As new members of our Chatham County community, Chatham Park is powering our Go See This series this year because art is an integral part of Chatham County’s identity. They join us in inviting you to Go See This . . .
One of the things that people have missed the most during the pandemic is being able to see live music. Now that music venues have slowly started opening back up, we’re starting to see the announcements of their summer line-ups, such as one of Chatham County’s favorites, the Bynum Front Porch music series.
The history of how the beloved Bynum General Store became the hub of the Bynum Front Porch music series is a story of resilience and strong support from the people of Chatham County. When asked about how the Bynum Front Porch got started, board member Chuck Leippe starts like a true storyteller: from the very beginning.
“At one point, Bynum was home to five different general stores,” begins Chuck. “But as the years went on, the stores slowly closed, one by one. After the new bridge was built over the Haw River that took motorists around (rather than through) Bynum, in addition to the retirement of longtime postmaster and store operator Jerry Partin in 2006, it was clear that Bynum was going to lose its last remaining local store, post office, and gathering place. A group of folks, with Bynum in their hearts, joined hands to save the Bynum General Store by forming a nonprofit community organization called Bynum Front Porch, which took over the lease and payment of the utilities. It transformed the store into a community center, where people congregate to play music, hold potluck dinners, throw birthday parties, hold meetings, and otherwise gather.”
The music series began even before that–back in 2001–to help sustain the Bynum General Store. It, too, started as a grassroots effort by a group of Bynum residents, including former Chatham Arts Council director Molly Matlock.
As Molly reflects, “At the time, I was interning in the Folklife division of the NC Arts Council, where my favorite assignment was helping with the Cherokee and the Blue Ridge Music Trails guidebooks. The Blue Ridge Music Trails initiative was focused on sustaining local businesses while also supporting traditional musicians and attracting tourism to locally-owned music venues. Such an approach seemed like a potential solution to help keep the store alive in Bynum and to encourage neighbors to interact, so I sent an email to the Guitartown listserv explaining the series concept and requesting CD submissions from potential performers. North Carolina artists went wild for the idea, and within a few weeks, we were booked every Friday for a full year. That proved exhausting, so by 2002, we limited the series to a summer season.”
“The next hit came in 2006, when Jerry realized that he was investing too much of his finances in keeping the retail business afloat,” Molly continues. “The music series helped, but not enough to save the store. Jerry did not own the actual building. So a group of us gathered in my living room to discuss options for keeping the space and music series from dying. We pooled resources and contributed personal money to continue paying rent on the space. Around that time, Tommy Edwards and Gilda McDaniel recruited me to the directorship at the Chatham Arts Council. Tommy, Gilda, and the Chatham Arts Council agreed to invest substantial seed money to sustain our efforts. The Bynum Music Series got absorbed into the programs of CAC, and CAC served as an umbrella organization until the community was able to launch the independent nonprofit, Bynum Front Porch. That partnership between the Chatham Arts Council and Bynum Front Porch also resulted in the Bynum Ballfield becoming the permanent home for ClydeFEST,” said Molly.
Each Friday night since its inception, singers and storytellers have taken the stage, including popular storytellers Cynthia Raxter and Donna Washington; music groups like Mipso, Chatham Rabbits, Mandolin Orange (now known as Watchhouse), Tift Merritt, Jonathan Byrd, Joe Newberry, Laurelyn Dossett, the late Tommy Edwards, and Grammy award winner Justin Robinson have all graced the stage. “We are most known for Americana,” says Chuck. “But over the years we have become much more diverse as our audience has grown and become more diverse.”
While the Summer Music Series is important, Bynum Front Porch provides more to the community than the music; the organization also gives scholarships to students in need through a program called AVID.
“AVID, which stands for Achievement Via Individual Determination, is a program that helps students who have a desire to go to college and the willingness to work hard, but may not have the means or opportunity to attend college,” notes Chuck. “These are often students who will be the first in their families to attend college and are from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education. AVID gives teachers and schools the tools they need to help these students succeed and get them on a path to college and, ultimately, career success. The donations received during the Friday night shows fund the three grants to students in the AVID program.”
But when COVID hit last year, the organization had to figure out how to keep the music and storytelling going.
“When the pandemic began, and we were forced to delay–and eventually cancel–our summer series in 2020, we adapted and collaborated with singer/songwriter Eric Bannan, switching gears to bring performances to everyone by way of online livestream shows,” notes Chuck. “A large grant from AARP enabled us to purchase high-tech sound and video production equipment. These shows were quite successful and actually allowed us to continue building and expanding our presence while most venues were shut down completely.”
For this summer’s performances, the Bynum Front Porch team is hoping people will start to come back in person to see some of Chatham’s favorite performers. “With last year’s live summer series cancelled, John Winecker was able to re-book last year’s lineup again for this year, and it’s looking to be the most successful summer ever,” says Chuck. “Perennial favorites such as the Gravy Boys, John Howie Jr, and Django Haskins are on the schedule, as well as the very popular Mr. Wonderful, KneeDeep, Too Much Fun, and Swift Creek. The Chatham Rabbits are returning to Bynum at the end of the season.”
There is one musician who will be truly missed this summer: Tommy Edwards, who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. “Tommy Edwards was there from the beginning and a huge friend to us through the years,” notes Chuck. “He was also the obvious choice to be the first musician featured on our Live and Rockin’ livestream when the pandemic hit. His passing has left a pretty big void in our hearts at Bynum Front Porch, as well as around Chatham County and beyond.”
So if you find yourself itching to hear live music this summer, head on over to the Bynum General Store on a Friday night to hear some live performances!
- What: Bynum Front Porch music series
- Where: Bynum General Store, 950 Bynum Rd, Pittsboro
- When: Friday evenings from 7-9pm
- Cost: free (but donations appreciated)