This month’s interview features a chat with Bellows Falls resident, artist, advocate and a true Vermonter, hailing from Weathersfield, VT, Charlie Hunter. Many know him for his superlative artwork, while others may know him for his involvement in the national/regional music scene.
D2: Charlie – many thanks for taking the time to talk with us, here at WOOL. Just for reference, Charlie and WOOL share the same building so we get to see each other on occasion, or at least, passing in the hallway, so to speak. So, let’s get to it.
D2: Charlie – Let’s talk about how you found your way to Bellows Falls, Vermont. Everything starts with Roots on the River, right?
CH: I had been a music manager in Northampton (Mass) in the ‘90’s and I’d gotten successful enough that I figured out that after a certain point, if you’re being a good manager, you spent a lot of the time working with people who only cared about making as much money as possible. And I find that profoundly boring. It’s the struggle upward that makes for the fun part. I had been working with Dar Williams for quite a while, and she was getting so successful that that was the moment she could have broken through, bigtime. And we both agreed, very cordially, that I was not the correct manager for her at that time…..and I wanted to get back to doing art and my parents lived in Weathersfield, and so it was a good time for me to transition to being up here. I wanted to be involved in creating an art scene rather than attempting to be accepted into a pre-existing one. I also like mill towns. So, it was either White River Junction or here (Bellows Falls) and so enters, Robert McBride. He was very outgoing.
D2: Oh, RAMP was a thing back then (RAMP stands for Rockingham Arts and Museum Project)?
CH: It was. Robert had RAMP and he also owned the flatiron building. I rented the ground floor of that building for the summer of 1999 and I was going to use that as my studio. Robert basically, suckered me into putting on four Sunday concerts in July. The four concerts were, in order, Kelly Joe Phelps, with Louise Taylor, Fred Eaglesmith, Cliff Eberhardt, and the final week was Peter Mulvey. Those shows did really well.
Fred Eaglesmith, I had managed for two years, in like, ’95 to ’97 but it was when Dar’s career was blowing up and I didn’t have time to devote to it so we released him, unfortunately. The people who came to see Fred weren’t just people from Bellows Falls. People came to the show and were crammed in, and so we’re like why don’t we do a festival based around Fred? We could do one night as like a barroom show and one night it’s like a concert and then do an all-acoustic show up at the meetinghouse. So, it was to be an all-Fred event but in all different contexts. Because he had this ability to be an acoustic bluegrass band or be a troubadour or really good bar band. That was the first weekend in 2000. After about five years it was getting to be much more of a festival, so we renamed it Roots on the River. Then I gave that up in 2007 and Ray (Massucco) took it over.
D2: Was it just you at the top of the pyramid, so to speak or did you have other partners that were helping put the event in place?
CH: No, it was just me. But that’s the reason why I stopped doing them – because you sacrifice your entire month of May with the lead up. It would make like $3000 at the end of the day, which was great, but in the world of folk festivals, there were no real sponsorships at the time. It took a lot of time for not much money.
Ray showed up at the first show at the Flatiron and offered to help sell merch. But at that time, I didn’t know who he was.
D2: So, Ray takes things over in 2008?
CH: Yes, in 08. Ray had become more and more active locally. He liked artist relations – he really liked the green room.
D2: Is Gary (Smith) in Bellows Falls at this point?
CH: Gary got here pretty much the same time that I got here but I didn’t know him initially. Oona’s was the popular spot in BF that opened in 2000, and George, the bartender, told me when I came in one evening “oh there’s a music manager who’s bought a place in Walpole. Big time manager and he seems like a nice guy. He works with Natalie Merchant.” I had heard about Gary, and I certainly knew of Gary, but I did not know Gary. At that time, I had a storefront studio where the entrance to Popolo is now. He showed up one day and you know how charming Gary can be. He looked around and said, I like this art. I like you. Why don’t you come around for dinner?
D2: So Gary being Gary.
CH: Right. Gary being so Gary.
Gary leased the lobby of the Windham Hotel to use as a recording studio because he had extra recording equipment back in his barn. He had converted a couple of rooms in his barn, but it was kind of funky.
D2: That was at his farm up in Walpole?
CH: Yes, so his dream……he had had a very good plan which was…. Well, he was sick of the music business and he wanted to be a gentleman farmer with a herd of sheep and have creative friends come up and be able to work, and stay in his guesthouse and be unencumbered by worrying about money. And that plan would have worked if the record industry kept on as it was.
D2: Meaning if the industry didn’t implode, which it did.
CH: Yup – timing was terrible. It happened right then. All those royalties that Gary was counting on just disappeared. Only a few of his records were “hit” hit records but at the time you still would have had to purchase music; thereby royalties…
D2: Mailbox money.
CH: A lot of Mailbox money.
D2: What an insane shift in such a short amount of time. Normally things would have moved at a much slower pace. But because it’s technology, that change was overnight – truly lighting fast.
CH: Yes. I’m currently working with Next Stage on a bunch of projects, just collaborating and talking with Keith and Barry, and I said that I feel like an old football coach who’s come out of retirement. I’m trying to get a sense of how the game is played now. Instead of people running down 100 yards, now they’re running across the field and sideways, and it seems so random.
D2: It seems that the connection to music is different than when we were young. Is it the emotional piece or the experiential piece? You gathered friends when someone got the latest release from Artist X because you couldn’t wait to hear it. It was a communal event on some level.
CH: Well, I think music is, or was, a signifier. Today you talk to a young person and they love Hank Williams and they love Beyoncé. In my day, our day, you basically chose a camp and defended it.
D2: It was tribalism. I like David Bowie, or I like Roy Clark or whatever it was you. You staked your musical claim. That’s good point but that doesn’t exist anymore. Just like you could have a bill when we were growing up; you could have a bill that would feature Lynyrd Skynyrd and Yes – which are diametrically opposed – but fans would still come, and they would sit for Skynyrd and then sit through Yes.
CH: That happened a little bit before I got involved in music. I got really involved in live music in ‘77 and that was around the time when disco kicked off. And that really added to the tribalism of music.
D2: Sorry, I’m getting us soooo off track. Pulling things back…. so does Gary set up his studio up in Walpole or does he set it up where Popolo currently sits?
CH: He sets it up in the Windham Hotel Lobby. The Chamber of Commerce was there in 1980 and then they moved in 2000. They moved over to the purple building so Gary came in then set up his studio and I think he ran the studio maybe from like 2002 to 2004 in that location. And then he was like, it’s now configured so we could actually be doing live shows there. So, in 2005 I think it was. I booked Thursdays at Oona’s, largely with artists that were traveling through town. So, we discontinued music on Thursdays at Oona’s and moved it over to the Windham. I continued booking it for a little while. Gary had rented the flatiron building in 2002 and moved Fort Apache (studios) from Boston to BF. He was gonna have the first floor as “Historea” – an antique store that was also a museum. He was going to have themed shows and he was going to sit and work on his other projects and then when people came in, he would talk to them about the themed show. He did one show on milk. It was typical Gary. He thought it out; an exhibit about milk; how milk was processed in Bellows Falls, how cities consumed milk. It opened in November 2002, and was going to run until the spring and then the 2nd exhibit was going to occur – it was going to be about time. After about a month and a half of having this work constantly interrupted by people who wandered in (laughing) Gary had no further interest. His patience was gone. He’d rant “these people, they come in, they don’t know what they want, they don’t know anything…” (trailing off)
D2: So, he’s losing or lost interest in the museum notion, but he still has the building leased?
CH: So he still has the building; music retail had been dying. Natalie Merchant had either been dropped by Elektra or they wanted to move her to another label. Gary figures out that they could make a lot more money just selling an interim record to her fans. They do the “House Carpenter’s Daughter” record and sold 250,000 copies of that record. It was just a CD with a cardboard sleeve. Pretty amazing. So, 51 Square was all all three floors, acting as the label. And he’s got the lobby of the Windham as the studio. And we’re doing live music three nights a week at the Windham. It would be like Rani Arbo one night and then Bill Morrissey one night and then it would be maybe Grace Potter. She played there a number of times.
D2: So, the Windham is just a venue – there’s no food, no alcohol?
CH: We made a deal with Oona’s that they would serve, they had a catering permit, so, although there was no food, we did offer beer and wine. And that went on for about three years, I think.
D2: How many people could that room hold?
CH: About 60 or so. Yeah, because I remember we did two (Peter) Mulvey shows and the first one sold out at 60 and the second one was 45. It was all the same people at both shows but so it goes.
D2: That put you at almost 2006?
CH: Popolo didn’t open till 2012; the Windham kind of stumbled along for a period of time. I had stopped booking it and then Patrick LeBlanc started booking it. And at that point, Patrick was working full time for Gary at 51 Square.
D2: (interviewers note: There was a long discussion about all sorts of things that had nothing to do with the current conversation which took us on a bit of a sidetrack, but Charlie knows how to bring things back on point).
CH: Basically, to summarize, the presence of Gary was just a whirlwind of creativity. And the reality of it was, Walpole turned out to be more boring than Gary had liked. He’s one of the few people from Walpole that dared to look at Bellows Falls at that time and say, yeah, I kind of like it over here. And since it’s so affordable it was easy for him to move his operations over here. In this period, he starts saying what a town needs is, it needs a newspaper, it needs a radio station, and it needs a restaurant. So, he and Mark start WHAT’S UP IN THE VALLEY. Did you ever see it? That was a magazine that he and Mark Piepkorn and one other guy started. The idea was, if you look at the WOOL website, it’s similar to WHAT’S UP. So, Gary gets to know Tony Elliott because Tony Elliott is one of the owners of the Windham hotel and Tony has Woodstone. And Tony has SoverNet and they can talk tech.
D2: So WOOL launches but it seems that Gary helped create all of these different opportunities along the way. After WOOL, the restaurant, between You, Ray and Gary and maybe Patrick to whatever extent…
CH: Patrick wasn’t an instigator as much as a doer. He became a stage manager at Roots, and he is a very good stage manager.
D2: But by the time Fred leaves Roots, you’ve already left the building, yeah?
CH: “Fred X” in 2010 was the last one with Fred. Fred and Ray never got along very well. But that’s a different story.
D2: So, the last year for Roots ends up being….
CH: The last year was 2019. Ray was ending it.
D2: Well perfect timing.
CH: Hindsight being what it is. Roots had officially ended, though we were approached by people who wanted to use the name going forward, but since the business plan didn’t seem terribly solid, we said “no”. One cycle may have been ending, but then COVID showed up and completely obliterated everything; there’s now a whole other cycle of creativity in Bellows Falls, and some people I don’t even know have started things up, which is really neat.
D2: So now let’s talk about the inception of RED.
CH: Before the Opera House was renovated in 2004 to 2006, the balcony was all boarded up, there was a drop ceiling hiding stuff. It was just gross. The curtains were falling off the sides of the stage. There were red plastic seats that were filthy. It had definitely seen better days. Bill Lockwood, who died right around the same time as Ray and Gary, was very involved in a theater group called Front Porch Theater here in town, and had the idea that the Opera House should be renovated so that there could be theatrical productions put on. He got the town to float a bond; he deserves a ton of credit. The renovation is completed by 2006 and at that time, the town hired a part-time person, Kali Quinn, to be the live events manager. Ed Howard was running the movie side of things. And Kali Quinn was charged by the town to try to get 24 live events per year.
D2: That’s a lot of events.
CH: Kali worked from 2006 or 2007 till about 2010 or 2011. Then she moved on. We had a town manager named Tim Cullinen, who had gone to Ohio State, so he liked acts like The Michael Stanley band – basically, Ohio rock’n’roll bands. So when Kali left, we had a disastrous couple of interim directors, then Tim said, live music? I’ll take care of it. That did not go well. Historically, Rockingham eats town managers – though now we have a great one, praise be – Tim got eaten up like a month later, and the next town manager had no interest in running that part of the program. Nor did he have any interest in hiring a part-time manager. The old guard, who liked running a discount movie house, took that opportunity and just seized it.
David Stern was over at Main Street arts at that time. And he wanted to do Jesus Christ Superstar. I wrote out a proposal showing how it would make money at the Opera House. Brokered that and the select board voted for it and so Jesus Christ Superstar happened and then they basically just ran with that deal for the next few years through the production of Chicago. The next show was to be Cabaret – then COVID hit and they had the set in place, though no signed contract. But the then manager didn’t want anyone in there, and said, oh you gotta take the set down because it’s in the way, and that caused massive problems.
D2: That’s right around the time, you and I started talking about sundry things involving the Opera House.
CD: Yes, that impasse was the genesis for RED. My initial proposal was that RED would come into existence as a 501C3 to lease the Opera House, keep doing the movies, but also start emphasizing the live side of the business. Scott Pickup comes in town manager and says, let’s not do it that way; he understands what an economic driver we have there, and says, let’s have the town pay RED a dollar a year to kind of direct the marketing and development of the Opera House, and the town can handle the nuts and bolts. And so RED went from looking to be the lessee of that space to just helping build what the Opera House can become. RED raises the money for the website development. RED pays for the website maintenance. The town pays for Spectrix, which is the ticketing system that resides on the Opera House website.
So anyway, when Ray passed away, I had been trying to reach out to various concert promoters to try to get up to having 24 events here. We have Wild Goose Players now, which accounts for 8, but I was not getting enough promoters that wanted to come in; so when Ray passed on, well, never let a good crisis go to waste – so let’s honor Ray. And that accounts for another four events.
D2: And then if you add an additional 4 for Gary…?
CH: There are others that want to host a big concert for Gary this year in Boston, which is fine. It’s just that I’m not the person to do it there, a big event like that.Doing it up here wouldn’t make any sense as we don’t have the infrastructure for it. I figure I will let my idea of doing four shows a year for Gary be quiet for a bit. I’ve had conversations with Billy Bragg, and he indicated that he would be up for doing it. So, it just moves a little further out on the horizon timeline.
D2: But that doesn’t get you closer to your 24 events – that would have brought you to 16 but it actually leaves you with 12.
CH: Right so we’re currently at 12 and there are a few other events that will be happening. But we’re holding at about 16. Ezra Veitch has started an organization called Ray’s the Roof Productions, and RED is helping stand them up. Brian Joy is doing stuff. We have also partnered with Next Stage to help with booking the Ray series and maybe doing some other shows here. Next Stage is very interested in collaborating on this. And a sidebar to that, I’m actually going to look at their ticketing system to see if that maybe makes sense and if so, maybe we’d let go of Spectrix. I don’t know how this will work out but we’ll get there. They’ve said it’s much less than Spectrix but it’s also doesn’t have the bells and whistles but I think experientially we’ve already learned what bells and whistles we don’t need.
D2: Tickets for movies are down almost 40% – that’s a national statistic that aligns with what you’re seeing at the Opera House.
CH: In recent months classic movies are almost back to what they were pre-COVID, but I don’t particularly trust that. I mean, who knows. Some blockbusters do great, but we get killed when the big studios make us show the same movie for three weeks. But we’ll stay the course until further notice. Movies are our main bread and butter.
D2: Well, Charlie, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to chat about your many goings on. Between your workshops, travel, RED, and various other projects, you certainly have lots going on. We hope we here at WOOL can help be part of the upcoming Ray Series and hopefully soon enough, the Gary Series. Looking forward to seeing how these all turn out.
For more information or for your reference, here are a few links that you can visit, after reading through our interview:
Charlie Hunter (not the guitarist)