Mike Shirkey, local purveyor of acoustic melody, might soon nail down a new venue for his Goodfolk Productions, but he can never replace the amiable atmosphere, the graceful architecture or the perfect acoustics of the Goodfolk House on Block Street.
Soon there will be no more shows in the cavernous living room of the Victorian home.
After 22 years of concerts, the final bookings are this weekend. Robin and Linda Williams, who regularly perform on “A Prairie Home Companion,” play at 8 p.m. Friday with Their Fine Group.
Slaid Cleaves winds things up for good at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
So more people can come, these last two concerts will be on the back porch.
After that, this house that has hosted a generation of fabulous song-makers, community celebrations and even the odd art sale will fall silent.
Shirkey’s second daughter, Nina, inherited the house from her mother, Sylvia Stewart, a dancer who installed the ballet bars. Sylvia’s wall of mirrors makes the room appear enormous and lets us check out other people without seeming to look. Nina now has a master’s degree in historic preservation and will use her expertise on her own house.
Anatomy of a concert
You mount stairs to the broad, inviting porch where early-arrivers enjoy a swing or a rock in the twilight. You enter an old living room with rows of chairs facing a tiny riser of a stage where local or nationally known musicians play wonderful songs. The audience speaks right up sometimes, and the players answer. On occasion, conversation ensues.
At the break, the folks onstage go back into the kitchen with the audience to have a cookie and talk things over. Others wander to the porch to swap lies. During the second set, people stand up and dance; folks sing along, clap wildly and laugh at the slightest hint of a joke. Sweet memories are born at every performance.
“My son is 25 years old,” Ginny Masullo said at a recent show. “I remember laying him on a blanket on the floor during one of the first concerts.”
The historical record
How did the joint get to be so loose and so much fun? The single obvious answer is Mike Shirkey — overseer, booking agent, deer stew maker, hotelier to wandering minstrels, late-night fellow picker, grinner, biggest fan, lighting specialist, sound man — and the one who called it all up out of nothing.
Shirkey came here from Stuttgart to attend the University of Arkansas and never left. Music always enthralled him. More than 30 years ago, when KUAF was not yet affiliated with NPR, Shirkey volunteered to produce a show that’s popular to this day. “The Pickin’ Post” airs at 7 p.m. every Saturday night on KUAF 91.3 FM.
It wasn’t until 1990 that he “lost all sense” and opened the Goodfolk house.
“Other venues were losing money, and that’s when I decided to start,” he laughed. “Actually Sylvia and I had talked before she passed about having music here. I’d play my dulcimer sometimes while she danced.
“The house-concert circuit had not yet been established when we opened, certainly not at the fever pitch it is now. But most of them now are really performance halls, not houses.”
When he started, Shirkey would send out lovely little postcards announcing that month’s features. He would design them on his computer, print them, get them copied and cut, address them, stamp them and mail 700 a month.
That and free calendar announcements in papers and on radio stations has been his entire promotional campaign. In recent years, he established a website and now sends email messages.
At the heart of Shirkey’s experience has been the opportunity to play with many wonderful musicians and become their good friends. Some of the hottest licks were always laid down on the porch or in the kitchen after hours. Shirkey would break out his guitar and dulcimer after the crowd left and a new round of songs would start.
“You know musicians,” he said. “If you’re having a good night, it’s hard to turn it off.”
Scott Newby perfected the art of hanging around for that second act. Through the years, he played late with an array of top talents.
“I remember Bryan Bowers, Beppe Gambetta — got to play on stage with him — Alana who is the Hot Club of Cowtown fiddler, Robin and Linda Williams, so many,” Shirkey said. “Mostly it was always me and Mike, but sometimes other locals would also come by to jam. It would go on till 3, 4 in the morning.”
To save money, hardworking acoustic musicians often travel by car. That way they arrive on time and leave only when they’re ready.
“Ramblin’ Jack Elliott parked his Winnebago out back for a week one time,” Shirkey recalled. “You know, he was a friend of Woody (Guthrie). Anyway, we fished, played music, told stories. I mean he told stories. He’s not called Ramblin’ just because of his travels.
“Ray Wylie Hubbard stayed a few times while he was learning the mandolin. In the long run, I made a bunch of new friends. I always try to cook a meal for them.”
The house imparts a sense of hospitality to performers and audiences. People like hanging out because it’s Shirkey’s home as well as a cool venue. He is a gracious host. His aesthetic is simple practicality. Things aged and worn add to the character of the place. The cherry on top is the stellar acoustics of the performance space.
“The sound in here is perfect,” Shirkey said. “It’s not anything I did. The room just came that way. When people can really hear good acoustic music they listen. The performers appreciate a listening audience so much. Here no one is drinking and talking all through the show.”
In recent years Goodfolk’s reputation has improved the offerings. Pickers with weekend bookings in big cities know they can call Shirkey to ask for a weeknight gig at Goodfolk. With road expenses climbing, playing for pay every night has become a necessity. This means Fayetteville has seen some performers up close and personal, performers most people only see through binoculars.
Even those who have not witnessed the long history of the place feel especially connected to it. While sitting on the porch with Shirkey on Saturday morning, a guy with a big blonde Labradore stopped by to ask who would be playing there in the near future.
Shirkey gave him the news.
“I hate to see it go,” Greg Parker said when he was told. He’d only seen a few performances, but already felt invested in the place.
“Yep, there’ll be a lot of sad folks,” Shirkey admitted. “People like coming in here.”
Shirkey demurs when lauded for so many good times. He says he’s had so much help from so many people over the years with everything from cookie baking and chair carrying to decoration and taking money at the door. He even had former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice David Newbern write a protest letter for him.
“Arkansas Times magazine had a survey about the best venues in the state, and it didn’t mention the Goodfolk House,” Shirkey said. “David Newbern wrote a prickly letter to point out their error.”
True to form, Shirkey adds the disclaimer that Newbern wasn’t just a random fan. Newbern played in a trio with Shirkey and Newby at Polly’s restaurant every Sunday morning for many years.
Facts about the acts
Goodfolk Productions and Mike Shirkey have grown together. By his count 167 acts performed at the house, many of them over and over. Everything from weddings and funeral memorials to Mardi Gras crew parties and the famous Christmas Art Sale happened at the Block Street house. During those years, Shirkey became the emcee for the famous Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan.
And Shirkey isn’t done yet. He’s negotiating for space in the new Fayetteville Underground digs at the southwest corner of Mountain Street and Block Avenue. It’s early in the talking and just how and when that will happen remains to be seen.
‘The House Where the Songs Live’
On Friday, the Hogeye Ramblers were the farewell local-yokel band. As a surprise, Dennis Collins wrote a tune called “The House Where the Songs Live”:
Come hear the fiddle play
That high and lonesome sound
In the house where the songs live
With the good folk gathered ’round.