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Dori Freeman, Willard Gayheart and Scott Freeman at the Firehouse Theatre (photo by Milo Farineau)
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Christian D'Andrea and Willard Gayheart (photo by Gisela D'Andrea)
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Christian D'Andrea (from left) with Stevie Barr, Herb Keys, Wayne Henderson, Scott Freeman and Willard Gayheart (photo by Gisela D'Andrea)
It didn’t happen overnight, the birth of the front porch jam session. It happened slowly – somehow, the front porch of every mountain home evolved into a stage. The view from the front porch was the best in the house; add music, stories and fellowship – and it became a performance. Dulcimers joined banjos and fiddles to provide entertainment in communities that didn’t have the luxury of air-conditioning to move people indoors.
The idea to celebrate the music and stories of the front porch came to Christian D’Andrea, not surprisingly, while exploring porches. The people he met not only invited him into their homes, they took him into their lives with stories, experiences and music. As his exploration became more in-depth, he brought his camera and a documentary took form. When compiling the stories and the music behind the porch tradition, D’Andrea saw that these individuals are most compelling when they are doing what they do best – performing. At listeningtoamerica.org, he states his intent: to “explore this mystical musical incubator — the American porch — where American music was born, and where it lives again.”
“I had an ‘aha’ moment. Porches aren’t just things attached to the front or back of a house. They’re not just appendages," D'Andrea says. "They’re special places. Unique locations in American culture. Where we share. Where we bond. Where we welcome each other in. Maybe, just maybe, porches are things that unite us, in a way. And this is worth focusing on, especially in an age where so many people seem focused on what divides us.”
D’Andrea, a native Virginian, isn’t the first to recognize the importance of the porch get-together as an integral part of an Appalachian community’s history. In Norris, Tennessee, the Museum of Appalachia, a living history museum that comprises over 30 buildings, preserves this very thing with its Porch Musician Project. An entire music genre is Appalachian porch rock. West Virginia has a PBS series called “The Front Porch,” which explores current and past Appalachia. The list of front porch projects is as rich as the history it supports.
Joel Bassin, artistic director at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre, says the idea came together to build the porch about a year ago. “The project, really, was the brainchild of Christian. Josh Bennett built the porch; it’s beautiful and the performances have been magical. It has inspired a real sense of community with the audience – everyone feels so close to what the artists and performers are doing,” he says.
The theater’s first show on Feb. 8, titled “Galax Comes to Firehouse,” sold out. It featured Wayne Henderson, Stevie Barr, Willard Gayheart, Scott Freeman and Dori Freeman and Herb Keys. Henderson, a world-famous guitar maker, “carves much of his guitars by hand, with a jackknife,” says D’Andrea. “He brought the knife to the theater, and it elicited many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ ”
Richmond, he adds, “is a great nexus for North and South, where the forward-leaning and the traditional meet (and often shake hands, cordially). I wanted an audience that would be 50 percent folks who knew about the rich Virginia old time and Americana music traditions, and 50 percent folks for whom it was new. I was hoping that’s what we’d get. And we did!”
Upcoming schedule of performers:
Feb 14 – "The Lovers": Eddie and Bonnie Bond
Feb 17 – "A Real Original": Red and Allie Knierim
Tickets are $20/each and can be purchased here. Here's a sample of sounds you'll hear: