As Chatham Park continues to develop its community, they remain dedicated to supporting local art in Chatham County. As part of that commitment, Chatham Park is powering our Go See This series. They join us in inviting you to Go See This . . .
There were still a few general stores on Highway 98, which runs from Wake Forest to Durham, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. John Howie Jr. remembers these spots down to the details. Wooded area. Little store. Nehi drinks in the cooler. One was called the J.K. Ray Grocery.
“For better, for worse, I’m from the country,” Howie says, tempering his nostalgia. Still, when he first played the Bynum General Store nearly two decades ago, the setting immediately reminded him of long-gone spots he knew as a kid. When Howie and his country band The Rosewood Bluff returned to the General Store on May 26 for his latest Bynum Front Porch Friday Night Music Series performance, the Hillsborough-based songwriter found the vibe alive and well.
“It still very much feels like the country, and honestly in a way that where I grew up kind of doesn’t anymore,” he says.
Yet rural on its own is merely a setting. Howie’s clear-eyed about this. What one does with the general store, the quiet streets, the small town perched above the Haw—that’s what keeps Howie and other musicians coming back to the Front Porch Friday Night Music Series. It’s worth noting that the Bynum General Store is no longer a business, but a community center. The summer music series that dates to 2001 is a community-organized event rich with families. It connects old friends.
It’s a rare thing, and performers know its value.
“To look out into that audience and see people that you’re fond of having a good time, that’s a special feeling,” Howie says.
Bynum rests in gentle river hills immediately north of Pittsboro. The village largely looks like it did in 2001 (OK, so the last remnants of the mill are gone, and the houses are more colorful). It’s still quiet and forested and foot traffic takes precedence. Turtles and snakes abound. Here the rocky Haw passes through gentle rapids on its way to Jordan Lake and, eventually, the Cape Fear. After heavy rains, the river transforms into an impatient beast, a muddy torrent carrying fallen trees and thundering over the dam to the awe of locals paused midway across the footbridge. Even as Chatham develops, Bynum remains relatively untouched. It is as it was: a former mill village with a river below.
This is the context for the Bynum Front Porch Music Series. The musicians themselves play on a decent-sized stage in the General Store’s side lawn for an audience in lawn chairs, on blankets, or dancing with or without shoes. It’s a satisfying evening on both sides—audience and performer.
“It’s one of our favorite venues,” says Brian Lewis of the Durham Ukulele Orchestra, which plays July 21. “They always have a good crowd, which is great for us.”
The Durham Ukulele Orchestra played its first Bynum Front Porch show not long after the band formed in 2007 and has played the General Store many times since. Beyond that, Lewis has played in bands for upwards of 50 years. Of the myriad venues he’s played, Bynum Front Porch stands out for the supportive and professional crew that organizes and runs the music series.
“They have a great facility,” Lewis says. “The stage is quite large. We’ve played some places where it’s really difficult for the four of us to fit on the stage.”
Indeed, space matters. Durham Ukulele Orchestra started as an eight-piece, with all members playing some variety of uke. Nowadays it’s half the size, yet each member packs multiple instruments. Now its ukulele-centric renditions of everything from Amy Winehouse to The Who also feature trumpet, celestette, bass, percussion, mandolin, accordion, and cavaquinho (the ukulele’s Portuguese ancestor). In case of rain, shows are moved indoors, and Lewis notes that the acoustics inside the General Store allow for a band like his to play without a PA—a freeing feeling, and a familiar one for an ensemble that rehearsed on porches throughout the height of the pandemic.
“Bynum’s unique. It has kind of an old-time feel to it, but it’s a hip and happening place,” says Lewis. “We’re just gonna hope for good weather, because we like playing outside.”
Howie gets it. He had a memorable show in May: great sound; great crowd. Families add a fun dynamic, Howie says, laughing about an Instagram video that closes with an airborne soccer ball behind Rosewood Bluff guitarist Tim Shearer.
“You’re not just background music,” he says. “I don’t think any musician wants that.”
This has been Howie’s experience since his first General Store show, which he believes was in 2005 or 2006. His friend and fellow songwriter Tift Merritt lived in Bynum and introduced him to the Front Porch scene as it existed then, which led to Howie and Randy Whitt—yet another friend and fellow songwriter—playing a memorable indoor set.
“When they have folding chairs set up like that, in that kind of environment, and you’re doing a solo show, people tend to hang on your words,” Howie recalls. “It was a very attentive audience.”
Today, Howie is nearly 20 years older. He’s in a different space. He has a teenage son. Work keeps him busy. He’s no longer touring as heavily as he did with his old band Two Dollar Pistols or during the Rosewood Bluff’s early years. Plus, and like many people, he came away from COVID-19 with different priorities and altered social rhythms. The Front Porch isn’t just where he plays music. It’s where he sees his friends, and that’s almost more valuable.
“That gig in particular is one where I see a few people who I just don’t see anywhere else. I was made more aware of that when we played it this last time. There was a friend there I hadn’t seen since the last time we played there,” Howie says. “I don’t want to over-emphasize this community thing, but it really is that.”
To get in on the community feeling at Bynum Front Porch, check out the remaining dates for the Summer Music Series:
- When: Every Friday night through the end of August from 7 to 9 p.m.
- Where: Bynum Front Porch Stage, 950 Bynum Road, Pittsboro, NC
Cost: Free admission, and they’ll pass the hat for tips!
- Parking: Easy visitor parking at the Bynum Ballfield or in the field adjacent to the stage
- Accessibility: Parking and grounds in gravel and/or short grass lots
- Keep in Mind: This is a pet-free and alcohol-free event! Bring your own chair, or use the BFP chairs. They have plenty!
- For more info: Bynum Front Porch