By Billy Rosenbeck
[I]t’s a Thursday in mid-November, and Liz Longley is on stage inside a modest, understated brick building tucked away on Masonic Street in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Among the building’s neighbors are Packard’s, a popular drinking hole with big picture windows and charmingly cluttered walls, the Woodstar Café, a colorful coffee shop with clean white framing and the draw of legally addictive stimulants, and a sparsely used laundry mat.
Once upon a time, the modest, understated brick building was a button factory, and anyone on Masonic Street would have passed it without a searching glance, but today, the adjacent parking lot swells and foot traffic finds the building without issue. People know what they’re looking for without the help of the sign sitting proudly off the sidewalk in front of the well-trimmed shrubbery that reads, “Signature Sounds, Est. 1994.”
In 2012, Signature Sounds Recordings moved from founder Jim Olsen’s basement and into the converted button factory, which has become the proper office space for an independent label hard at work. But those offices are at the back of the building. Up front, like a musical welcome mat, is the Parlor Room, a 60-seat BYOB listening room, where national acts are delivered in a space that has the intimacy of a dear friend’s living room.
Liz Longley switches guitars, but can’t tell if her amp is on or not. She asks the audience, but they can’t tell either: her unplugged strum is hardly louder than the amplified version, even to the ears of the person in the last seat, hardly 15 yards from the stage. She laughs, continuing with her endearing banter, which, over the course of the evening, runs from her review of Taylor Swift’s 1989 to her grandmother’s dementia to a lament of her ex-boyfriend’s engagement, which she found out about earlier that day.
Longley does all this from a slightly-raised stage, maybe three or four feet off the ground, backed by a blue velvet curtain. On the left side of the room, dotting the deep maroon walls, is the album artwork of the entire Signature Sounds catalog; on the right are posters from the 28-year history of the Green River Festival that tell the story of western Massachusetts’ best kept secret.
Longley plays as merit adorns the walls—big names, small names, big names that were once small, small names that have stayed that way and are treasured for it. Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive, Crooked Still on the right; Steve Earle, the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show on the left. Being on the stage, surrounded by these names, is an endorsement of quality (not that Longley needs that endorsement; John Mayer called her music “gorgeous; simply gorgeous”).
Past the stage are the Signature Sounds offices, which sit across from a Keurig coffee maker, a serve-yourself snack bar with a hand-written sign, and two single-use restrooms, one with a picture of Dylan inside. Beyond tickets ranging from free to $15, Signature Sounds isn’t trying to sell you anything
“We felt the need for an intimate, informal venue that would be conducive to a listening room atmosphere,” Olsen said. “Because we’re not a bar or a restaurant, our venue is all about the music.”
The goal for the Parlor Room, according to Signature Sounds, it to diversify, to provide a wholly different way for artists to share and interact with their fans, to provide accessibility “in an age where the role of a record label seems to be diminishing.”
Admittedly, I have a slant: I grew up 25 miles south of Northampton, and I’m primarily a folk fan. I’m a logical fit as Signature Sounds’ audience. But, really, I’m beyond their audience: I have aspirations to write, and have been freelancing for six months, but in western Massachusetts, opportunities to write—especially the opportunity to write about music—do not arrive at your doorstep.
I can only write about what’s available to me, and what’s available to me is a former button factory that houses some of the best music in the country and has managed to bring national acts to sleepy towns that couldn’t otherwise be found on a map.
Western Massachusetts is more of a throughway than a destination: we’re three hours east of the bright lights of New York City, two hours west of Boston’s more-storied nightclubs, and no one in Boston thinks anything west of Worcester is part of the state anyway. We’re south of the Berkshires, so we can’t claim Arlo Guthrie or James Taylor as our own, and maybe all that together has given us an inferiority complex. Maybe that’s why Northampton cares so much, but if not for Northampton, the region would be a doldrums, with no reason for acts to come, and no reason for anyone to notice.
But Northampton is here, and the community has made the throughway into a stopping point. Among its independent shops, restaurants, and venues, Signature Sounds has been able to move out of the basement and into the national folk consciousness.
“It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. We hit the right formula in the right place,” said Olsen. “Over the years people were like, ‘Wouldn’t you do better if you were in Nashville or LA or New York?’ I think exactly the opposite. Being in a very cool, music rich small town was the best thing for us.”
The Parlor Room is Signature Sounds’ consistent presence in the community, bringing live music to Masonic Street 10 to 20 times a month. But the Green River Festival is Signature Sounds’ annual blowout, making the hills of Greenfield feel like the center of the musical universe, even if it’s not.
Three stages overtake the rolling fields of Greenfield Community College, broken up by vendor’s tents and children rolling down a hill. Behind the main stage is a silo, which is fitting: agriculture can’t be entirely separated from anything else once you pass Route 5 on I-91. Across from it, on the other end of the grounds, are hot air balloons, ready for take-off at the end of the weekend, as is tradition. The balloons have become the de facto symbol for Green River, which is a more memorable aesthetic than it sounds like. This year, the official Green River poster had five balloons, the last of which served as the head on a rag-time accordionist’s body.
Artists play main stages, then again on a side stage, mingle amongst fans, stare out at the sold out crowd, and guffaw at how people here listen—how they really listen, whether the crowd was there specifically for them or not.
At intervals, attention shifts off the stage and on to schedules, where people meticulously plan where they will go, who they will see, and how they can be two places at once.
There is music, constant music, broken up by trips—first, to the perpetually moving shuttles that take concert-goers out of the heat for a dip in the Green River, then to the beer tent, where Berkshire Brewing Company serves a special Green River Ale for two days only. Six months after the fact, I still look for it at the packie, even though I know that it can’t be found.
This year, the main stage was a revolving door of talent: Josh Ritter, Trombone Shorty, Norah Jones, Hurray for the Riff Raff, the Lone Bellow, and Trampled by Turtles, to name a few. Years past were the same, and one can understand those who brag about having never missed a Green River Fest; in their years, they’ve seen Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples, Arlo Guthrie, Neko Case, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Taj Mahal, Gillian Welch & David Rawling.
Simply put, Signature Sounds makes western Massachusetts matter.
In a place that is relatively small, Signature Sounds makes it feel big. More and more often, it’s felt like a place where things are happening—it feels like a place to be, instead of a place to be on the way to somewhere else.
Of course, they’re met half way, by an audience that is receptive, active and willing, and a town that has fostered creativity, and let’s such a label thrive.
I need that music, its candor, and their accessibility here, where I teach English full-time so I can write part-time. Without it, I’d be too far from the action to get involved. But I’m here, and Signature Sounds could only happen here, and they answer my calls. They make it so I can write about things that appeal beyond location, that feel big, that are big, that make me part of a conversation that I would miss out on if I lived almost anywhere else.
If you’re looking for an unbiased account, I probably can’t provide it, but my bias is trustworthy, since it is based in a transparent appreciation of their catalog, rather than personal relationships. As much as I admire their work, I’m not especially close enough to anyone at the label or their acts.
But in November, Jim Olsen e-mailed me, asking if I would blog their 20th Anniversary Celebration, which consisted of four concerts over three days at Northampton’s Academy of Music. For the first time, the work came with a small cash stipend.
At the end of the weekend, I chose a care package of vinyls, CDs and concert tickets over the cash.
I’m bad at business, but I put my money, or lack thereof, where my mouth is.
Liz Longley has never been to Northampton before, but by the time she steps off stage, she promises to be back. It seems sincere. Certainly as sincere as her lament of boyfriends’ past (which honestly felt like eavesdropping). She makes us laugh, sing along, want to hug her, maybe ask her out, if she’s at Green River this summer.
That’s the Parlor Room effect, the Signature Sounds effect. In theory, it could happen anywhere, but, tonight, it feels like it could only happen here.
Signature Sounds’ 20th Anniversary Collection: Rarities from the Second Decade was released March 3rd (buy here)