Many music lovers will tell you that the thing they’ve missed most during lockdown was the communal thrill of a live show. Live performances offer many pleasures, from the chance to appreciate the artist’s craft to the marvelous acoustics one finds in a great hall. But the unbridled joy of just being with others and sharing in a moment is what fans of rock, country, Americana, jazz, electronic, and hip-hop seem to most desire as we emerge from the pandemic.
Venues large and small are reopening and asking some hard questions. How can we be Covid-19-safe while also turning a profit? Should we reduce capacity and mandate masks? To stream or not to stream? How can we remain a vibrant part of our communities and be of service to fans?
To be sure, the pandemic represented an existential threat to live music, including job losses and venue closures. Covid-19 relief legislation provided $15 billion in grant money for theaters and clubs, but some in the industry argued that wasn’t enough or that the grants didn’t always make their way to those in need.
Small, regional venues remain particularly vulnerable. In the small, southern-Ohio village of Bainbridge (pop. less than 1,000), the storied Paxton Theatre has for 57 years hosted country, bluegrass, and Americana artists including Loretta Lynn, Pure Prairie League, Jean Shepard, Johnny Paycheck, Adam Cunningham of The Voice fame, and hundreds of lesser-known singers and musicians, most notably at the Paxton’s Saturday night Paint Valley Jamboree events.
The Paxton feels like both a time capsule and a small-town Grange Hall. The theatre has been around for decades, like other venues on the country circuit that stretches from Nashville, north through Appalachia and the “Kentucky Music Highway”, and over the Ohio River into the Buckeye State. It provides inexpensive entertainment, culture, intimate encounters with great artists, and perhaps most valuably, that unique communal experience of live shows.
“This whole area’s been a hot spot for music going back in time, from the earliest roots of Nashville to the present day,” says Tim Koehl, former owner of the Paxton and current Paxton Theatre Foundation board member. Koehl and his wife Deb purchased the theater in 2014 and immediately began refurbishing it. They formed the Foundation in 2016, and by 2019 had fully transferred ownership of both the operations and the theater itself to the Foundation. They hoped that a collaborative model of management for the venue would foster community buy-in, allow more voices to contribute to the Paxton’s creative life, and be more financially sustainable.
I’ve attended two Saturday night shows over the years and couldn’t help but feel like I was being transported back in time to a Carter Family showcase, or a hootenanny, or a stop on an early Sun Records tour. The diversity of styles stood out to me – rockabilly, traditional country, folk, gospel – as did the fact that the audience consisted of senior citizens, younger couples, and even some families. Seeing multiple generations enjoying the show together is fabulous in an era when most popular music is geared toward very specific demographic. At the jamborees, a house band backed up a series of singers who each sang two songs, though of course headliners and big names got more stage time. Koehl confirms that the jamboree continues to follow this format.
During the 1960s, in particular, the Paint Valley Jamboree hosted the biggest acts in country music. A star like Loretta Lynn would maybe do an afternoon radio spot at a record store in nearby Chillicothe (the county seat), and then that evening would perform at the jamboree. According to Wade Hamilton, the Paxton General Manager who also runs an antique shop – Ancient Valley Mercantile – in Bainbridge, that 1960s “old country” sound remained the most popular style among Paxton audiences for decades, even during the “pop country” boom of the 1990s.
“Definitely, it was the old classics,” Hamilton says. “It was those ‘60s performers that the audience really appreciated.” That’s starting to change, Hamilton explains, mentioning that some long-time baby-boomer audience members have died in the last few years and that younger Paxton audiences are bringing new sensibilities. “We’re seeing more 40-somethings, 50-somethings, and now where I used to hear the crowd get excited by a Hank Williams song, now I hear excitement for a Merle Haggard song. The outlaw country resonates more.” Hamilton chuckles. “We’re not getting music from the ‘90s, but we’ve moved into outlaw country finally. It’s like we’re 30 years behind.”
Koehl partly credits the current house band, the Original Jam Band, with the theater’s success in diversifying its audience. Made up of experienced players from inside and outside the region (including George Clooney’s uncle, who came up playing in Cincinnati’s music scene), the band can move in and out of a host of styles. “They can play anything,” Koehl gushes. “These guys have been together for a long time.”
“They’ve been playing together 20 years,” Hamilton adds. “It’s why they’re so tight.” The Original Jam Band took over house band duties just before the pandemic began, so only in the past few months have they been able to wow Paxton audiences. Koehl and Hamilton hope that providing both a sustainable home to the Original Jam Band and a hospitable and safe space for touring acts can be part of rebuilding post-Covid-19.
“The bands that were doing shows prior to Covid—guys getting together, renting a hall, charging at the door—they’re gone,” says Koehl. “It’s sad, the amazing musicians who are in a holding pattern. It’s horrible.” Given these concerns, Koehl and his team are working overtime to take health and safety precautions and communicate to the public that such precautions are firmly in place.
Like virtually every music venue in the country, the Paxton shut down in March 2020. They re-opened with 15% capacity in January 2021, and then the following month doubled that, and in March were permitted to re-open at full strength. Koehl is pleased with the community’s enthusiasm and recognizes the need to reassure audiences that it’s okay to come out to shows.
“[When the pandemic began], I went into a state of depression,” Koehl says, explaining that he was worried about “when and if and how” the jamboree would emerge from the lockdown. By then, he and his wife had invested a great deal of time and money into improvements to the theater building, not to mention the creation of the Foundation. It wasn’t about the money, Koehl says, but more so about the passion for the music and the Paxton’s capacity to serve as a cultural resource for the fanbase, the community, and the region.
On the other hand, he says, “we were able to get Covid money” to use for continuing updates and improvement of the theater. The Paxton used federal relief money to obtain a new sound system, including a digital soundboard, and create a streaming option for fans who couldn’t be present to enjoy shows. “It’s really been a godsend.”
The Foundation has also received several grants, including one from the Ohio Arts Council, and expanded the kinds of programming offered at the theater. They recently launched a children’s theater workshop, for example. Branching out has allowed the Paxton to serve the community in new ways and access additional resources. According to Hamilton, grant money allowed the Paxton to purchase a new lighting system for the children’s workshop—a lighting system that also has improved the quality of the jamboree. The new LED lights not only make for better shows—they’re also less costly to operate. “We’re really high-tech in the little town of Bainbridge,” Hamilton says.
Koehl acknowledges that pursuing private and public grants involves lots of labor and lots of paperwork but that the payoff is worth it.
The Paint Valley Jamboree is a unique, singular, thoroughly retro musical experience, but the challenges faced by the Paxton mirror challenges faced by music venues all over the country: getting music back on the stage, getting fans back into seats or onto dancefloors, protecting the safety and health of artists and audience alike, using relief funds creatively and effectively, and pursuing new revenue streams.
As bands get back on the road, venues re-open, and music fans emerge from lockdown, many questions remain. Will we ever feel fully comfortable in a crowd? Will our favorite clubs and theaters survive, evolve, and thrive? What role will live music have in a context where streaming has become commonplace?
What isn’t in question is the rush and the thrill that live shows provide. Whether you’re a fan of bluegrass or EDM, rock or jazz, being in the same room as the artist and feel that sense of community with others who are also passionate about the sounds and the vibes can’t be replicated.
On Saturday, 14 August, the Paxton Theatre will host its next “Paint Valley Jamboree”. Contact information and details about tickets can be found on the venue’s Facebook page.