The renovated and revitalized Stoughton Opera House, built at the dawn of the 20th century, now is a Midwest mecca for American roots music.
Single-ticket sales to The Stoughton Opera House 2016-2017 season begin today, Monday, August 15. Subscriptions are still available (See website link at bottom of story).
Here’s the roots of this story. First opened February 22, 1901, The Stoughton Opera House closed down in 1953 and fell into disrepair after years of success as a venue for a wide variety of entertainment.
But thankfully, in the 1980s, enough people in the Wisconsin city of 13,000 realized the building’s value as an acoustically resonant gem, along with its distinctive architectural felicities. They also understood its potential as an economic boost to the community and to its vital respectability. The venue is situated on the second and third floors of the building that houses the local government of Stoughton, which straddles the Yahara River and is located about 20 miles southeast of Madison, WI. (The city is also known for its Norwegian heritage, and Stoughton hosts a citywide celebration of Syttende Mai, the Norwegian constitution day.)
So “The Friends of the Opera House” were formed and they went to work. They managed to raise funds to renovate and re-open the facility on February 22, 2001 — 100 years to the day after it first opened.
That’s one thing Arthur C. Clarke could not have anticipated in his visionary 1968 book 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was made into a classic film by Stanley Kubrick.
And yet, before the “friends” went to work on restoration, the old building with its stately clock tower even had a hole in the roof, through which anyone could gaze to the heavens and imagine a trip to Venus to encounter the 2001 “star child.” Nothing else was happening inside.
Of course, Clarke and Kubrick were heaven gazers themselves, rather than looking down into the roots of American culture, where all kinds of indigenous vernacular music were simmering about that time, in traditional, alt- and utterly new forms. The “friends” had a strong sense of that, and especially Bill Brehm and Christina Dollhausen who were hired to run the place.
Sure enough, since 2001 the 475-seat Stoughton Opera House has become one of the Midwest’s most resplendent homes for American roots music, and other live entertainment. The SOH 2016-2017 season continues the venue’s success story with a classy and diverse line-up of the top names in Americana music as well as worthy regional artists.
A measure of strong audience response is that one of the year’s most-anticipated acts, Texas singer-songwriters, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, were sold out for their two nights on Oct. 21-22 – from advance subscription sales only.
A third night with Lovett and Keen (Thursday, Oct 20) has been added, right as single ticket sales begin Monday, August 15.
Lovett and Keen are highly distinctive singers and performers, and also exemplify an extraordinarily large generation of baby-boomer songwriter-performers born in Texas. This group developed into a major part of the backbone of outstanding singer-songwriters in roots music today, led by the example of such elder Texans as Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark, who died recently but not before playing at the Stoughton Opera House in a memorable concert, Brehm says.
Another trio of gifted performers from that Texas era is The Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock), a super-group of sorts, but genial and unassuming performers nevertheless. Scheduling complications have forced the date of their appearance in Stoughton into the TBA category.
The Flatlanders, Courtesy songkick.com
Before we move beyond the Lone Star State factor, another member of that remarkable Texas singer-songwriter generation, Ray Wylie Hubbard, will perform May 5, 2017. He’s a bit of a cult figure who has an eccentric style with “a twinkle in his eye,” says SOH director Bill Brehm. Hubbard’s offbeat musicality and poetics often betray surprising, sage-like wisdom.
Ray Wylie Hubbard
One more singer-songwriter booked is of comparable high quality, but lesser profile, though he’s respected among peers and in the music industry. Kentucky-born Darrell Scott (Nov. 11) has won an Americana Music Association award for best song in 2007 for “Hank Williams’ Ghost,” from his album, The Invisible Man. Scott also has won an ASCAP Songwriter Of the year award and, in 2010, toured as a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Believe me, Scott proved how dynamic a live performer he is when I saw him a few years back at the Blue Plum Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee.
Among the other season highlights are perhaps the kings of contemporary traditional bluegrass, The Del McCoury Band, which has made the Stoughton venue a sort of second home, playing there almost annually. The McCourys play April 8, 2017.
Also, traditional country music giant and popular TV show host Marty Stuart will play twice with his Fabulous Superlatives, for matinee and an evening shows, on March 18, 2017.
Another even more legendary name is Noel Paul Stookey – of Peter, Paul and Mary fame –- who will play on March 17, 2017.
And bluegrass fiddle whiz Rhonda Vincent and her band The Rage will tear it up at the opera house on March 31, 2017.
The opera house staff is very cognizant of younger talent with the chops to grow and make an artistic impact. Stoughton often tests the local waters for such performers by booking them at the venue’s annual outdoor Independence Day-weekend Catfish River Festival. One such young group, which has now graduated to the indoor season, is The Cactus Blossoms, a brotherly duo playing Nov. 3, whom director Brehm and others compare to the Everly Brothers.
Finally, I can think of few performers who seem to have their feet growing right out of the deepest, funkiest, sinewy roots of American vernacular music than traditional rural-blues singer-songwriter-string player Charlie Parr. He’ll perform with kindred musician Willy Tea Taylor on March 24, 2017.
But there’s plenty more performers and events where all that came from. For information on The Stoughton Opera House and its 2016-2017 season, visit their website.
Photos courtesy The Stoughton Opera House, except as noted.