Alternative-country fans build a virtual community with its heart in the Triangle
By: David Menconi
For Raleigh’s News & Observer
April 9, 2004
RALEIGH–Music drew Allison Temple to Raleigh. She was living in Hickory and keeping up with the outside world through Postcard, an Internet mailing list dedicated to alternative-country bands such as the Backsliders and Whiskeytown. Many of the style’s brightest lights were in Raleigh, so Temple packed up and moved here in 1998. “I moved here thinking Raleigh would be this alternative-country paradise,” Temple recalls, and laughs a bit. “Just like the Postcard list come to life. And it wasn’t like that at all.”
Temple discovered a scattered music community without focus, struggling to connect. Great bands were playing empty rooms, and would-be fans wondered why nothing seemed to be happening. Instead of complaining, Temple started a local version of Postcard called Guitartown (www.guitartown.org). Named after a 1986 Steve Earle album, Guitartown went up in spring 1999. The audience consisted of Temple and a few friends in the Triangle.
Five years later, Guitartown has grown to more than 900 subscribers, some in Seattle, Philadelphia, New Orleans and other faraway places. But most live in North Carolina, so the discussion tends to focus on music and life around these parts — concerts and records as well as ACC basketball, politics, barbecue, movies and, of course, Ryan Adams, the former Whiskeytown frontman who occasionally drops in to taunt people back in his former hometown.
Go to almost any live-music event in the Triangle with some twang content, whether at the RBC Center in Raleigh or Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill and you’ll almost certainly be surrounded by Guitartown subscribers. They tend to be over 30 and read the alternative music magazine No Depression (No Depression co-editor Peter Blackstock, a Durham resident, is a member). They were listening to country music long before “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” They came to Guitartown for the music, but they stayed for the community.
“There have been marriages, births, death,” says longtime Guitartown member Molly Flynn. “It’s a pretty amazing thing. I don’t think any other place in the country has anything quite like Guitartown.”
To mark its five-year anniversary, there’s a two-night blowout at the Pour House this weekend featuring some of Guitartown’s favorite acts. Marah, a Philadelphia band that has become an honorary local group, will play both nights. So will Chip Robinson (the former Backslider who lives in New York City now) and locals Tres Chicas, Bleeding Hearts and Patty Hurst Shifter.
It will probably feel more like a house party than a concert. And as Guitartown’s founder and moderator, “Miss Americana” Temple will be right at the center of it.
“That whole cliche about ‘a sense of community,’ there’s more truth to it with Guitartown than most places,” says Thomas Fornash, the first person Temple signed up for the list. “It’s a lot of things to a lot of people. Chances are, none of us would know each other or have much of a social life without Ali and Guitartown. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Get up and move
The word “community” used to mean a physical place. But Paul Jones, who teaches a seminar called “Virtual Communities” at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that definition no longer suffices.
“Community is not only about place anymore,” Jones says. “It’s more social networks marked by mutual support and emotional bonds.
“There are three things that make it happen. First is knowledge-sharing capital in a group that’s greater than any single individual. There’s also social capital involved. With Guitartown, you might think, ‘If I talk to these people, I might meet a squeeze, hear about good bands, get people to listen to my band.’ And the third thing is the communion of major events.”
More than one person has moved to Raleigh because of Guitartown. Among the first was Flynn, a pediatric social worker at WakeMed. In the late ’90s, she was living in Philadelphia and all her college friends were “getting married, purchasing property, procreating.” Flynn wound up going alone to most concerts, where she often stood out as the only woman in attendance surrounded by guys who looked like extras from the movie “High Fidelity.”
That changed when Flynn met Temple, who drove to Philadelphia to see the band Son Volt play in 1998.
“It was great that she’d even heard of Son Volt,” Flynn recalls. “The fact that she came all the way to Philly to see them was even better. Finally, another chick with some clue about all these bands I liked!”
When Temple started Guitartown a few months later, Flynn was an early member. She also came to visit Raleigh, found a boyfriend with mutual interests and decided to move here. The relationship didn’t last — the romantic one to the boyfriend, anyway — but Raleigh remains home.
“I came down here because of him, but I stayed here because of Guitartown,” Flynn says. “I miss a lot about being in a larger city, but I never had friends like this up there. Finding Guitartown was finding other people who go out to see shows and are into music, but are also my age and into the same stuff. Guitartown is basically a bunch of geeks who go see bands on weeknights when you can’t drag anyone else out. They went to shows by themselves and stood by themselves for years until they met each other — and now they know each other’s names.
“Anyone who says it’s a ‘clique’ has never met us,” Flynn concludes. “We’re complete geeks.”
The wise man’s death
In his 2000 book “The Virtual Community,” Howard Rheingold theorizes that you can’t have a “real” virtual community until someone in it dies. Guitartown entered the ranks of the real last fall with the passing of Gerry Livers at age 51.
Livers, a friend of Flynn’s in Philadelphia, entered the Guitartown orbit through her. After Temple met him, she did a bit of matchmaking with him and a Guitartown friend in North Carolina, Ginny Daley. Livers eventually moved to Asheville to be with Daley, and also came to serve as the unofficial mayor of Guitartown.
An unabashed ’60s hippie who had been at Woodstock (his picture ran in Life magazine’s coverage of the event), Livers dispensed wisdom in a noncondescending way. If arguments on Guitartown ever got too heated, Livers would often speak up with the perfect quip to defuse tensions. And he forever talked up his favorite bands, sharing knowledge and music from his vast collection of both.
Livers’ unexpected death of a heart attack Oct. 17 literally stunned Guitartown into silence for a couple of days. Then came an outpouring of reminiscences about Livers and his legendary violin case. Plastered with stickers for his favorite bands, the violin case didn’t hold an instrument, but shot glasses and a bottle of Jameson’s whiskey. He took it everywhere and was not shy about sharing.
“Gerry’s death hit close to home for a lot of people,” Fornash says. “He had such a strong personality, loved music so much, posted on Guitartown so often. I still miss him. That old loving hippie sense of spirit certainly came through him.”
Of the many bands Livers championed to friends, the ones closest to his heart were Frog Holler and Marah. Both are from Pennsylvania and played the Triangle in the weeks after his death. The very emotional shows served as wakes.
“I feel like I still see him a lot,” Temple says. “The Marah show, it hit me really hard. There were a lot of tears that night. I’d swear I saw Gerry there, leaning against a wall.”
One thing Temple inherited from Livers was his violin case, which she’ll take to the Pour House this weekend.
“Some people said Gerry was, you know, cheap and carried that case around so people would think he was with the band and let him into shows for free,” Temple says. “Then when the band asked, ‘Who are you?,’ he’d open it up and pour up some whiskey for everyone. So I keep it on a shelf in my living room. Yeah, I’ll have it at the party this weekend, and I’m sure we’ll toast when Marah is playing.”
Somewhere, the mayor of Guitartown will be smiling.
Staff writer David Menconi can be reached at 829-4759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.