Tonight's concert is sold out at the Lucketts Community Center.
The 100-year-old Lucketts Community Center serves as the venue for perhaps the oldest bluegrass concert series in the world.
There's not much to do in Lucketts, Va. It's just a small cluster of homes at the crossroads of U.S. Route 15 and Stumptown Road. But on Saturday nights, this intersection becomes a beehive of activity all centered on the historic Lucketts school house.
This 100-year-old building now serves as a community center, but it's best known as the venue for perhaps the oldest bluegrass concert series in the world.
"Who's to say there isn't some little place buried in the Ozarks that we haven't heard about?" says Paul Garvin, president of the Lucketts Bluegrass Foundation. "But to our knowledge it is."
Music saves a schoolhouse
The Foundation is an all-volunteer non-profit organization that has been the catalyst behind the series since 2007, but the event can trace its origins to a single person — a local bluegrass musician and promoter named EJ Spence. On a blustery January day more than 40 years ago, Spence ran into the president of the Lucketts civic association on the street in nearby Leesburg.
"They got to talking about the old schoolhouse that had been abandoned when a new elementary school was constructed," says Garvin. "And the idea of using the building to put on bluegrass shows came up."
The fledgling series likely saved the dilapidated building from falling into total disrepair.
"It was in pretty bad shape at the time," Garvin says. "Bluegrass was one of the things, perhaps the primary thing that kept it going through a bunch of lean years but they patched up the broken windows and things like that."
Repairs kept the building functional until the community center underwent a $2 million renovation two years ago. Garvin says modernization hasn't changed the intimate feel of the performance hall.
"If we have a full house it's very tightly packed in there and people put up with that because there's just something about the ambience."
The Johnson Mountain Boys jamming in Lucketts in February of 1988.
A unique venue for bluegrass
Tonight the house is packed to the rafters. It's standing room only at the 225 seat venue.
While the schoolhouse serves as a dramatic backdrop, Lucketts volunteer and concert emcee Bob Veatch says the crowds are the most important part of the event.
"I think one of the reasons the bands like to play here so much is that everybody who comes here comes for the music," says Veatch. "Here, we're serious about our bluegrass."
Veteran musician Dudley Connell agrees.
"The only places that were available for us in the late 70s, early 80s in the D.C. area were clubs — night clubs," says Connell. "Actually night clubs was a stretch. And the people that came out to see, they liked the music okay, but they came out to also socialize and to drink and to have a good time and blow off a little steam at the end of the week. Lucketts was an oasis for us. When we went to Lucketts for the first time, we were actually shocked that we had an absolute listening crowd. It was thrilling."
That band was The Johnson Mountain Boys, which went on to become one of the most important and popular bluegrass acts of the 1980s. Connell credits those wonderful Lucketts crowds with much of their success.
"It enabled us to completely change our show because we weren't trying to play over the din of beer bottles clinking and people talking," says Connell. "We played to the people who came there to listen to music. It was one of the most important parts of our early career."
When The Johnson Mountain Boys decided to disband in 1987, there was little doubt in Connell's mind where the final show would be held. Despite playing at festivals and venues all over the world, they ended their career at Lucketts for two simple reasons.
"Tradition and loyalty," says Connell. "I couldn't think of a better place to close the door on that band than the place where we started. "
The live recording from that show was released as a full length album and eventually garnered a Grammy nomination. While that moment served as a high water mark for Lucketts bluegrass — one that might never be topped — the series is as strong as ever, backed by crowds filled with enthusiastic regulars like Frances Carpenter.
"It's just good music" exclaims Carpenter when asked what keeps her coming back. "My husband and I generally try to get out here 90 percent of the time and the entertainment has been fantastic."
Questions linger about the future
Although the crowds are healthy, they skew to an older demographic. Lucketts volunteer and live sound engineer Paul Hope says this presents a long-term dilemma.
"The only way I can see [the event] going forward in the future is if we can find someone to pass it on to because we don't want it to end with us."
Lucketts Bluegrass Foundation president Paul Garvin says his organization is committed to preventing that, even if that means moving away from the traditional style with which Lucketts has long been associated.
"I look at the goal as keeping the program going," says Garvin. "If it means going away from the traditional stuff and trending more towards the contemporary we're going to have to do that."
Garvin and the other volunteers realize that the event itself has become a tradition — it transcends the music. And just maybe, with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, the old school house will be filled for 40 more years of Saturday nights.
Jerad Walker hosts "Open Mic" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, at 105.5 FM and 88.5 HD Channel 2 in Washington, D.C., and 93.5 in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md. He'll be airing the first show from the 40th season of the Lucketts Bluegrass Concert Series on the 12/14 and 12/20. For more information, visit BluegrassCountry.org.
[Music: "New Kid in Town" by Nashville Super Pickers from Pickin' On The Eagles]