Ben Sollee plays January Jams in Abingdon’s Barter Theater on Friday.
I have been fortunate to attend many wonderful dramatic productions at the venerable Barter Theater in Abingdon. Virginia’s official state theater, the Barter opened in 1933 with a peculiar caveat – if patrons couldn’t afford the 35 cent admission price, they could barter their way in with homegrown produce. It was a win/win situation – locals got to see the plays and the actors were plied with farm fresh vittles. While I have never been lucky enough to trade a few tomatoes or cucumbers for a seat inside, I have happily taken my seat to watch the cast of the Barter Theater perform some incredible plays – To Kill A Mockingbird, Tarzan, and A Christmas Story are but three of the shows I have seen there.
Despite my familiarity with the comfortable confines of the Barter Theater, I was unprepared for what I experienced last weekend. For lack of a better term, the Barter was rockin’.
For the last three years, a concert series – January Jams – has taken up residency at the Barter when the theater’s cast takes the month off from performing. Promoted by the town’s Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Abingdon Main Street program, January Jams has brought some tremendous artists to perform in the theater. Last year, among others, Marty Stuart, Iris Dement, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and Jason Isbell were on the bill. This year’s line up has been similarly impressive – Jill Andrews, formerly of the everybodyfields, and David Bromberg have already performed, while Mavis Staples and Greensky Bluegrass have shows upcoming.
Last Saturday night, it was only fitting that the iconic Barter Theater played host to a collection of icons. The Blind Boys of Alabama, an unparalleled institution in gospel music that has been touring for much of the last seven decades, along with rising blues star Jarkeus Singleton, took the near capacity crowd on a spiritual journey of the music of the Deep South. This was my first time attending a January Jams show and I was much impressed with how this classic theater morphed into a first class music room. Without a doubt, the Barter ranks up there with some of my favorite theaters around the region, which includes the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, the Paramount Centre in Bristol, and the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. The Barter is intimate, bordering on cozy, with just 500 seats, the sound was great, and the theater has already developed a reputation for supplying artists with warm and appreciative audiences.
Sara Cardinale, as the town of Abingdon’s Special Events Coordinator, has been instrumental in the development and growth of January Jams. To her, the concert series is a special event that serves dual purposes.
“Here at the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, we believe that a good community event is a good tourist event. An event that makes the community happy will make a tourist happy. The goal is to have more feet on the street.”
Cardinale was effusive when talking about getting live music in the Barter Theater.
“The Barter Theater puts on over one hundred shows a year, but January is their time to rehearse for next year, so there aren’t any shows going on. We decided to try to keep something happening in the theater, and that is how January Jams was born. Not having to drive to Asheville to hear great live music is pretty excellent, and the caliber of musicians who have come and been delighted by our little town is awesome.”
Brent Treash, an Abingdon resident and avid live music fan, echoes these sentiments.
“January Jams has quickly become woven into Abingdon’s social fabric. Enthusiastic crowds are able to see legendary musicians perform in a historic theater that rarely hosts live music. Because Abingdon is now embracing live music, I get to see these amazing musicians playing virtually on my back porch.”
This weekend, January Jams wraps up its month of shows with two tremendous offerings. On Saturday, the aforementioned jamgrass heavyweights Greensky Bluegrass and Virginia folk rockers The Last Bison will play.
Ben Sollee is a native Kentuckian, having been born in Lexington, and he began playing the cello in high school. His career, much like contemporaries like Bela Fleck and Chris Thile, has been wide and varied, and Sollee’s sound is difficult to pigeonhole. Sollee draws from a vast array of influences, and you are just as likely to hear him accompanying the Charlotte Ballet or find scoring films or riding his bike – while toting his cello on a trailer – like he did on the way to perform at Bonnaroo in 2009. Sollee has been a member of both the Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour house band and Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet, has performed in vaunted concert halls around the world, including Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, and has an impressive collection of releases to his credit.
Trail Mix and the January Jams promoters are happy to give you a shot at taking in the show of Friday for free. All it takes is a simple email. Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org with an email and put BEN SOLLEE in the subject line. A lucky winner of two passes will be chosen from the emails received by noon on Friday.