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Aug 17, 2013
Journals from the Road: Port Clinton, Ohio

     There are blue banners hung in the windows of most of the shops and cafes in Port Clinton that say “Don’t Give Up The Ship”. The bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Lake Erie happens two weeks from now and it’s a big deal to the Chamber of Commerce as well as the citizens here. It represents not only tourist business but civic pride.

This town’s economic future is uncertain. Unlike many resorts, success here isn’t as simple as hanging an “Open” sign on your door and waiting for the weekenders to empty their wallets. Nearly a quarter of the downtown buildings are vacant. “Don’t give up the ship” has metaphorical overtones for those who are embattled in the economic hardships of northern Ohio. Port Clinton was featured recently in a New York Times article about vanishing Americana. They teeter on the cliff around here, and most will tell you that’s just a way of life.

Winters are brutal in every way once the tourists have gone. There are no ski resorts for the winter-hardy, and the million dollar summer mansions are closed up tight when the fierce Canadian winds scour the waterfront district.

I’ve struck up a conversation with Chris, a bartender at McCarthy’s Irish Pub and Eatery. “See that busy street out there?” he says pointing over my shoulder. “In the winter you can lay down in the middle of it and you’ll freeze to death stiff as a board before any car runs over you.”

I’m enjoying the rare luxury of staying in one place for more than a night. I’m in Port Clinton for four, two of which will include shows at an unusual venue called The Listening Room. This might be the most unlikely corner of the country in which to try to grow a club that caters to singer-songwriters and their followers. Ron, the owner, is a songwriter himself. He frequents Nashville’s Bluebird Café and about a year and a half ago he got the notion to bring some of Nashville’s musical ambience to his hotel. At first the off-season shows had a great turnout. “We were sold out every weekend, a hundred people in here almost every night,” he tells me. But the summer has been slower. “There’s a lot more to do here during the summer,” Ron’s son Joe adds, “people would rather be out on the water.” Joe does the booking and spends his summer vacation from his teaching job down south helping his dad manage things.

The names on the booking calendar testify to how seriously they take their entertainment: Tony Arata, Jesse Terry, Jon Vezner, Amy Speace and others who helped put the Bluebird on the map. These may not be household names to you, and that’s where the difficulty begins. How do you get people to a new venue that features relatively unknown, albeit excellent talent? Especially when your logo is a shushing finger pressed against two female lips… You work at it day and night like Ron and Joe do.

The Listening Room isn’t quite as rustic as the Bluebird. It’s only a hotel meeting room with no windows and a small stage at one end.  There are a few colored spotlights and a discreet little sound system. Otherwise you wouldn’t know you’re in a music venue at all. But at 8pm every Friday and Saturday night the room gets transformed into a Mecca for those who treasure the intimate style of entertainment delivered by veterans of the Bluebird scene. They serve liquor in The Listening Room, and for a two drink minimum the shows are free. Once a month the venue hosts a songwriter “Shoot-out” night in which the audience gets to vote on local songwriting contestants. The winner gets to do three songs in the opening slot at one of the headliner shows. Folks around here love this because it gives them a sense of participation and emotional investment in the Listening Room’s success.

Will it survive? I’ve played in many venues that vanished before I could get a return booking. But indications are that both Ron and Joe understand the challenges they face. Unlike some start-up venues where the act is expected to bring their own audience, these entrepreneurs realize that in order to grow a successful venture they must bring in fans of the Listening Room, not just fans of the artists. They’re big on hospitality and genuine respect for the music here. That part is priceless.

I’m co-billed with Erin Thomas, a gifted singer-songwriter from South Carolina who now calls Nashville her home. She began her life in music as a classically trained French horn player performing with the Nashville and Chattanooga orchestras. She’s done recording sessions with Garth Brooks and Keith Urban and toured with Vince Gill. She even got Vince to do a duet with her on her sophomore CD. In 2009 she suffered nerve impairment in her lower lip known as focal dystonia. It effectively ended her promising symphonic career. Left with a deep passion for music and no other alternatives she picked up the guitar, taught herself to play, and began singing and writing songs only a few years ago. “I feel like I’m still the same musician inside,” she tells me. She makes it known that she’s honored to be on stage with veterans like me, but the audience and I can clearly see she’s a thorough pro and an inspired performer. Swapping songs and stories all night can be a somewhat intimidating experience for anyone, but Erin is undaunted and wins my respect from her first tune. She laughs easily, sings soulfully, and our shows are well-received.

The road continues. I’ll be leaving here soon. Ways lead onto ways, to paraphrase Robert Frost, so I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get back here again. I’d like it if I did.

Every morning in Port Clinton I’ve walked a couple of miles around the neighborhoods drinking in the slight diesel finish of the lake breezes and observing the little ways in which people embellish their lives in difficult places. I always end up at Underwood’s Restaurant for breakfast. I’ve stayed loyal to this place for four days because the owner impressed me. I overheard him ask one of his waiters to bus and set up a group of tables. The waiter did his job immediately and without any visible sign of being put upon. When he was finished, the owner called across the room in a cheerful voice, “Thank you, Jacob!”

Name a boss who does that in the big city.


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