If you were strolling through the Dousman Park neighborhood in St. Paul, you probably wouldn’t notice the pre-civil war house with a double lot and a 225-year-old white oak tree as a magical music venue. Although the oak towers over the house, the most noteworthy feature of the property has become the June-September series of concerts in the backyard.
Sean Kershaw and husband Tim Hawkins have been growing the series since 2014, which have included artists The Pines, Gaelynn Lea, Chastity Brown, The Cactus Blossoms, Charlie Parr, Erik Koskinen, and many others. They’ve seen over 8,000 people in their backyard and raised over $70,000, all given back to the artists.
“It is community building and a really neat way of doing it. And that’s what they do. They give this gift of these concerts and people leave here with a sense of what this neighborhood is all about. We look out for each other. We help each other.” ~Peg Brown
The seeds for Grand Oak Opry started back in 2013 when Sean and Tim were going to a ton of shows around the cities. They noticed that shows would oftentimes be flooded with people talking through the music and only casual attention toward the band. It frustrated them. They were also hosting large neighborhood holiday parties year after year. They finally decided to try having events in the backyard that would bring neighbors and friends together and feature local musicians.
They asked their neighbors about doing it and if they thought it would work. The quirky little neighborhood supported the concept and actively encouraged them to try it out. Dave Boquist from Son Volt used to be a bartender at the Glockenspiel on 7th and was one of the first to support them by playing. Johnny and Molly Solomon from Communist Daughter lived down the block and jumped aboard. Artists quickly realized it was a great space, it gave them a different type of venue to play. Much like Field of Dreams, when they built it, people came.
“The thing that works about it is that it’s in their backyard and they’re inviting people into their home. Everything about it creates this sort of small town, good feel. And everybody there wants the musicians to succeed and the musicians want everyone to have a good time,” shares volunteer Peg Brown.
Walking through the gate and into the cozy backyard, it’s hard to imagine 562 people back there at the same time for Chastity Brown’s performance. They’ve had to open up the neighbor’s backyard to accommodate the larger shows. The magnificent oak tree looms over the yard and the stage is tucked into a corner. The front yard has sidewalk chalk and bubbles for the kids, while the back gets transformed into a venue. Lines of people patiently stream in and fill the yard with blankets and chairs. The kitchen gets converted into a green room for the artists, while the one bathroom is open to the public.
There are no tickets for the shows. All shows have a requested $10 donation per adult, with 100% of the proceeds going to the artist. The plastic donation jar fills up throughout the evening. Guests are encouraged to bring their own food and drinks. Local business sponsors cover the fixed costs to make the concerts happen, which don’t include paying the bands, but that means all the proceeds go directly to the artists.
The neighborhood has supported the venue and helped build it up since the very beginning. Local neighbors each contribute something to a show. Josh donates the sound equipment and runs audio for the evenings. Jeremy and Leah assist with selling merchandise. Jessica and Steve take money at the door, and Kathleen handles the green room by making the food that a band requests on the rider. This group effort and care for the artists is a huge factor in why Grand Oak succeeds.
The Grand Oak Opry aligns with a new trend in music venues that have popped up around the state. Venues that strip away the bars and fancy, big sound systems, instead focusing directly on the music. A place where audiences can set down their phones and use their ears once again. A perfect, quiet place where people can mix comfort and music together. These venues allow the artists to share their music and stories with an audience eager to support them.
As Peg Brown shares, this environment and combination have led to some instant memories at Grand Oak. “There are these magical moments that happen and you never know when it’s going to hit, what the band is going to do, what the exact moment is. But when it does, it’s like this air of grace and everything is perfect in the world no matter what else is going on. We have fireflies. There was a concert with Dan Chouinard and the kids were going out into the front and getting fireflies and going up behind people and releasing them. You could see people suddenly looking and thinking, this is a weird magical moment.”
There’s something special about having a group of people sit quietly in front of a band, focused on the music, and not having people coming up to take orders or milling around in the back. Everyone is focused on the story and message the musicians want to share. The balance of amplification and acoustics in the backyard are also a prime appeal for concert goers. You’re able to hear the artists from all corners of the yard, while feeling that intimate closeness.
The magic of the venue has grown tremendously over the years. Each season brings more shows and this year expanded by doing a show in Rochester to see if the formula translates. Sean and Tim field more than 150 bands requesting to play the venue. They’ve diversified by adding a jazz evening and starting a partnership with the Schubert Club on a classical evening. But what makes this venue so unique and special is the small pocket of neighbors who work to set up and provide a magical, organic moment, in nature, under a tree older than all of us. It’s the type of venue that brings us back to our roots each and every time.
Peg Brown, Chief Bouncer and Volunteer
“Every now and then you get somebody who is a little too intoxicated, but there’s something about an ex-librarian in her fifties that really can shut down their bad behavior.”
Jokingly titled the “Chief Bouncer,” Peg Brown is one of the first people greeting folks when they arrive. She’s always been the type of person willing to donate time and energy in helping her neighbors. From the start, Peg has wanted to help Sean and Tim succeed in their idea. Her presence at the front gate is a welcoming smile and warmth for many people attending a show for the first time. She directs them toward the bathroom and bug spray, and helps them feel welcome in a stranger’s backyard.
“I’m a bit of an introvert, so it’s such a funny role. It’s like inviting somebody into something that’s really special and it’s special because they’re there and especially because of what we’re doing. And honestly, when people leave at the end of the night and you thank them, people ask if they can give me a hug,” Peg smiles.
She’s seen the area change over the years, with houses sitting empty, people moving away, and a resurgence along West 7th Avenue. Walking around the neighborhood with Peg, it reminds me of growing up in small-town Iowa. It’s a community that supports and gathers together in bad times and good times. Although she shares that arguments happen, it’s the Minnesota snow that brings them together. Every winter when the road are clogged and cars get stuck, they jump out and help each other, setting aside differences.
The Guest Room
Olivia Diercks and Karla Colahan from The OK Factor
Olivia Diercks and Karla Colahan of The OK Factor were racking their brains trying to figure out how to fund a trip to New York to compete in a competition. The duo that makes up The OK Factor were lining up house shows when they were contacted by Grand Oak Opry. The venue had heard about them through friends and wanted them to play. They had never heard of the series and started to look into it. They were flabbergasted by the amount of support the series receives, as well as the artists they were bringing in.
“They mentioned that they asked the Schubert Club to sponsor the concert and we’re thinking…oh my. We didn’t know if they’d go for that, but they did. This was a testament to the kinds of connections and deep breath that Grand Oak has in the community,” shares Olivia.
Going into the show, Olivia and Karla knew they were going to get the funds from the door, but they had no idea that 300 people would show up and that the sponsors would donate 100% of their proceeds. They ended up making the entire amount they needed to make it to New York and pursue their dream.
Olivia states, “there is something about that oak and huddling 300 people in the relatively small space” that created a really intense and energized evening that carried them through their performance that night. The experience speaks to the kind of intimate environment in which The OK Factor thrives and loves to play. They share that the venue, even at 300 plus people, still feels like you’re playing to a group of your closest friends.
“It’s a magical little house on a back street in St Paul. Just like a completely unassuming neighborhood street,” discloses Karla.
Parking is limited and tight around the venue during show nights. Get there early and be prepared to walk. Check out Dousman Park for some pre-show playground fun with the kids, Claddagh Coffee for some caffeine, or Waldmann Brewery just a few short blocks away for some post-show drinks. Finally, buy yourself a Grand Oak Opry tee-shirt and help support the venue directly.
The venue will resume shows in June of 2020. Please keep your eyes open here for announcements of the lineups sometime in early 2020.
Music venues are the lifeblood of our community. By providing musicians the opportunity to showcase, collaborate, and experiment with their craft, venues are essential in their development. This series will continue to promote and support our local venues across Minnesota. Please see the previous articles below and go support local music. Our hope is these articles show the importance of supporting venues and places where creativity can thrive.