The concerts countdown has begun.
After 37 years of providing a wide array of musical talent in a little building in a tiny hamlet on a remote stretch of coastline in Pistol River, Les and Mary Stansell are retiring from the Pistol River Concert Association.
Their departure could mean the end of the concerts in the “living room” that is the Pistol River Friendship Hall, Les Stansell said, as it is uncertain if anyone wants to — or is capable of — keeping the monthly performances going. He gives it 50-50 odds.
There isn’t yet a show slated for February, but Kate Power and Steve Einhorn will perform March 2, Kathryn Claire and Friends will play April 13 and Chris Jacome Flamenco will round out the year May 11.
“The question is, are there going to be people stepping up and keeping the level of quality the same?” he said. “We don’t want to see it diminished. That remains the question. It’s up in the air.”
Several people stepped down from board when the couple announced their retirement at the last meeting, but others say they’re going to try to keep it going.
The reasons are many.
“It comes down to just the general social aspect of what we’ve been doing for so long,” Stansell said. “We were in our 20s when we started this, most of the people who attended the concerts were in the 20s, and now we’re in our 60s. There’s not a big group of young people who want to sit down and listen to music; they want to be partying, socializing, drinking at a bar. They’re not really that interested in paying $20 and sitting down and being attentive to the music. We’re kind of dinosaurs, that we’re still going. I don’t see the younger generation coming up and replacing the people our age.”
Additionally, there is competition from new venues. The library in Gold Beach has already hosted performances — including Stansell. And the Friends of Music is still trying to build a performing arts center in Brookings.
The Stansells still attract 80 to 90 people to every show, but even at that, they’re losing money and have had to hold fundraisers every two or three years to keep the concerts going.
“I don’t see anyone stepping up to do that,” he said. “There’s so many things we do that are essential to every show, and we’re always the default mechanism when someone goes out of town or is sick.”
Other challenges a new sponsor would face are hosting the musicians.
“Our house is a mile from the show,” Stansell said. “We host and feed the musicians. We roll out the red carpet. It’d be kind of hard to host (bands) in Gold Beach or Brookings. A typical winter night with the wind blowing sideways would logistically be a nightmare to ferry people back and forth, feed them, put them up.”
Musicians often stay an additional day or two.
“We love it; always have, but you just get to the point,” he said. “The only way to free ourselves is to resign.”
The roots of the music
The Pistol River Concert Association is a nonprofit separate from that of the Pistol River Friendship Hall, which hosts weddings, parties, funerals and other events about six days of every month.
Lee Stansell was born and raised in Pistol River and began making guitars in the 1970s. The remote location — pre-Internet — made it difficult to sell them; he worked as a contractor until the World Wide Web spread to the coast.
The association got its start July 17, 1982, with the performance of regionally renowned classical guitarist, Joseph Thompson — who performed again for the 30-year anniversary. The Pistol River Concert Association was formed in January 1984, eventually hosting more than 400 shows over the decades.
“I think we came in at the perfect time,” Stansell said. “We survived for this long one concert a month for 37 years. I don’t think any venue on the West Coast can beat that.”
It’s often been noted that Pistol River is about halfway between Portland and San Francisco, allowing traveling musicians to take a break between big-city venues.
“Seattle, Portland, Pistol River, San Francisco, what sounds funny about that?” Stansell quipped about a band’s lineup. “There’s not a lot between Portland and San Francisco.”
But they came — small unknown musicians and big names alike.
Tony Furtado, the Slocan Ramblers, Beppe Gambetta, Houston Jones, Blind Boy Paxton, Dirty Cello, Bill Morrisey, Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel, Scott Cossu, Cordelia’s Dad, Mike Seeger, Erica Wheeler, Bryan Bowers, Martin Simpson’s Band of Angels, Silk Road, The Nudes, Vance Gilbert, Kelly Joe Phelps, Ed Gerhard, Peggy Seeger, Dar Williams — the list goes on.
For Stansell, the highlight show was when Tony Rice and Peter Rowan graced the stage.
“They were just incredible,” he said. “I had to pinch myself a bunch of times.”
And after the show is when the friendships form.
“Typically after a show, we get food, a little drink, and a lot of times — I can think of more than one occasion — we’ll play until the sun’s coming up,” he said. “It’s a great, great experience. I’ll treasure all the memories, the great musicians and the friends we made over the years. The friends we’ve made over the years, the opportunities we’ve had to be around people with such great talent? We wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He said many musicians have told him and Mary that they particularly like the intimate venue at the Friendship Hall, where people are there for one thing: to listen.
“They play a lot of bars where people aren’t paying that much attention,” Stansell said. “Here — we call it the living room effect — people are really paying attention.”
There is a lot of audience interaction, as well; Stansell admits he loves it when he’s asked to join the band on stage.
Stansell has also been living with Parkinson’s Disease for the past five years, as well. The disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement, and often includes tremors. It hasn’t greatly affected Stansell’s life yet, but when the stress of hosting all the concerts starts to build, he feels the need to back down.
“In some ways, it’s been almost a blessing,” he said. “It’s gotten me focused on my health and doing things I’ve been putting off.”
That entails building baritone ukuleles or tenor guitars — and now the internet is available to spread the word about his work.
“That’s what I’m doing until can’t do it anymore,” he said. “Five years ago, I thought my life was over; I thought I had a year or two at best. I’m at the top of my game right now.
“Now I’m just kind of cruising and doing what I’ve wanted to do,” he added. “I feel pretty lucky. I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes already.”
And there could still be a Pistol River Concert Association after the Stansells.
“There’s no reason people still can’t do music,” he said. “But Mary and I are stepping away. It’s hard to imagine someone filling our shoes. I’m not trying to brag, but we know what it takes to do every show. It’s a labor of love, but I’m about 66 and don’t plan on being around forever.
The way things are trending, we’re going to quit when we’re ahead, go out on a high note. Amazing. It’s been an amazing ride.”