Local houses double as performance venues
Some of those acres are now being plowed to make room for grocery stores and housing developments, chipping away the childhood Angela Easterling remembers.
"They've got telephone poles where our trees had been," Easterling says of the land in Greer.
She wrote a song about her feelings — "Black-top Road" — a swaying lament that's as sad as it is beautiful.
The audience on a recent summer evening listens to every word; the only sound besides the music is the croaking of frogs.
Performers don't get this kind of attention in a bar, where Jager bombs, big-screen TVs and pool tables are distractions. There, singer-songwriters are background noise. But at house shows like this one, they are the focus.
Easterling, in a floral print sundress and gold wedge sandals, stands under a pergola in Kelly and Ben Lovejoy's backyard. The Lovejoys host concerts once a month at their Lower Richland home.
The Opulent 'Possum, as the Lovejoys call it, is one of a handful of local houses that double as performance venues. They are part of a growing national circuit that hosts singer-songwriters in living rooms, basements and backyards.
"You have this captive audience," says Fran Snyder, a singer-songwriter and creator of Concerts In Your Home, a Web site of house-show resources (concertsinyourhome.com).
"You have this host who really takes pride in your success. If they have a low turnout, they're more upset than you are."
About 30 people are at the Lovejoys' to hear Easterling sing. Some even banter with her from their seats on the split-level deck.
"You sound like Loretta Lynn," someone says after "Dear Johnny," an open letter to Johnny Cash off Easterling's 2007 CD, "Earning Her Wings."
"Thanks," she says. "If she wants to sing it, that's fine with me. Dixie Chicks, anybody. It would pay for gas for a month."
A swell of laughter.
"How are we doing on time?" Easterling asks.
"It's up to you" is the response.
'YOU FEEL LIKE YOU KNOW THEM'
Jimmy Riddle booked his first house concert almost 20 years ago. Several people who currently host house shows say he started the trend in Columbia.
"I was living in an apartment on Confederate Avenue, and I was able to fit 32 people," says Riddle, 42, of the 1989 show that featured David Wilcox.
"I charged $10 and needed to make $400. I ate some of that."
Wilcox became the first in a long line of performers who played Riddle's living room. After completing his residency at USC, Riddle, a psychiatrist with the S.C. Department of Mental Health, moved to a house on Senate Street.
He needed a bigger venue as his shows grew in popularity.
"I bought the house because I wanted to do house concerts," he says. "Most of (the performers) stayed at my house.
"They could stay until the next show if they wanted — and some of them did."
Riddle says he owes his love of acoustic music to Greenstreets, the former Five Points club that was the closest thing Columbia had to a true listening room in the past 20 years.
Uncle Gram, a WUSC DJ who took Riddle's place on the house concert circuit, has fond memories of Greenstreets, too.
"People came there to listen," he says. "We need something like that. The coffeehouses aren't working because they're selling coffee and desserts."
House concerts have helped fill the void.
Uncle Gram, who by day is a truck driver named Mark Lyvers, began hosting the Red Bank Bar and Grill House Concert Series on Mother's Day 2004.
Give folks a better experience than they'd have at a bar, he says, and they'll come back.
"I really try to make my guests comfortable. I meet them at the door, get a chance to chat and get to know the artist.
"By the time they get to the stage, you feel like you know them."
Gram has hosted well-traveled folk and Americana performers such as David Olney, Steve Young, Tom House, Bob Livingston and RB Morris.
"They're legends in my world," he says. "They're not household names, but they are to me."
'ONE OF THE BEST EXPERIENCES'
Take a drive on Hammett Bridge Road in Greer, and one might think the Hammetts are the Upstate town's version of the Trumps.
Hammett was the last name of Easterling's grandfather, and when he died 10 years ago, the family had to sell a third of the farm to pay the estate taxes.
Now, Easterling says, the state wants more of the green space.
"It just happens to be where there's a lot of growth," Easterling says. "Everybody has been trying to get us out of there for years.
"We want to keep the land because it's our heritage."
You can hear and feel Easterling's pain as she stands on the deck at the Lovejoys' home. A string of dragonfly-shaped lights crawls down the pergola's poles.
Easterling commands words like Emmylou Harris, and the patterned vocal cracks shed emotion.
"I love that little tear in your voice," audience member Liz Simmons says.
"It works well with country music," Easterling responds. "I learned that from Judy Garland."
Easterling, who sings Americana, country and folk, wants to play more house shows.
"Some people do that exclusively," she says. "You do make out better than a club gig.
"Any artist that I know that does folk or acoustic music wants to do more house concerts. It's just one of the best experiences there is."
Snyder, who lives in Lawrence, Kan., and launched Concerts In Your Home two years ago, plays 15 to 40 house shows yearly, trying to book them in three-day blocks on the weekend.
"That's usually enough for me to fly anywhere in the U.S.," he says. "That's something I can't do playing bars."
If 25 people come to a club show, it's a failure. But if 25 come to a house concert, it's a huge success. Most shows charge $15 per person.
That's $375 the artist could potentially pocket.
Bentz Kirby, who recently began hosting shows at his Forest Acres home, dubbed The Alien Carnival house, says the performers should get all the door money.
"You shouldn't be doing these things for profit," he says.
(The shows apparently don't raise any legal concerns, at least in Richland County, where authorities don't view them any differently from, say, hosting a party.
"It only an issue if it becomes a nuisance and violated a noise ordinance," says Stephanycq Snowden, the county spokeswoman.)
Kirby and the Lovejoys have replaced Uncle Gram, who has had two knee surgeries and passed the baton like Riddle did to him.
"I guess I have a certain affinity for some of the folks he was hosting, and I wanted to keep them coming to town," Kirby says.
Riddle says there are more house concerts nowadays. And more variety, too. Several venues allow patrons to bring alcohol, while Riddle didn't allow drinking.
"And that probably hurt my attendance, but I didn't want to chance the liability," he says.
But rarely is there barroom rowdiness.
"They come to hear the artist," Uncle Gram says. "They didn't come to talk about last night's 'Desperate Housewives.'"
As the late evening drifts into night, Ben Lovejoy anchors a spotlight to a porch post, sliding a piece of infrared film over the bulb to dull the beam.
It turns Easterling's blond hair, which is now in a bun, strawberry red.
Touches like that make The Opulent 'Possum a remarkable venue.
The Lovejoys were introduced to house shows by their 20-year-old son, Cameron, who saw Danny Schmidt play at his friend's house.
He gave a CD to his mom, a home-schooling parent who also is a certified dog show judge, who became enamored.
Schmidt played The Opulent 'Possum's inaugural show in November 2006. "It was a late birthday gift" for Kelly, says Ben, an Air Force colonel.
But it was huddle-together-in-blankets frigid that night.
"Every quilt we owned" was used, Cameron says.
That show, which also featured bellydancers and a fire pit, opened the house-concert door for the Lovejoys, who have a neat historical connection to music.
In 1974 Ben's uncle, Sam Lovejoy, sabotaged the building of a power plant in Montague, Mass., by knocking down a 500-foot tower, an early act of civil disobedience against atomic power.
Sam Lovejoy later helped organize the 1979 Musicians United for Safe Energy "No Nukes" concert at Madison Square Garden, which featured Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bruce Springsteen, Gil Scott-Heron and Jackson Browne.
So hosting concerts comes naturally to the Lovejoys, whose place feels cozy as Easterling performs, like a summertime party at a relative's house.
If nothing else, they have the vibe down.
The Lovejoys' guests eat from a buffet of labeled covered dishes and desserts on the dining room table. For each show, Kelly Lovejoy, who's not a fan of potluck, makes a meat, vegetable and dessert so, as Cameron points out, "there's not only potato salad."
Many of the ingredients she uses are grown in a lovely garden, scenically green and alive.
There are cucumbers, beans, eggplant, squash, okra, cantaloupe, potatoes, tomatoes, grapes and figs.
There's also a bog garden with carnivorous plants, including a Venus Fly trap, and two beehives that produce delicious honey.
An olive tree, taken from Ben's grandmother's yard and replanted, seems to yawn and stretch when the wind blows.
The backyard has the easiness of a farm. No shouting for bartender attention or drunken laughter coming from barstools. No wonder Easterling was comfortable enough to share stories about her family.
She felt at home.
"It's a real homey, kind of neighborly thing," she says. "It's almost like you're already friends.
"It's nice to be in someone's home."