story and photos by Michelle Parks, special to The City Wire
FAYETTEVILLE — Mike Shirkey favors music that tells stories. So, he really likes singer-songwriters, and he also prefers pared-down, nonenhanced instrumentation.
In other words, folk and bluegrass are his favorites. His passion for the genres spurred him to start hosting “The Pickin’ Post,” a weekly, two-hour program on KUAF 91.3-FM, the local National Public Radio affiliate. He’s been doing that since 1981.
He also wanted to provide a place for these people he played on the radio to perform locally, through his Good Folk Productions. So, he started booking musicians in different venues around town, but then he settled down in one spot: a two-story house at 229 Block Ave.
The circa 1905 home had been a residence previously, owned by only two families. His daughter has owned it for several years (inherited from her mother), and that’s where he’s been hosting shows.
“For 107 years old, it’s really in good shape,” he said.
Shirkey fixed up the living room, building a stage in the back corner and adding lights and a sound system. Giant mirrors cover the back wall, reflecting the performers and the audience, whose members seat themselves in plastic and metal chairs.
He started out presenting about one show a month, then expanded to two a month. He’s averaged about three a month in recent years, and estimates he’s hosted about 600 shows since 1990.
Now 65, Shirkey was recently honored with the Folklife Award, one of the Governor’s Arts Awards, after being nominated by local musician Kelly Mullhollan. It was a surprise recognition for something he’s done as a labor of love for two decades.
With the musicians he brings, Shirkey looks for talent, songwriting abilities and proficiency with their instruments. This intimate venue allows the audience and musicians to interact with each other, and regular audience members get to know one another.
“Performers like it because people come to listen, and, therefore, the people who come to listen get a good concert,” Shirkey said. “And generally, there’s a lot of humor.”
When Shirkey started these concerts, house concerts weren’t yet a trend. And this is more of a performance hall than a true house space, because he leaves it set up for shows. He had a niche as far as the music being hosted in local venues, many of which have gradually closed their doors over the years. Now, with many other entertainment options in Fayetteville and the region, he still elicits a regular, strong crowd.
It even caught the attention of the New York Times, with a mention in a 2006 travel article on Fayetteville.
Soon, though, Shirkey will be shutting the doors to concerts here, so his daughter can make it her home. But he’s looking for another venue for the music.
In the meantime, Shirkey has a couple more shows planned. On Friday (June 15), he’ll bring in Linda and Robin Williams. Then, on Sunday (June 17), for Father’s Day, he’ll host Slaid Cleaves, who drew more than 100 people to a backyard show last year.
This house, like Shirkey, is filled with memories and stories.
Music from the start
Shirkey, who grew up in Stuttgart, came to Fayetteville for college in the 1960s. He soon dropped out and was quickly drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam. He played guitar a bit in junior high school and again in the Army. He’s a guitar strummer, but is more proficient at the mountain dulcimer.
He was in journalism school in the military, at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, and worked in a psychological operations unit in Vietnam. He eventually got a journalism degree from the University of Arkansas and later worked there in the agriculture college.
Shirkey almost hosted his first music festival in Vietnam. Hitchhiking back to his unit from Saigon, a fellow picked him up. That guy scheduled the bands that came into Vietnam, and his office was at the amphitheater where Bob Hope came every year. Shirkey suggested they put on a rock festival, and the other guy scheduled the artists. They dropped leaflets out of helicopters, and an Associated Press writer caught wind of it. A general in the Pentagon saw the story, and shut the event down.
“We only advertised two weeks. We should have only advertised one week,” Shirkey said. The seven scheduled bands showed up but couldn’t play. His company commander was sure Shirkey was behind it, so he was put on guard duty. He’s lost his copies of the event posters over the years. “At least I didn’t go to jail over it.”
Bringing in the artists
Shirkey has traveled to various music festivals, but he’s consistently attended the Walnut Valley Festival, held each September in Winfield, Kan. After several years as a fan, he was hired to emcee Stage 1 there by the early 1990s, something he’s done annually ever since.
“People come there from all over the world, to play and to listen,” he said.
He meets people there and invites them to perform in Fayetteville. A list of most of the acts that have been to Good Folk — nearly 170 — is on his website. The list shows other performers who’s played here, and it gives people an idea of what it’s all about.
Mary Flower, mother of Hannah Withers at Little Bread Co., has twice placed in the top three in the National Finger Style Guitar Championship at Winfield — the only woman to do so. She’s played Good Folk twice over the years. He thinks she last played here six years ago.
“It all gets a little fuzzy,” he said.
Norman Blake, who sang “You Are My Sunshine” in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, now in his 70s, has been here a couple times with his wife, Nancy. After their last visit, they divorced, but then remarried a few years later. Blake later told Shirkey the divorce “just wasn’t working out.”
Many musicians who’ve performed on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion” have also played here. Such as Robin and Linda Williams, who’ve been playing at Good Folk since he opened. Most musicians who play here are from Nashville or Austin.
Musicians can’t make a living performing in their hometowns. They have to share their sound with new crowds night after night. Shirkey often gets musicians passing through on an east-west or north-south tour. Headed to a bigger show in Austin or Kansas City on the weekend, they’d stop in Fayetteville during the week, playing for a lesser fee to earn extra gas money.
“When musicians are on the road, the last thing they want to be doing is not playing,” he said. “They want to play every day, somewhere, if they can.”
For that reason, the six members of IIIrd Tyme Out stopped into Good Folk on the way to California. They’ve mostly played the Grand Ole Opry and big venues, so this surprised and delighted Shirkey.
Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott and Anne Hills have all stopped by. On one visit, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott only played one show but hung out in town for a week. Shirkey took Greg Brown fishing one weekend, to three different spots (He’s Iris DeMent’s husband.).
Mollie O’Brien, Tim’s sister, sincerely called the Good Folk house the “biggest stage in folk music.”
Shirkey has been doing this long enough that some of his favorite musician friends have died, including Bill Morrissey, who passed away last summer. Walter Hyatt, who played here many years ago, was in Uncle Walt’s band with Champ Hood and David Ball. Hyatt died in the ValuJet plane crash in Florida in 1996.
Sometimes Shirkey gets to play with the musicians on stage, but they usually play together after the official concert. That’s the luxury of running the house.
Staple of the local scene
For a while, Shirkey worked at the UA in the agriculture department and with the Food Safety Consortium. “But the music was taking over.”
“This is my real work, really. It’s just about a full time job,” said Shirkey.
He also draws social security checks now and still does some carpentry work. He feels a kinship to many other musicians he knows who also learned to do carpentry when they learned to play an instrument.
Shirkey gets a lot of requests from musicians and their agents, and he turns down about half of them. “You have to say no to people that you want to come because I can’t do that many concerts. It’s just a limited audience.”
Plus, Fayetteville and the region have changed so much since he started. He was one of many venues on the scene then, including JR’s Lightbulb Club and Chester’s Place. There are many more people here now, and many more choices for how they spend their free time.
Still, his crowd has been steady.
“There are a lot of people who are unhappy that this is closing here because it’s casual, and it’s really a good bargain for the money,” he said.
Some people hardly ever miss a show, which typically costs $10 or $12 to see. But, the audience has changed over the 20-plus years. The crowds these days are mostly older folks.
“There are youngsters that come. I wish more of them did,” he said.
A few younger people attended recent shows, like the back-to-back shows on May 5 by Jenee Fleenor and Outside the Lines (which is Stan D’Aubin on mandolin, Ed Nicholson on guitar, Emily Kaitz on upright bass — and, they all sing). Fleenor, 29, is a Springdale native who moved to Nashville to play with Larry Cordle. She’s played fiddle in Terri Clark’s and Martina McBride’s bands; she’s now on the road with Blake Shelton. She’s played occasionally with Outside the Lines for about 15 years.
Also, Mark Bilyeu played his first solo show at Good Folk in May. He’s played dozens of times in town with his band, Big Smith. In honor of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday this July, Bilyeu played a slew of his songs, including “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Roll On Columbia” and “This Land is Your Land.” He also played some original solo tunes and some Big Smith standards, telling stories along the way.
Ed Nicholson said Shirkey has provided a venue that’s intimate for musicians and audience alike.
“You can see everyone you’re playing for and see their reaction. There’s a lot of energy exchanged,” Nicholson said.
Shirkey likes that a concert is different every time. Here, the musicians often improvise and jam based on their own impulse or their reaction to the crowd.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Shirkey said.
This old house
At the end of last summer, Shirkey started working on the house in earnest. He tore apart the sagging front porch and rebuilt it. He stripped the old paint off the original columns and repainted them (with a primer coat for now; they’ll eventually get a coat of white paint.).
As he prepares it to be a home for his daughter, he’ll do more work on the interior this summer. He’s replaced a lot of rotted wood on the exterior upper level. And he’ll paint the entire exterior a greenish-gray.
Relaxing on his porch the afternoon before a show in May, Shirkey asked, “You wanna hear a song?”
Inside, he popped in a recording from the Steve Fisher concert the previous weekend. (Shirkey hasn’t recorded every show, though he said he should have.) Fisher surprised Shirkey with a song written especially for him and the “old house near the corner” and the crowds who’ve supported it over the years. The lyrics talk about the stars from the radio shining bright on this intimate stage, and how “no one really had the heart to play the last song.”
Listening to it again, tears welled in Shirkey’s eyes.
He’s going to miss this place, but he’s still searching for another place to keep the music going.