Way Cool Music
● By Jon Lewis
Photo by Eric Leslie
North State Oaksong Society
Barry Hazle and Pete Angwin are cultural detectives, poking around in the hinterlands, talking to people in the know, sifting through stacks of recordings and constantly on the lookout for authentic music they can share with small but appreciative North State audiences.
The two are the brains behind the Oaksong Society for the Preservation of Way-Cool Music, a modest, all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that has spent the last 13 years presenting concerts in Redding and Oak Run.
Oaksong’s stock-in-trade is Americana music, a primarily acoustic mélange of roots music from the folk, country, bluegrass and R&B genres, but it’s happy to serve up side dishes of Hawaiian music as well.
The society got its start in 2000 when Hazle, an Oak Run resident, teamed up with his neighbor, Bruce Wendt, the owner of a commercial nursery, to stage a pair of concerts on the front porch of Wendt’s home. The success of those shows inspired the men, and a handful of volunteers, to develop a small clearing on Wendt’s property into a small amphitheatre, complete with a covered 20x20-foot stage, lights and a professional sound system.
They called the new venue Gray Pine Farm and it started hosting four to five shows each summer. Audience members were welcome to bring a picnic supper or take advantage of a barbecue dinner prepared on site. Some 200 to 300 people would typically turn out to enjoy the cool evening air and listen to some top-drawer talent.
A few years later, the society began presenting indoor concerts during the winter months at Bernie’s Guitar (now the Music Connection) on Bechelli Lane. The Redding venue became a mainstay when the recession came a’calling in 2008 and attendance at Gray Pine Farm shows dwindled to the point that Oaksong couldn’t break even.
Oaksong now focuses on the acoustically resplendent, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Pilgrim Congregational Church, which became available about three years ago.
Throughout the switches and minor growing pains, the organization’s goals have held steady. “We are purposely small, and we are purposely bringing in acts that we think are great and that we want people to come and see,” said Hazle, Oaksong’s president.
“The main thing is to keep growing it, and keep providing people with excellent concerts at a great price,” says Angwin, the society’s artistic director. “We want to provide the opportunity to see some of these folks that ordinarily might not come to Redding and play.”
The two acts scheduled for February, John Gorka on the 7th and the Dry Branch Fire Squad on the 14th, are excellent examples.
A legitimate folk music star since 1984, Gorka is a contemporary of artists like Susanne Vega, Bill Morrissey, Nanci Griffith, Christine Lavin and Shawn Colvin. In 1991, Rolling Stone magazine called him “the preeminent male singer-songwriter of what has been dubbed the New Folk Movement.” Angwin notes with considerable pride that Gorka’s management sought out the Oaksong booking with the aim of matching his rich baritone voice with Pilgrim Congregational Church’s acoustics. “I got a call from his manager, asking if it would be OK if he could play,” Angwin says, shaking his head at the memory. “It’s made for one of our strongest lineups yet.”
The Dry Branch Fire Squad has been a music festival favorite for more than three decades, cultivating fans with exceptional musicianship and the self-deprecating humor of founder Ron Thomason.
As the chair of an organization that stages an annual bluegrass festival, Thomason says regional music societies like Oaksong are critical to the survival of traditional music.
“It’s not only a labor of love, but it’s a labor of absolute necessity because as a country, we have a dim view of the arts and especially our heritage arts. If people weren’t willing to do the work and pay the bills, there wouldn’t be anybody to take care of it,” Thomason says.
Hazle says Oaksong is proud to play a role in keeping Americana music alive and available for local audiences and adds that the satisfaction comes from bringing in crowd favorites like Dry Branch Fire Squad and introducing lesser-known acts who are on the way up, like Hatchet Mountain native Rita Hosking and San Francisco-based Blame Sally.
For Angwin, the payback comes at showtime. “During a show, I’ll stand on the side and look at the audience, see people smiling, tapping their feet and just enjoying the show. That is an amazing sense of satisfaction, to see people responding to these shows that we’ve put all this effort into.
“I take a lot of satisfaction out of seeing this team effort. No one makes a dime out of this. We do this because we’re totally in love with the music and all that comes along with it.”
Upcoming shows at Pilgrim Congregational Church (2850 Foothill Blvd., Redding):
Feb. 7: John Gorka
Feb. 14: Dry Branch Fire Squad
March 7: Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands
March 20: HAPA (Hawaiian music)
For tickets, visit The Music Connection, 3086 Bechelli Lane in Redding
or call (530) 223-2040