“I don’t consider what I do as work, but more of a driven obsession,” says Michael Terry, assistant manager and booking coordinator ofUncle Calvin’s Coffee House
. Set inside the fellowship hall of Northpark Presbyterian Church, the area landmark of acoustic music has become a haven for musicians and audiences looking for a laid back but engaging concert experience for a quarter century.
“What makes our shows so special is an appreciation of lyrical content joined by some good melodies,” says Terry, whose unbridled excitement over November’s month long 25th anniversary celebration belies his gray hair and years of experience in the Dallas music scene. “The music and the setting are just beautifully uplifting,” he adds.
Sitting in a different coffee house closer to his Lake Highlands home, Terry’s exuberance is contagious as he recounts attending his first show at Uncle Calvin’s in 1987 (Sara Hickman) and his commitment to volunteer (for as many as 80 hours a week) in 1989.
“It’s all I’m doing,” says Terry, “much to my wife’s chagrin.”
After 33 years working at Southwestern Bell, he found the music of the Kerrville Folk Festival spoke to him and decided to take early retirement in order to become more involved in presenting music. He found that opportunity in the halls of a church.
Reverend Trey Hammond started Uncle Calvin’s in 1982. Hammond (now pastor of Albuquerque’s La Mesa Presbyterian Church) had the original idea of providing a relaxed listening room for acoustic music, free of smoke and alcohol. Starting with some candles and a borrowed sound system, Uncle Calvin’s opened in the church’s old location at Park Lane and Central. (It moved to the current site on Walnut Hill in the early '90s.) Except for a performer-friendly, updated sound system, Uncle Calvin’s has strayed little from Hammond’s original vision.
Uncle Calvin’s has featured some of the brightest singers/songwriters in folk and country. The Dixie Chicks, Patty Larkin, Martin Sexton, John Gorka, Tom Paxton, Darden Smith and Butch Hancock are just a handful of the performers who have brought packed audiences to the 220-capacity hall every Friday evening for the last 25 years.
“After hundreds of shows, the favorites become the fresher ones,” says Terry. “Artists like The Laws, a Canadian country folk duo, and Tim Grimm, an English pop-folkster we recently discovered.”
Of course, even the best acts have suffered through nights when the electricity faltered or when an audience member deemed the language a bit salty for a club located inside a church.
“I can’t forget last summer’s Butch Hancock show or when Terry Allen came through,” Terry says with a wry smile. It seems Allen’s off the cuff banter was a bit too crude for Uncle Calvin’s coffee and cheesecake crowd. “After that show, we had to write a language clause into the contracts.”
Such accommodations are trivial when one experiences the rustic and essential ambiance of Uncle Calvin’s. At a recent performance by local folk/country diva Kristy Kruger, the crowd was so intent on hearing each syllable of her delicate musings that not a spoon or folk left its place on the table until each song was finished.
Yet even minor distractions have not diluted the mission of the venue nor the religious institution in which it is housed. Since Uncle Calvin’s inception, all revenue generated by the shows has gone directly into helping out numerous local charities.
“I’m glad that Calvin’s provides another way for folks to help the community with the problems like the homeless in North Texas,” says Terry.
The church has benefited in other ways from having the coffee house located within its walls. Not only has the publicity been consistently favorable, but also several concertgoers have felt a tug of spirituality after attending a performance.
“People have actually become members of the church because of the coffee house,” claims Terry. “The shows are considered a church activity, although there is no proselytizing.”
Terry also takes special pride in the shows he’s booked to celebrate Uncle Calvin’s 25th anniversary. Sara Hickman, Ruthie Foster and Tracy Grammar perform on November 30th, completing a series of Friday evening concerts that have featured many of the acts that played the coffee house over the course of its existence, including Terri Hendrix, Lloyd Maines and Delta Blues master Hans Theessink.
“So many people wanted to be part of this anniversary,” says Terry. “People want something real in their lives and that is what we are providing.”
Through the years, Terry has watched many Dallas concert halls come and go, including the continued abandonment of the Deep Ellum area.
“It’s a shame that the majority of the city’s music venues have to scratch to keep alive,” he says. “The pendulum swing continues to change the local scene. So the disintegration of Deep Ellum of yesterday will hopefully become something new, maybe in Fair Park or the South Side.”
According to Terry, all is not lost as long as club owners remember the music has to sound good and the environment must be paramount. “Mike Schroder has made his near-upper Greenville Granada into a sweet place for listening,” he says, “but as far as the bar-club deal is concerned, I really don’t care. There is a growing appreciation for what we do.
“Over the last decade, the highest sales of recorded music has been in the Americana genre and that is our specialty,” he adds.
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Although many who attend concerts at Uncle Calvin’s are over 40, Terry wants to expand the venue’s demographic. Recent performances by David Olney and Karen Mal have attracted younger patrons, who have found the nurturing confines of the coffee house inviting. Terry believes it is also simple economics.
“We keep ticket prices affordable, in the range of $12 or $15,” he says. Considering the renown of many of the acts that come through the venue, the cover charge is minimal to say the least.
“Our most expensive ticket ever was $25 for Janis Ian,” says Terry. “Now, we make an offer to an artists with the final ticket price in mind.”
With inexpensive concerts and a growing fan base, Terry thinks Uncle Calvin’s can continue growing well into the 21st century. “I want it to succeed and to grow and the things that I do, hopefully, are moving it toward that,” he says. -- Darryl Smyers