If You Build It, They Will Play

This article originally appeared on NPR Music on July 14, 2021.

In 2014 Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter better known as Iron & Wine, was looking for an unconventional way to promote an unconventional new record. Archive Series Volume No. 1 is a collection of cassette demos Beam recorded in the mid-1990s, when he was just making music for fun.

Beam’s manager had an idea: He’d read a Chicago Tribune story about Jerry Run Summer Theater, a music hall in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia built by Dusty Anderson, a carpenter with little more than a dream to bring live music to his hometown. What if Beam gave his old songs their world debut there?

The resulting concert film, Dreamers and Makers Are My Favorite People, was released in March 2015 and introduced fans worldwide to Cleveland, W.Va., population 97. That brush with fame seems to have little effect on Jerry Run, though. The theater still remains largely unknown to anyone outside of Cleveland, W.Va. Unless, of course, somebody lets you in on the secret.

When Mountain Stage host Larry Groce was putting together a small tour in 2016 to celebrate his new album, Mountain Stage house guitarist Michael Lipton suggested he make a trip to Jerry Run, where he’d played with his own band several times.

“He told me what a charming place it was,” Groce says. “He said, ‘Come on out and play with us.'”

The night of the show, Groce became a believer.

“Really, it’s a church to music,” Groce says. Even in 2021, the theater still looks the same, just as homey it does in the concert film. It still runs on a DIY spirit and a budget funded by $5 admission and $1 hot dogs. “It’s so friendly. So West Virginian. So down-home.”

Back in the 1990s, around the time Sam Beam was recording the songs that would appear on Archive Series Volume No. 1, the Andersons took a trip to the Historic Owen Theatre in Branson, Mo.

“It only seated a few hundred. And I was like, that’s what we need for around here,” Anderson says. Back home in West Virginia, he began drawing up blueprints and making models of his theater.

Read the rest of the article (and see photos and video) here.