WHAT: The Front Porch Music Series, which runs through Nov. 12.
WHERE: The Bynum General Store in Bynum, N.C., about 280 miles south of D.C.
In between sets, Bynum concertgoers can grab a soda and play checkers.
WHY: Enjoy live music while helping keep a local general store in business.
There's just something cool about a concert where the performer's pay comes from a passed hat. Especially when that hat is a pith helmet belonging to the former turtle warden of Litchfield Beach, S.C.
Every Friday night from May to November, performers in the Front Porch Music Series entertain crowds of 150 to 400 people at the rural Bynum General Store. That number takes on added significance when you consider that Bynum only has about 250 residents. The outdoor concerts unfold on the rustic Outhouse Stage, in front of a rolling meadow. In utilitarian Bynum fashion, locals built the stage from three concrete septic tank tops sold at cost by a local builder.
On a late-September evening, the Bluegrass Experience performed for an audience of 200 with some quality pickin' and fiddlin'. There were some picnic blankets, but most of the crowd sat on those ubiquitous folding chairs you wish you'd invented. The adults were a bit placid, perhaps mesmerized by the nimble banjo playing, the uninhibited kids dancing at the front of the stage -- or both. Between songs, guitar player Tommy Edwards deadpanned, "If you have any requests, write 'em on a $10 bill and hand 'em to the fiddle player."
Husband and wife Andy Parsons and Molly Matlock Parsons started the series in May 2001 to help the Bynum General Store survive by providing much-needed foot traffic. You don't just happen upon the place. When the state closed the bridge over the Haw River four years ago, making Bynum Road essentially a long cul-de-sac, store sales plunged from $300 a day to $500 a week.
While concertgoers support the performers via the hat, they aid the store by buying its wares. The idea, after all, is to save the general store. "We encourage people to bring dinner, but we also encourage them not to bring the two-liter [bottle] of Pepsi that they bought at Wal-Mart for 89 cents. We ask them to buy it at the store for 99 cents," says Andy Parsons, who lends his mother's turtle warden helmet to the cause every Friday night.
The Bynum General Store is the kind of place where you can imagine the Dukes of Hazzard enjoying a cold one after foiling Boss Hogg yet again. The chair-lined front porch gives way to a surprisingly open floor plan. Because the store is a community post office, there are P.O. boxes and a mail counter, while the store's opposite side is arrayed with rustic wooden shelves, thinly stocked with goods ranging from witch hazel (88 cents) to Carolina Treet Barbecue sauce ($2.35) to Vitalis Hair Tonic ($4.70). You go to the Bynum Store when you run out of Ball jar tops or need another can of pork brains.
Alcohol is neither sold nor allowed at the concerts, as the sign by the stage proclaims. While organizers claim that the store's postal standing prohibits alcohol consumption, the rule has more to do with avoiding disorderly conduct. Regardless, there were plenty of bottles in sight at a recent outing -- baby bottles from the countless families and IBC root beer bottles sold in the store.
Fortunately for the non-picnic-packing folks, there's a solid North Carolina barbecue joint right at the turnoff to Bynum Road. At Allen & Son, barbecue means pork. Pulled pork. Your only two decisions are whether you want it sliced or chopped and on a bun ($2.75) or as part of a plate with slaw and hush puppies ($7.25). The crispy hush puppies and tender meat make a tasty, hefty meal. The small plate ($4.75) will suffice for anyone without a tapeworm. I would recommend the peanut butter pie, but you're going to buy dessert at the store, remember?
Bynum hosts mostly local acts, but occasionally out-of-towners like Boston-based songstress Deb Pasternack make the trek. Performances vary in style, from bluegrass to folk to old-time string country.
"We don't have any firm criteria, we just try to figure out what's gonna work here. For example, experimental jazz is not gonna fly in Bynum," says Andy Parsons. "We've had just about everything but a string quartet, and I'd like to book one just to shake things up. What we don't book is 'Nashville country.' "
Bynum's organizers suggest a $3 to $7 donation, from which all but the $2 hat-holder's salary goes to the performer. According to Parsons, the record high is $1,250 (for hometown hero and dedicated Bynum supporter Tift Merritt) and the all-time low is $12. But most performers clear $300, partly because those money-collecting kids are tough cookies.
It's hard to resist a cute child with a pith helmet in hand; it's even harder when they won't budge until you stuff some money into the hat.
-- Jonathan Bloom
The Bynum General Store (950 Bynum Rd., Bynum, N.C.) is 10 miles south of Chapel Hill, on Highway 15-501. Take a left on Bynum Road after Allen & Son Bar-B-Que. To get on the store's e-mail list or find out about upcoming shows, contact concert series founder Molly Matlock Parsons at email@example.com. Info: 919-542-1858, www.carrboro.com/bynummusic.