City Scenes From Mountain Stage: If You Build It, They Will Play
In 2014 Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter better known as Iron & Wine, was looking for an unconventional way to promote an unconventional new record. Archive Series Volume No. 1 is a collection of cassette demos Beam recorded in the mid-1990s, when he was just making music for fun.
Beam's manager had an idea: He'd read a Chicago Tribune story about Jerry Run Summer Theater, a music hall in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia built by Dusty Anderson, a carpenter with little more than a dream to bring live music to his hometown. What if Beam gave his old songs their world debut there?
The resulting concert film, Dreamers and Makers Are My Favorite People, was released in March 2015 and introduced fans worldwide to Cleveland, W.Va., population 97. That brush with fame seems to have little effect on Jerry Run, though. The theater still remains largely unknown to anyone outside of Cleveland, W.Va. Unless, of course, somebody lets you in on the secret.
When Mountain Stage host Larry Groce was putting together a small tour in 2016 to celebrate his new album, Mountain Stage house guitarist Michael Lipton suggested he make a trip to Jerry Run, where he'd played with his own band several times.
"He told me what a charming place it was," Groce says. "He said, 'Come on out and play with us.'"
The night of the show, Groce became a believer.
"Really, it's a church to music," Groce says. Even in 2021, the theater still looks the same, just as homey it does in the concert film. It still runs on a DIY spirit and a budget funded by $5 admission and $1 hot dogs. "It's so friendly. So West Virginian. So down-home."
Back in the 1990s, around the time Sam Beam was recording the songs that would appear on Archive Series Volume No. 1, the Andersons took a trip to the Historic Owen Theatre in Branson, Mo.
"It only seated a few hundred. And I was like, that's what we need for around here," Anderson says. Back home in West Virginia, he began drawing up blueprints and making models of his theater.
He got books about acoustics from the public library; bought a piece of land across from his home and cleared off the trees; bartered with a nearby sawmill, offering to build bathrooms and offices in exchange for lumber; bought a used sound system from a friend and rescued the theater seats from a college lecture hall. The fold-out desks, it turns out, make a convenient place to rest your popcorn and soda.
Neighbors might have gossiped about Anderson's project, but they still showed up to help him raise the theater's walls. Jerry Run Summer Theater opened its doors in 2003. Anderson wasn't sure if he could convince bands to make the drive to his theater. Cleveland is at least two hours away from every major West Virginia city. But like ghostly baseball players to an Iowa corn field, the bands started coming.
The theater hosts about a few dozen shows a year, featuring mostly bluegrass and country acts with occasional classic rock bands thrown in. Dusty and Renee hang a photo of each group on the front wall of the lobby. After 18 seasons, the wall is nearly full. Iron & Wine's photo takes a little looking to find — it's tucked away on the left, just beside the door to the women's restroom.
Jerry Run has also built an audience. Before the pandemic, they were drawing about 70 people to each show. In the first few shows they've had in 2021, attendance is running close to 100. Many of those are regulars who come to every show, no matter who's playing, and they give the acts their undivided attention.
Groce says it's a little bit like Mountain Stage in miniature — a place where artists know they'll be warmly received and audiences know they'll be treated to a good show, no matter who's on the bill.
"It's a wonderful West Virginia story. The kind of thing that hardly happens anywhere," he says. "If the world had more things like Jerry's Run Theater, it would be a better place."
Copyright 2021 West Virginia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit West Virginia Public Broadcasting.