Pickin’ Productions: Dreams and Music in the North Fork

Jan 13, 2013 by     No Comments    Posted under: Features, Livelihood

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“Basically anything you can dream in this valley, you can really bring to fruition. It’s just a matter of how determined you are to make it happen and how passionate you are about what you want to do. You see it all over the place with all sorts of different people here. We stuck to the vision.”

Rob and Rebecca Miller have made their dreams come true in Paonia. Like many people who have found their way to the North Fork Valley, the Millers recognized it as home almost as soon as they arrived for a visit. Twelve years later, Rebecca practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine at her own clinic, and Rob runs Pickin’ Productions from his office in downtown Paonia. He is also a founding member of the band Sweet Sunny South.

Perhaps best known for their free summer concert series, Pickin’ in the Park every Thursday night in August in Paonia, Pickin’ Productions also puts on the Ridgway Concert Series in July, and last year added a contract with the town of Ouray to produce The Mountain Air Music Series weekly in June.

“I’d done a lot of music promotion in different ways,” Rob says, “in places like Boulder, San Francisco, Santa Fe.” But when he moved here he eventually turned his attention to it full time.

“When you bring one band and it’s a sold out show and people stop you on the street and say, ‘That was incredible, that made my week,’ it kind of makes you want to do another one. After a few years it just felt like, ok, that’s our role here. And we concentrate on it.

“We were kind of on the forefront of a movement we felt was happening when we moved here,” he continues. “You could feel the potential. The Blue Sage had started bringing in singer-songwriters, and we thought it would be fun to bring some bands in.”

As a DJ for KVNF, Rob attended Rocky Grass in Lyons, Colo., and interviewed bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Open Road. “They said they’d heard Paonia was a great little town and they’d like to play here,” he says, “so that conversation spurred the idea to bring bands.

“Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott was a coup right off the bat, that was a big show, and that really got us going. Then when Stu bought the Paradise Theater he invited us to start doing shows on his stage; since 2003 we’ve been doing shows at the Paradise, bringing in about six bands a year at first.

“Then about six years ago we started Pickin’ in the Park in Paonia, so our attention turned more toward the summer series and free shows—which is liberating because you don’t have to worry about selling tickets, which is the most stressful thing about doing this, but you do have to worry about raising money, so it’s a give and take. We still usually do one fall show and one spring show at the Paradise, because we just love the Paradise and intimate shows in that venue.”

IMG_0125The free summer concerts in Paonia, Ridgway and Ouray have proven to be so popular that other western slope towns have expressed interest in having Miller bring similar series to their venues, and if you’ve ever attended one of these concerts you’ll understand why. With bands like Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys, Halden Wofford and the Hi Beams, and the Black Lillies; a park full of friends and neighbors on lawn chairs and blankets; and picnic dinners from home or from vendors selling local food and drink, Thursday summer evenings become a special respite from the rest of the week.

“Our mission is to make sure that the music and the scene that we create is open and approachable to all aspects of our community, to the hippies who come and dance, to the miners who like to come and spend time with their families, the old-timers, the ranchers, everybody, and so far the feedback has been that everyone’s very comfortable there. That for us is what it’s really all about, it’s about a neutral place where our community, which isn’t always neutral, can get together and feel comfortable.

“Overall, we’ve seen the attendance grow and the diversity grow in Pickin’ in the Park in Paonia; we see the hotels selling out now, and I get calls all the time for ‘Where can I camp? Where can I stay?’ For Darrell Scott last summer we had people coming from all over the state to see him—in the rain!”

 

Paonia Pickin’ in the Park 2013

August 1 – Paonia, CO

Amy Helm

Opening: Front Country

August 8 – Paonia, CO

Bradford Lee Folk & the Bluegrass Playboys

Opening: The Paul Sammons Trio

August 15 – Paonia, CO

Atomga

Opening: Sand Sheff Trio

August 22 – Paonia, CO

The Birds of Chicago

Opening: Cottonwood Creek

 

Rob’s office walls are papered with posters for dozens of bands and singers, some nationally known, some up-and-coming. His cell phone keeps tweeting as we speak. It’s his business partner in Quicksilver Productions texting from Washington, D.C., and Rob graciously declines to answer. He explains that after Sweet Sunny South disbanded a couple of years ago, he had to extend his booking business to make up that income. He and a friend decided to collaborate; Rob now books fourteen national acts at venues throughout the West while his partner books in the East.

“The more Quicksilver grows, which is fast, the more difficult it is to keep the attention on Pickin’ Productions, but it’s a commitment for us. We feel like we are kind of holding the torch in this particular aspect of culture around here, these free concerts in the park, which we feel really good about, and the community just keeps giving back the love. So if people keep coming out we’ll keep doing it.”

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While Ridgway and Ouray contract Miller to bring the acts to their free summer series, Pickin’ Productions has to fund Paonia’s series itself. “It costs more than people might expect. We ask for support from the community for Pickin’ in the Park. There’s usually one major sponsor who covers maybe 20% of the budget, then other individuals and businesses contribute the rest. Each year the town seems to magically give just enough to make it work.”

And, he adds, they usually do one fundraiser each year for Pickin’, but “what it really does is raise awareness that we’re looking for sponsors. We basically throw a party, do a little better than breaking even; like last year we had the March Fourth Marching Band, they’re a 25-piece band and it costs them a lot of money to be here. It was a great party, it was a sold out show, but we didn’t really come out ahead. The fundraisers are really just for exposure, and also to give back to the town.

“It’s really our way of contributing to the culture in the North Fork Valley,” he says. “I know for a fact that people come to town from other places, they look at Paonia and think, ‘Beautiful theater, I can see first run movies and national acts play, wow, I want to live here.’ I think the culture is a big reason people are drawn to live here.”

While the Millers have enhanced cultural opportunities for the valley’s residents and visitors since they arrived, all the reasons they chose Paonia also remain to lure people here.

Rob says that he and Rebecca had been living in New Mexico; she wanted to grow medicinal herbs, he wanted “to do the classic truck farm.” He had worked on a number of organic farms and felt he had the experience to succeed. “Rebecca shared that dream and also wanted to start a practice. It was a place where the altitude would allow us to grow, and we could also afford to buy land.”

In New Mexico, they were on a hike with some friends from Crested Butte when they voiced their dream: “We want to be able to get out and do some mountain biking, cross-country skiing, a place with a strong community and a good lifestyle that’s simple,” he says. “Our friends stopped, I remember them stopping on the trail, and they said ‘How about Paonia?’ Rebecca had grown up in Denver, she’d never heard of Paonia—we said ‘Tell us about it.’”

Later they paid a visit to Paonia, meeting their CB friends in town. “Literally, we got out of the car in front of the health food store (now the Flying Fork). We walked in, and our friend said ‘Oh, this is our friend Kristy,’ and she was posting a for rent sign.” So they went to check it out and it was a beautiful farmhouse. “We fell in love, negotiated a price, and asked her to hold it for a couple of months until we could move up here. We hadn’t even really seen downtown Paonia yet.

“It was a no-brainer—the universe said here you are, you’re home, and showed us the most cozy little farmhouse you could imagine. We had the farm for three years until Rebecca’s career started getting busy, and I needed to make some money.”

Not long after settling in the valley, Rob started playing music with some friends. “We were just these guys playing acoustic music in our room,” he says, until they started playing a local pizza place. “We were really nervous about playing out, but the community was so incredibly supportive and we felt like ok, if you like that we’ll do it again. We would put up a little handmade poster and the place would just be packed, and the whole community would come out to see what we were doing. It was Paonia and the North Fork Valley that gave us overwhelming support to keep doing what we were doing.”

_JTT8678What they were doing was becoming Sweet Sunny South, an old-time bluegrass band that, over the next decade, became one of the most popular bands on the Western Slope, and eventually played venues and festivals across the region. At first, Rob says, “We’d listen to our recordings and say, ‘We’re not that good! We know good music but we’re not that good,’ but the whole valley kept telling us to keep at it, and eventually we’d listen to our recordings and say, ‘Well, we’re not that bad.’

In its first incarnation the band included Rob, Bill Powers, Kevin Dirk on banjo, Cory Obert on fiddle, Willie Kistler on bass. “It was Bill who said ‘Hey let’s play the Paradise,’ and we were like oh no, we’re not ready for that, and he said ‘It’s the paradise, it’s our community stage, let’s go play it.’

“At the time we started, Bill and I would trade off playing guitar and mandolin and then we were told that a real bluegrass band didn’t do that, so we said ok, and we listened, and we sort of rochambeau’d for it, and I took the guitar and Bill took the mandolin. That forced Bill to buy a nice mandolin and me a nice guitar, Cory followed by buying a nice fiddle, Kevin followed with a nice banjo. Willie already had a nice bass. That allowed us to have a bigger sound.

“We used the valley as our base and then we’d go out an easy drive from Paonia, whether it was Gunnison or Crested Butte or Telluride, and then we became ambassadors for Paonia in the larger music scene. Kevin and Bill both wrote songs about Paonia.

“Bill wrote “Bell Creek Dance Club,” and put what was Paonia back in pre-war days on the map,” says Miller. “I cannot tell you how many times we played that song in wherever in Colorado or even Utah, and an old-timer would come up in his wheelchair or his walker and say, ‘I was there!’ or ‘My brother told me about that place!’”

IMG_0139By this time a new version of Sweet Sunny South had formed consisting of Rob, Cory, Bill, and his wife Shelley on bass. The group had mostly started families by then, and gotten into doing children’s music. “That’s when we did our first CD, Bell Creek Dance Club, and then proceeded to record two more studio CDs and then a live CD.”

After a decade the band dissolved amicably. They still play their annual contra dance but, Rob says, “We had our day. Ten years, it’s a long time for anything.” Honey Don’t, and old-time/Americana duo featuring Bill and Shelley, spun off of Sweet Sunny South a few years ago and continues to perform.

“The image of Paonia and music has been building through the years,” says Miller. “Mose and Maren were the beginning of it (at the Blue Sage); they brought Cheryl Wheeler and some great folk acts, and then we took it up to bluegrass and some other genres, then Jason and Regna (who bought the Paradise a few years ago) just knocked it out of the park with great rock and roll and country and all sorts of innovative stuff.

“Every act that comes through builds on the next. Martin Sexton was the last one to come through, and who’s Martin going to talk to? That is going to be the next one to give us a call. We feel really good about that.”

Rob and I discuss what it is, exactly, that makes so many musicians want to play Paonia. Is it just the enthusiasm of the crowd? No, he says, it’s much more than that.

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“Many of the national acts that play here, at the end of the show they’re asking how much real estate is here, honestly, and it’s because they can feel the community; they’re communicating with the crowd and they feel that they’ve reached a very special place that nobody knows about. Many of them talk about retiring here. I think the community and the beauty are the things that really strike them, and then the fact that it feels like a real live Mayberry walking down the street. Coming from out of town, people see right away that this is a really special place. And when they can connect with the community through music, and see that there’s a diverse group of people out in the audience, they can feel that. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a number of these people moving here through the years.”

Although, he adds, “I stay in contact with some people who you’d know the names of who ask me about the oil and gas drilling and how that’s doing. I will say that’s a factor. We are a place that people dream about moving to, you know, so when they hear about the oil and gas potential around here they’re very concerned, and they’re checking in with me about it.

“It concerns them because they feel a personal connection, as most people who visit here do, and I think they see Paonia and the North Fork Valley as a really special place that they don’t want to see turn into other places where drilling has devastated the landscape and community.

“I feel like this community has a lot of differences. We differ in the way we see a lot of things, but the lifestyle that we share we agree on. Oil and gas drilling has a lot of potential to change that lifestyle enough that it would break up our community. And that would affect everything, including the musical sanctuary that I see Pickin’ in the Park as. I think what I fear is bringing in a lot of transient workers who wouldn’t necessarily value what we have here. In a way it’s a fragile community.”

Since they’ve been here, he says, he’s witnessed a few controversies, and seen “the us-and-them thing kind of fade away” through compromise and collaboration, among conservation organizations, coal mines, the coal working group, and others.

Back in 2002, he says, during another controversy over drilling in the valley, “We drew 500-600 people to a great fundraiser at the fairgrounds in Hotchkiss. We did a coalbed methane awareness party, and there were cowboys and ranchers and hippies and all sorts of people there. What was great about it was that everybody was very concerned, whether you worked for the mines or not, everyone was like ‘What is coalbed methane drilling and how’s it going to affect our water?’ That was a great period when everyone came together.

“I guess my point is that it’s a fragile community, in that we all share the vision of a lifestyle, but we’re also aware that we see things differently. I think bringing in the element of oil and gas drilling has potential to fracture the fragile magic that we have right now in our community.”

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