- Associated Press - Sunday, April 6, 2014

STINESVILLE, Ind. (AP) - STINESVILLE - Every month or two, on a Saturday night, Stinesville’s step-back-in-time general store undergoes a transformation. A hundred cushioned chairs emerge from storage and are placed around the room, all facing the center of the 120-year-old mercantile. They cart in stage lights and a soundboard, then arrange some bar stools in the center of the room amid sparsely stocked pantry shelves, toys from yesteryear, rusty metal advertising signs, a lit-up Coca-Cola wall clock and two fading Quarry Lad letter jackets displayed on hangars.

Then, the musicians arrive, most often with a guitar, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica or other instruments in hand. They find a seat in the inner circle, tune up and settle in for a night of acoustic music. “There’s gospel, there’s country, there’s contemporary music and once in awhile, like the other night, some jazz,” Tim Bayne told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1fYzeh0). “Everybody’s welcome, and it don’t cost nothin’.”

For two decades, he and his wife, Pam, have owned the store, which also houses the town post office. “I never imagined having something like this, but when the idea was presented, we said we’d try anything once,” Bayne said. “It’s turned out to be so enjoyable, and a good thing for Stinesville. I hope it continues.”

Bruce Payton, a guitar player for 40 years, hatched the idea for what has become the Circle of Friends, an ever-changing group of musicians who perform together at the old store. He envisioned a songwriter’s circle in his hometown, then decided to give it a try. The first circle convened in December 2010 in the old Oddfellow’s Hall, located on the store’s second level and accessible by a steep, rickety staircase. People called the night magical, and the 60 or so who attended hoped there would be more shows. There were; the performance space eventually moved downstairs, where there is more room. And no bats flying in the rafters.

As the sun set the night of March 15 and darkness moved in, music lovers began to arrive; parked cars lined the usually deserted streets. People claimed their seats. Many were locals who know one another, and they engaged in conversations about family members, mutual friends and the brutal winter nearing an end. Others, Bayne did not recognize. He suspects this may be their first visit to Stinesville, a 64-acre town, population 198, tucked up in the northwest corner of Monroe County.

They all come, more than 100 in the end, for an intimate evening of music in the round, in the tradition of the songwriters clubs in Nashville, Tenn., at places like the 90-seat Bluebird Cafe or the Douglas Corner Cafe, with its brick interior walls and high tin ceiling. There is no advertising or promotion. News of the circle is spread by word of mouth, and the mix of musicians changes every time. The music is spontaneous; there is no practicing, no warm-up session.

This night at the mercantile, the lineup was diverse. Payton led the way on guitar, joined by Stinesville natives John and Steve Baker, brothers raised performing gospel music in churches. Regular circle singers Scott Pate and Marty Barrow joined in. Special guests included fiddle player Jeff Hardin from Kokomo, who as a young man traveled with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Also in the circle was Tyron Cooper, a master guitar player and director of Indiana University’s Soul Revue, and his wife, Joii Cooper, who rounded out the mix.

“Marty and I are good friends from church, and he told me about this singalong out here,” Tyron Cooper said between sets. “I’m an ethnomusicologist by trade, interested in the mix of cultures and music. This,” he said, holding his arms wide, “is quite a cultural experience. You strike up that first note, and then we’re all in as a family. It’s magical.”

A spotlight shining down, Joii Cooper belted out “Wade in the Water” as men’s worn boot heels tapped in rhythm on the wood plank floors. “You sure do get an awful lot out of a song,” John Baker proclaimed in the reverent silence after the final verse . “God’s a-going to trouble the water.” He then launched into Elvis Presley’s “Fools Rush In.”

“I love the intimacy of acoustic music played in the round, musicians sitting opposite one another and the crowd sitting in close. There’s a respect in the room for what is being heard, and you can hear a pin drop,” Payton said. “As a musician, this is what I really enjoy, and I knew we could sustain a circle with the talent we have in Monroe County and around the area.”

When he first proposed the concept, local performers were wary. “They have spent their careers performing at one end of a room facing, and unattached to, the audience,” Payton said. “But I wanted the audience sitting close, there together with the musicians, like they are in your living room. People cocked their heads, not so sure it was a good idea.”

But that first show more than three years ago convinced the players, and the audience, that this hidden rural music venue could shine. There are jokes and casual conversation among the circle members, but mostly, an eclectic mix of music. “You get a piece of their life with the song,” Payton observed. “John and I wanted to encourage that close sense of community that has long been disappearing in small towns.”

A night with the Circle of Friends offers a mix of music. Count on some religion making its way in through traditional gospel hymns. “We might go from Marty doing a solo by Otis Redding from the late ‘50s, and then step next to Scott, an amazing country singer who may do something classic channeling Johnny Cash, and the next person does a song by Bonnie Raitt or Etta James, and then John Baker, well, I, think he knows every gospel song ever written,” Payton said. “I incorporate the acoustic guitar.”

Norma Fisher grew up around Stinesville, a member of the Figg family. She is 87 years old, and attended the Circle of Friends March show. “I haven’t been in this store in a long, long time. It was here when I was a little girl,” she said. “John and Steve Baker there? I knew their mother. This is a wonderful thing, to have people here to make music. I’ve been after my son to bring me, and he called and said, ‘Let’s go. Tonight.’”

The 7 o’clock show went late, past 10 p.m. Norma would have stayed longer. But once the circle performs MercyMe’s haunting “I Can Only Imagine,” the house lights come on and everyone knows it’s time to pack up the instruments and head home.

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