues, among others.
The House of Mercy, in London, said of "Hey Mavis:" "…an Appalachian Americana Roots group who take this genre to new heights." Not bad for a group with roots in Northeast Ohio and whose music celebrates all things American. Discovered by producer Don Dixon of REM and Smithereen fame, "Hey Mavis" is comprised of Laurie Michelle Caner (banjo, vocals, songwriting), Eddie Caner (fiddle, viola), Brent Kirby (guitar, vocals, kick drum, harmonica), and Bryan Thomas (upright bass, Chank-O-Matic 6000 tambourine). Their debut CD, "Red Wine" peaked at number five on the national Folk DJ-L radio charts and finished the year at #13 in Folk Alley's "Top CDs of 2010" along with Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Chieftans and Bob Dylan, among others. The fact that the Telluride Festival Band Concert finalists are based in Akron, Ohio, is a boon to the area and the local music scene and anyone lucky enough to procure a ticket for their 8 p.m. show in Peninsula is going to be treated to the music of a group that is touted as Americana's next big thing.
A little bit of Americana
This Old House Magazine elected Peninsula as one of the "Best Old House Neighborhoods in the Country" in 2012. Peninsula was also one of the editors' top picks as the "Best for Small Town Lovers." Music on the Porches is just one way the town would like to share its little slice of Americana with others.
"We would like to invite people to come to our home in the village rather than attend a big festival," Seskes says. "The musicians are much more accessible and the atmosphere is more relaxed. People can talk to the performers."
"Music has always been a big part of Peninsula and its local culture," Walters says. "Yes, we are in a park but we also have a story to tell. Music on the Porches is in keeping with Valley traditions."
The residents and businesses of Peninsula are so supportive of Music on the Porches and its celebration of their town and its location that they are donating their own money to compensate musicians and ensure that the show goes on.
The town's Voices in the Valley, an outgrowth of Music on the Porches, has become a summer tradition featuring live musicians playing on the patio of the G.A.R. Hall every Friday evening and some Saturdays. Admission to all Friday performances is free with some paid admission for Saturday shows.
"As Music on the Porches became more successful we agreed that we needed to do additional planning. Voices in the Valley helped to get people to listen to live music again," Walters says.
It isn't often that the residents, businesses and foundations of a city or town can collaborate successfully to put on a unique event to share its local color and traditions with the larger community around it. Peninsula continues to defy the political norms to provide unique and quality entertainment that celebrates its all-American heritage.v