If you’re ever feeling bored or lonely on the second Friday of the month, just head on down to Starr Hill Brewery and Tap Room to play or sing along with the Crozet Jam Band! Led by guitarist Jim Pyles, this informal jam session runs from 7 to 9 p.m. and is reminiscent of an Irish pub, where anyone who wants to can pick up an instrument and join in the fun. The audience is encouraged to sing along, and participants are invited to make requests and even come up on stage to lead a song from the 170+ (and growing) songbook!
The jam band, or CJB, has grown dramatically since it began only 20 months ago with two or three musicians in the back of the Crozet Artisan Depot. “We have really evolved in terms of numbers, quality, expertise, and technology,” Pyles explained. Moving to Starr Hill about a year ago, the band is now ten members strong, playing everything from keyboard to fiddle to trombone to harmonica, with recent additions of mandolin and drums. Although it is made up entirely of amateurs who bring their own instruments, “some really accomplished musicians have joined, like our fabulous lead guitarist Eric Spath, keyboardist John Nafziger (who also does fine vocals), and outstanding lead vocalist Lori Schwanhausser Freeman,” he continues.
The October session featured a new, 24-channel electronic sound mixing board that seriously improves the blend and balance of their sound. “This unites all the mics for both voice and instruments, running them all through one mixing board that will connect with Starr Hill’s sound system,” Pyles explained. “It has slides for each of the 24 channels, so we can boost selected mics, like the lead singer’s voice, and tone down the louder instruments.” Before, they were all running through a few individual amps, including the audience mic, so that it was not blended with the band and the crowd couldn’t hear themselves. “We have added better mics as well as a stage monitor that sends the sound back toward the band and allows us to hear ourselves as well as the audience.” Pyles has learned a great deal about how to improve his equipment from Heinz Musitronics, which has been incredibly helpful.
With this major technological advance, Freeman’s velvety vocals and other members’ soulful harmonies can be heard clearly over the band’s many instruments. In October, Schwanhausser, who joined the band about six months ago, really stood out in “Boulder to Birmingham” by Emmylou Harris, and in September Linda McNeil gave a nice, sultry rendition of “Crazy,” as sung by Patsy Cline. They really rock out, with everyone feeling each other’s beat, to create a cohesive sound with a raucous, funky feel. Many fans from the Crozet Chorus and the community at large belt out the songs from the audience. “We are in the church/front porch tradition,” Pyles pointed out. “This is how people have played music in the South for decades. Crozet is a unique place, because the residents have a ‘can do’ attitude and get behind inventive ways to make things happen.”
The CJB has been drawing such a big crowd—some all the way from Charlottesville—that Starr Hill recently moved them from Thursdays to Fridays for the rest of this year. “Their acoustics are phenomenal,” Pyles affirms, “and I think business is increasing when we play.” Pyles, a retired lawyer, has advertised the sessions through posters, the Gazette, and Nextdoor, and now works with Jack Goodall and Allie Hochman who promote the sessions through the Starr Hill website starrhill.com/events. Now, “we are being swamped with requests to play at other venues—like Pro Re Nata, King Family Vineyard, and Barboursville Vineyard. We recently played at the White Hall Ruritan Club meeting, and one of the local TV stations even wants us to play before a studio audience. We are also putting together CJB 2.0, a small group that can be flexible and play more quietly for smaller spaces like the Rooftop.”
“I just love to play music,” Pyles said. “I wanted to do popular music that everyone could sing. We want this not to be a passive exercise where we just perform, but a participatory thing where the community can come and try new things, bring their instruments, and harmonize. Music bridges political divisions. Our band and our audience are a diverse group that represents a broad spectrum of ages, lifestyles, and talents. The jam sessions blend sounds, but they also blend people.”
The band practices twice between each session in Pyles’ home studio, and they continue adding new songs to the repertoire. “It takes me about six hours to collect and type up the lyrics and chords for each new song,” Pyles admited. There is a different artist focus each month—they’ve featured songs by Willie Nelson, the Beatles, the Eagles, Dixie Chicks, and Paul Simon, among others—plus tributes to recently deceased musicians such as Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Petty (you may well hear a Fats Domino number in November). Lately, Pyles has started adding songs that address “this wonderful journey we’re on called Life,” such as “Colors,” “Things I Never Needed,” and “Can’t See Through” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. “These are exquisite songs that Lori sings beautifully,” Pyles adds. The evening usually ends with John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
“The life I love is makin’ music with my friends,” we croon like Willie Nelson in “On the Road Again”— a lyric that perfectly captures the feeling of this Crozet phenomenon. “Music is an expression of love,” said Pyles. “It is just so great to look out at the crowd and see everyone smiling and having a great time. I tell our members, we are not in the music business, we are in the entertainment business—we’re here to give people a good time.” In terms of future plans, Pyles would love to appear in a festival. “I think we’re better than a lot of bands out there. We’re really coming into our own.”
The November 10 CJB session will feature songs by Jim Croce, Grace Potter, and Emmylou Harris—including songs about Corvettes in honor of the Blue Ridge Corvette Club, whose members plan to join the audience that night. There is no cover charge and there is always a food truck available for dinner or snacks. On Dec. 8, Pyles is planning a three-hour retrospective, playing a song from each month of the past year. Starr Hill will stay open until 10 p.m. for this special event. So come on out to join our homegrown CJB for “good food, good beer, good music, and good company—it doesn’t get much better than this!”