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VOL. 37 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 23, 2013

Couple opens home to Nashville singers

By Tim Ghianni | Correspondent

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Rod Picott, left, poses with hosts Karin McCool and Van DeLisle in their Chicago home.  

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Music and dog enthusiast Van DeLisle, who hosts many Nashville artists in his “performers’ apartment” downstairs from the flat he shares with his wife, got the house concert bug thanks to Edie Carey and a room filled with lesbians.

“The first one I went to was three or four years ago here in Chicago,” says DeLisle, whose Black Dog House Concerts refers to his canine companions rather than the magnificently rocking Led Zeppelin song.

He’d heard of these intimate gatherings, but “I didn’t know what they were.”

One night he decided to go find out after learning folk-cabaret singer Edie Carey was singing in someone’s living room. A Carey fan, he figured he might as well check it out.

“What I didn’t realize at the time is that she has this very large lesbian following,” he remembers. “When I got to this house concert I was the only guy there. I felt really out of place. Within five minutes, though a couple of young women made me feel right at home.”

It was an evening that changed his life. “The idea that I could sit four feet away from Edie Carey, talk to her, buy her CDs from her if I wanted to. It was a different experience. Unique. It felt like a community of people and I was really impressed. I thought: ‘that might be something I’d like to do myself.’”

Last September, after attending other house concerts and taking notes as well as taking “recruiting trips” to such places as the Americana Music Conference in Nashville as well as Windy City clubs, Black Dog House Concerts debuted in the downstairs apartment of the two-story DeLisle and wife Karin McCool own. They’d never wanted full-time neighbors. But a musician or two once in awhile wouldn’t hurt. And there was plenty of room in the living room for sound and lights.

He joined a growing phenomenon, as the sense of community created by gathering some friends in a living room and offering them a living, breathing performer has produced a growing number of house concerts across the nation.

Hillbilly Haiku

The concept was a little late to arrive in Nashville, although many artists from Music City have been supplementing their road warrior wages by picking up house concerts while gigging around the country.

But there are house concerts in or around Music City, the best-established likely is “Hillbilly Haiku” -- named for a line about Townes Van Zandt in Guy Clark’s “Cold Dog Soup” – a series created in 2007 by singer-songwriter fans Denise and Rick Williams.

Because it’s an invitation-only event, with word spread via social media, and not a commercial venue, the Williamses like to say their house is located “between Mt. Juliet and Lebanon, 20 minutes east of Nashville Airport off I-40.”

Not that everyone who comes to their event is a friend. Some folks see it on an artist web page and reach out via email to Hillbilly Haiku. The Williamses respond via email and if people RSVP, they get an address and directions.

The couple ended up in Nashville in 1993 after their Minnesota dairy farm fell victim to the economy. Denise Williams knew where they should relocate: “I was just such a music nut always, and I never found anyone as crazy about music as I was in Minnesota. I was a big fan of Marty Stuart and Steve Earle, and they talked about Guitar Town.”

They didn’t start hosting concerts in Guitar Town until 2007.

“We had friends who were hosting house concerts in Texas,” says Denise Williams. “They told us about them. I met them through a Billy Joe Shaver group, and we struck up an email friendship.

“I couldn’t imagine anyone worth seeing would play in your living room. I thought they were locals playing cover tunes and that they were probably a house party more than a concert.”

But then she attended and found out it was something much more special, far removed from Otis Day and the Knights and beer-splashing “Louie Louie” keg parties …. “It was not what I thought,” she continues. “We were blown away that that quality of musicians would play in your living room.

“I began to figure out if we could do it in our home. It took about a year of research to get my gumption up to give it a shot and get used to the idea of inviting people we don’t know necessarily well into our home.”

The Williamses found reinforcement in another new friend, Texas transplant Ramcey Rodriguez, who had sound equipment and said he’d be glad to handle that part of the equation.

They began by inviting friends from work. Spread by social media and the occasional old-fashioned word-of-mouth encounter, the list of Hillbilly Haiku enthusiasts has grown in the last six years as the email list has grown to 350.

Black Dog’s success

Meanwhile up in the Second City, DeLisle continued his research, hitting other house concerts in Chicago and in Champaign, (home of the Fighting Illini).

“I really enjoy going there. They’ve got a good crowd, get good people. It’s a fun time. So I thought ‘I have to do this. This is something I really have to do.’”

Rod Picott, Nashville’s most-successful house concert troubadour, gave the venue a premature inauguration when he called to see if Black Dog House Concerts was up and running yet.

“He said ‘I’m going to be around Chicago around Sept. 29.’ At the time, I didn’t think I’d be ready to do anything until this year, but when he called, I didn’t want to say ‘No’ to Rod Pictott. I had seen him several times in Chicago. He was our first one.”

The success – 37 people attended – “I think this was in part because Rod already had a following here” – convinced DeLisle and wife Karin that they could do this thing.

“When we first started doing this, I don’t think Karin thought we could pull this off. She’d say ‘this seems like a lot of work’ and I’d say ‘Yeah, it is a lot of work, but it’s not going to cost us anything.”

So they set out on a once-per-month concert schedule. Some of the top strolling troubadours from Nashville (and elsewhere) have unpacked their gear in the lower-floor flat and performed for appreciative crowds there.

“I am lucky because a lot of the artists I have don’t have that big of a following in Chicago. They want to cultivate that and they like the way my wife and I are doing this,” he says.

Music in the house

Out at Hillbilly Haiku, the Williamses use their large family room with an eight-inch-high stage and lighting.

“The artists are just people that I follow in my music listening,” says Denise, noting that they are closing in on their 60th show.

“I’m always looking for new artists that I haven’t heard before, the excitement of something new like that, but we’ve also focused on some of the older artists that don’t get radio play anymore that are still incredibly talented and have a lifetime of stories built up.”

She keeps track of favorites, following their web sites to see if they are going to be in Nashville on tour. If so, she contacts them to see if they have an extra night for Hillbilly Haiku.

There’s also a big talent pool here in Nashville, and she is diligent about going out to the venues to see who she’d like to bring into her house.

The price, as at most of these shows, is generally $20 unless the artist requests more. But no one is forced to pay. “It’s a donation. It’s not a ticket price. It’s totally at your own will. It’s just put in a tip jar. If you don’t contribute or if you can’t contribute, we still want you to come and enjoy the music and the artist can at least get another person to hear their music.”

“You know, we started out thinking that the fun would be having the music in our house, but what we’ve discovered is how much the artists appreciate what we do.

“It helps them make a little bit of money. And we are honoring them. We love to be able to give back to them in this way.”

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