By Steve Sirk
At first, it felt like an April Fool’s Day prank. On April 1, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Rod Picott tweeted that his “Circus of Misery and Heartbreak” tour would be in Columbus that night. I hadn’t seen any advertisements for the show, but his tweet instructed followers to RSVP on his website. The RSVP link was to the email account of someone named Jennie Stump. Thoroughly confused, I emailed Jennie with a much politer version of, “Wait, what the hell is going on here?” Jennie informed me that she and her husband, Dennis Papp, were putting on the Picott show…in their house.
A few hours later, I found myself seated in the rows of folding chairs that spanned from the living room to the kitchen, watching Rod Picott, armed only with an acoustic guitar and a microphone, play his music 15 feet in front of me. As Picott sang his songs of heartbreak, hard work, and hope, accentuated by numerous darkly humorous tales from his own life, I felt grateful for surreal serendipity and wondered how something this incredible even happens.
Picott, 52, grew up in South Berwick, Maine, which, during his formative years, was a rural, working class town near the navy yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was home to welders, auto mechanics, and dairy farmers. (Times change. These days, it’s much more upscale. One of the primary dairy farms is a golf course, with the main barn converted into a gorgeous wedding reception hall.) Coming from a long line of tough, blue-collar guys—multiple generations of boxers, including his father, who boxed while in the Marines—Picott was drawn to music instead. “You should have seen my father’s face when I was 14 and I told him I wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” Picott told the house concert audience. “He looked at me like I was a pink hammer.”
It would actually be two more decades before Picott made the full-fledged jump into the music business. After a brief stay in Colorado, he moved to Nashville and earned his living hanging sheetrock. (To us Ohioans, that would be drywall.) He was 36 when his debut album “Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues” was released in 2001. While he got radio airplay in Europe, it proved elusive in the United States, which made it hard to drive people to the clubs as a new act. That’s when he discovered the underground world of house concerts, opening shows for his friend Slaid Cleaves, who grew up with Picott in Maine.
“I found house concerts to be so wonderfully intimate and personal,” Picott said during a phone call on Easter Sunday. “Particularly with the kind of music that I do, it’s just a really good fit for me. The first few years that I was on the road, about half of my shows were house concerts.”
One of those house concerts was the first domino leading toward my memorable Saturday night.
A decade ago, a friend gave Dennis and Jennie a mix CD of Americana music, which is an imprecise amalgam of rock, country, and folk music. They were drawn to the genre, and in particular, they liked the Rod Picott tune on the disc, “Angels and Acrobats.” After further delving into his music, they found out that he would soon be playing a house concert in Streetsboro, Ohio. Having never heard of house concerts, Dennis and Jennie emailed the host, who invited them up from Columbus. “It was the most amazing thing,” Jennie recalled. “It was your own private concert.”
They were so taken by the experience that they wondered if they could get Picott to play at their house. They reached out to him, and after some back and forth, Picott agreed to play a show there. Dennis and Jennie have been such great hosts, and the shows have been so successful, that Picott has now played in their west side abode for ten consecutive years.
“I think a lot of people assume that if you’re playing in somebody’s house, you’re probably not that good or it’s not a real career and it’s just something you do on the side,” Jennie said. “I don’t think that’s true at all.”
Picott tours the United States and Europe and has received favorable reviews from Rolling Stone and Mojo, plus has had his songs appear in movies and television, including the excellent FX drama “Justified.” Dennis and Jennie have also hosted stellar songsmith John Moreland—who recently performed on The Late Show with Steven Colbert—and the supremely gifted songwriter Amanda Shires, who, in addition to her own critically-acclaimed career, has collaborated and toured with Picott and has had an invaluable role in the breakout success of her husband, Jason Isbell. It’s stunning to think that this level of talent has played in one Columbus living room.
“I think a lot of the artists like the intimacy of it, where you’re not in a bar where people are watching TV and drinking,” Jennie said. “Everybody is focused on the music, so a lot of artists who can play in bigger places still like the house concerts for that reason.”
“John Moreland even said that to me,” Dennis added. “He said instead of a bar atmosphere, he’d much rather play a house concert, which is a place where everyone is paying attention.”
There is a distinct difference between a house concert and a house party with music. A house concert is an actual show, no different than if the artist was playing an acoustic set at a club. From experience, Picott has learned that there is one crucial detail that makes a house concert work. It’s the differentiator between a concert and a party where everyone’s drinking beer and chatting in the kitchen while the artist is off in the corner “like you’re the guy playing Margaritaville at the bar.” That crucial detail is the seating.
“There has to be a seat for everybody and everybody has to be facing the performer,” Picott said. “Just that little bit of formality, where there’s a seat for everybody and we’re all facing in the same direction, just that one simple thing takes care of everything. People kind of fall in line.”
Some house concerts go so far as to print and mail tickets, with some even assigning specific seats. For their house concerts, which include a pre-show potluck dinner, Dennis borrows folding chairs from a nearby church, then sets them up in rows. The seating is general admission in their home. All 30 chairs were filled for Picott’s show, and the audience was enthusiastic, yet respectful, during the performance.
“I think Dennis and Jennie run their house concerts perfectly,” Picott said. “The show starts roughly on time, it’s organized, and everybody knows how it’s going to work. The food is from this time to this time, the show starts at this time, it will be two sets, there’s merch over there. Pointing out the merch helps the artist because then you don’t have to do it during the show. They do a short introduction after they make sure that the artist is ready. To me, it’s the perfect combination of formality and informality.”
From a performer’s perspective, seating may be the number one rule of house concerts. Dennis and Jennie, however, have developed their own number one rule of house concerts, which they learned through experience during one of their first times hosting.
“Take away all of the dog’s squeaky toys,” Jennie said with a laugh. “Mandy wanted in on the action. She had one of her squeaky toys and thought she was playing percussion or something. It never occurred to me beforehand.”
Mandy, a black flat-coated retriever, was incredibly well-behaved during Picott’s show, even with 30 strangers invading her home. With no squeaky toys at Mandy’s disposal, Picott was able to perform sans canine accordion. It’s also probably a good thing he has no songs that involve whistling.
“One time, Amanda Shires was playing the song where she whistles at the beginning [Swimmer…],” Dennis recalled, “and Mandy came running up like Amanda was whistling for her. Of course, Amanda started laughing then too.”
A vital aspect of Picott’s shows, which is made even more impactful in the house concert setting, is his storytelling. Like the legendary Todd Snider, Picott has a way of telling stories that goes beyond banter and becomes a crucial part of the concert experience. Whereas Snider offers an affable, carefree burnout persona telling what he describes as “mostly true tall tales”, Picott’s commentary is self-deprecating and darkly comic.
The opening number, “That’s What It Takes”, concludes with the following gut-punch lines:
“Well, it’s not that I ever stopped loving you
I just quit waiting for you to love me too”
After the applause died down, Picott explained why he opened the show with that tune. “I like to inoculate you right from the start so you’re prepared for what comes later,” he joked. “Now we come to the unemployment portion of the show…”
When the laughter subsided, he followed with “Welding Burns” and “Rust Belt Fields”, a pair of working-class tunes. In the chorus of the latter, Picott sings:
“They figured it out and shipped the elbow grease
Down to Mexico and off to the Chinese
I learned a little something about how things are
No one remembers your name just for working hard”
These are not imagined laments conjured by the creative process. Picott has put in the real-life work and, as one of them, has witnessed working-class people and their lives firsthand. In cases like this, Picott’s stories not only bring levity to the show, but they also illuminate the songs, drawing the audience further into the performance. He had several hilarious tales about the challenges and characters from his days hanging drywall, and even offered some empathetic advice to those in attendance. “It’s a horrible job,” he explained. “If you ever hire a guy to do sheetrock work on your house and he shows up drunk, just give him a break. He’s got it hard. I’m grateful to be able to do this instead of hanging sheetrock. This beats the shit out of hanging sheetrock.”
Other songs and the corresponding tales come from his upbringing or family history, such as “Uncle John”, which is about his father’s misanthropic brother, who is now a woodlands recluse who hasn’t talked to the family in 30 years following a fight that nobody can remember. (“My Uncle John was the guy in the family you had to invite to stuff, but you didn’t really want to. He’d have this feral group of kids that he would bring with him. I’m serious. Everything would be fine for like ten minutes…but then they’d start stabbing you with a lawn dart. It was chaos whenever my Uncle John came over. The picnic table would catch fire…”)
Picott never missed a chance to poke fun at his own perceived shortcomings. Most notably, he told of a recent show that he performed while under the weather with a bronchial infection. Afterward, a fan told him that despite his illness, it was the best he’d ever sounded. Picott deemed that to be disheartening, then imagined himself at home, huffing petri dishes full of horrid pathogens in order to be at his best for future shows. “That way I can develop pneumonia or something and become deathly ill,” he joked to the laughing audience. “People would say, ‘It’s too bad about Rod, that he died. But man, those last two weeks, he sounded so fucking good. He sounded like Otis Redding. Best shows he’s ever done.’”
One of the things that Dennis and Jennie love about hosting house concerts is that the attendees get to feel like they know the performer. It’s a much more intimate experience than a show at a venue. It’s like friends hanging out in the living room together, having fun.
Picott said that his shows are like that by design, even at a venue, but especially at a house concert.
“One of my favorite things about anybody’s show is getting a fuller sense of who the person is,” he said. “I like getting the full force of their personality, a lot of what makes them the artist that they are or what drives them to be the artist that they are, and what the songs are about and what they choose to write about… I think that is one of the most wonderful things about live music, to walk away from the show feeling like the performer was really playing the show for you. Like that was your night.”
Judging by the ubiquitous laughter and smiles during the performance, Picott succeeded in creating a special night for 30 people in a Columbus living room.
There are definitely advantages to playing house concerts. 100% of the proceeds go to the artist. Dennis and Jennie have a recommended minimum, but when they pass the hat, they find that people often chip in significantly more. House concerts also provide the artist with a fresh and attentive audience. A venue show is going to consist primarily of existing fans or people who are at least aware of the artist, whereas house shows, by their very nature, include friends, neighbors, and co-workers of the hosts, so it is a great opportunity for the artist to get exposure to new eyes and ears.
“There will be a couple people who are really instant fans,” Picott said of a house concert’s ability to convert the uninitiated. “They’ll come up to the CD table at the end and just buy everything. I think it’s the intimacy of the experience that makes them feel like that. They can talk to you for a few minutes and see that you are the person that they just saw. It’s a deeper connection.”
There are potential downsides to house concerts too, from the performer’s perspective. Some artists are terrified of them, due to the extreme intimacy and personal access. Picott recalled that the first house concert he headlined, 40 people were packed into a cabin that should have accommodated half that number. He played with the back of his boots pinned against the bricks of the fireplace, with the front row of people so close they could have reached out and strummed his guitar. “I felt like a cornered animal,” he said. “I broke out in a sweat and felt claustrophobic. But after three or four songs, I just thought, ‘Hey, this is your show. Be excited. Just give in to it.’ And it was great.”
There is also the anxiety of not knowing what you’re walking into. Some of the houses, like Dennis and Jennie’s, are great for shows. Others can be rough. Picott recalled once playing in a really rundown house. “It was barely civilized,” he said. “But I talked to the guy and he was so nice and he was so excited. We did the show and it was absolutely fantastic. Sometimes you have to accommodate your own perceptions of things with house concerts.”
The finances of house concerts can cut both ways for an artist. Picott is good about periodically checking in with his hosts to get attendance and revenue projections. That way he has a feel for what the night will entail, artistically and financially. Years ago, he rode along on a ten-hour drive for another artist’s show. The artist hadn’t been communicating with the host and had no idea how attendance was tracking. When they got to the show, it was the host, her realtor, and “an elderly neighbor who was standing by the chip and dip bowl.”
Despite their financial rewards (when properly monitored) and the ability to instantly create new fans, house concerts also come with some opportunity cost for the artist. Since they are private shows, the artist is not appearing in the local concert listings, there are no preview write-ups in the weekly arts paper, the show is not being mentioned on the radio, and there is no name exposure on the venue’s marquee. For that reason, Picott is sure to balance venue shows with house concerts. “One of the things about trying to build a career in music is that you need visibility,” Picott said. “People need to see your name. People need to have heard about you. There’s not much of that that comes with most house concerts. You do miss those publicity angles. You could be playing to a lot of people over the course of a year, but still be sort of invisible in a way. So I try to do a healthy mix. I try to make sure I’m playing the right venues and getting the benefits of that system that’s sort of in place.”
I am living proof of that concept. My only other Picott show was last May. I decided I needed to see a show the one night I was in Austin, Texas, and as I looked down the concert listings for that night, I recognized Picott’s name. I had never heard a note of his music, but his was a name I recognized when I saw it in the newspaper. That’s how I ended up at his show and became introduced to his music.
House concerts are a great way to create new, deeply-connected fans one at a time, and Picott certainly made some new fans at Dennis and Jennie’s, but I was there because I had discovered him through more traditional promotional means. And because of that, I got to enjoy an incredible house concert a year later.
Dennis and Jennie have had nothing but great experiences with their house concerts. Sure, there is the occasional spilling of red wine on the carpet. (“Dennis has a system for cleaning that,” Jennie said.) One time, so many people showed up that they had to turn people away while hosting an uncomfortably large crowd of 50 inside. But other than that, it’s been fairly smooth sailing, despite their initial trepidation about inviting total strangers into their home.
“The first time, we were nervous because there were people we didn’t know,” Dennis said. “What if it was Charles Manson’s protégé? But now I’ve gotten very used to it and it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Even though strangers may attend, it is still not literally opening your home up to the world. The strangers are either friends of friends or find out about the show from the artist and are there for the love of the music. At this year’s Picott appearance, Dennis and Jennie welcomed visitors who drove to Columbus from Michigan and Kentucky just to see the show.
“In my experience, there has always been a sense of altruism in the house concert world,” Picott said. “The hosts really do their best to make the night great for you, and to have a great payday, and it’s very personal. I think a lot of the people who host house concerts take a lot of pride and do a lot of work to make sure that it’s financially successful and also a soulful experience. It’s an incredibly generous thing to open your home, like with Dennis and Jennie.”
On April Fool’s Day, I walked into Dennis and Jennie’s house as a stranger, then walked out as a friend. Upon departing, I noticed that on the chalkboard marquee at the front door, Dennis had updated Picott’s “Circus of Misery and Heartbreak” to a “3-Ring Circus of Misery, Heartbreak, and a Glimmer of Hope.”
As I drove home thinking about my first house concert experience—about community, kindness, generosity, and the power of art to connect kindred spirits—I felt more than just a glimmer.
House concert at the home of Dennis Papp and Jennie Stump
April 1, 2017
- That’s What It Takes
- Welding Burns
- Rust Belt Fields
- Elbow Grease
- Uncle John
- Angels and Acrobats
- Fire Down Inside [new]*
- I Was Not Worth Your Love
- ’65 Falcon
- I Coulda Been the King
- Broke Down
- Take Home Pay [new]*
- Sheetrock Hanger
- Stray Dogs
- Down to the Bone
- The Norseman Lounge [new]**
* From Picott’s upcoming double-album, tentatively titled “Out Past the Wires”, scheduled for release in February 2018.
** A humorous new song that Picott said is not likely to make the album because it is not a thematic fit, but it definitely went over well in a live setting.
Rod Picott – I Was Not Worth Your Love
Steve Sirk is a Columbus writer who usually writes about sports. He is in his 20th season covering Columbus Crew SC, and he has also written for Fox Sports Ohio, The Orange & Brown Report, Columbus Wired, and others. Sirk has authored two books about the Crew, with a third on the way. He can be reached at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk