'Music In The Round:' Silverhill man seeks funding for film project

By John Underwood independent@gulfcoastnewspapers.com
Posted 7/3/13

SILVERHILL, Alabama -- On a small farm south of Silverhill is a place where dreams come true.

It is a place where, from September through April over the last two years, singer/songwriters have come together every week to swap stories and to …

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'Music In The Round:' Silverhill man seeks funding for film project


SILVERHILL, Alabama -- On a small farm south of Silverhill is a place where dreams come true.

It is a place where, from September through April over the last two years, singer/songwriters have come together every week to swap stories and to perform in front of an eclectic mix of fans.

It is a story that began when Cathe Steele, owner of Blue Moon Farm, and her friend, popular local performer Grayson Capps, had an idea to bring other performers together in a unique setting.

It is also the story of Chris Helton, a local filmmaker who decided to put those stories together.

This is the story of “Music in the Round” at the Frog Pond.

Chris’s story

Helton moved to Silverhill in the second grade when his parents bought the Silverhill Nursery.

He grew up tending plants, hauling sod and pulling weeds helping to run the family business.

“A lot of people thought that is what I would end up doing for a living,” he said, “and I was headed in that direction.”

But a photography class taken during his break period at Central Baldwin Middle School changed all that.

“It was me and three other people,” he said. “We met once a week and learned all about film photography. We learned about aperture, shutter speed, making film slides and all the elements of taking photos.”

He was hooked.

He went on to become a photographer on the Robertsdale High School Yearbook staff, graduating in 2002.

After a brief stint at Faulkner State Community College, he went on to the Savannah College of Art and Design where he majored in photography.

Along the way film photography evolved into digital photography, and he began shooting video in addition to shooting stills.

When he completed his education, he returned to Baldwin County where he began working as a freelance videographer and editor in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

“I’ve always wanted to do different things and not get stuck doing the same thing day after day,” he said. “This has allowed me to do that.”

Through video, he got involved in the music scene on the Gulf Coast, shooting at various venues, including the Hangout Music Festival and as one of the in-house videographers for The Wharf.

He began following several of the local musicians and noticed that, more and more, one place began showing up on their schedules and it was right in his own back yard.

Cathe’s story

In the mid-1980s Steele discovered her own little piece of heaven when she purchased a small house built in 1908, along with a small farm.

For 30 years, Blue Moon Farm operated as a working horse farm, but when her stud horse died a few years ago, Steele decided to use the farm for a different type of cultivation.

“I have always been around music and musicians,” she said. In the mid-1990s she worked as musical director for Pirate’s Cove.

She and her friend, Grayson Capps, a popular fixture at Pirate’s Cove and other locations throughout the area, had often talked about a place where musicians could come together, sing songs, swap stories and enjoy good food.

On New Year’s Eve 2010 the Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm was born.

“We wanted to do it once just to see how it would work,” Steele said. It was a success.

A couple more shows were staged in 2011, one for Halloween and a couple more in November. In mid-December shows began every Sunday and have been going ever since.

“I grew up with the Sunday social,” Steele said. “Every Sunday after church people would get together, eat, swap stories and play music. It’s got that type of vibe to it. A lot of people say it kind of is like going to church for them.”

Since then more than 100 artists have played at the Frog Pond, including Capps, Will Kimbrough, the duo Sugarcane Jane and guitarist Corky Hughes, who have come together to form the group Willie Sugarcapps.

“Unless you follow the local music scene, you may not of heard of a lot of them, but you know their songs,” Steele said. “They have been recorded by artists such as Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood, Neil Young, Steve Windwood, Bonnie Raitt and Jimmy Buffett. A lot of what has been done here wasn’t planned, so it has never been done before and will never be done again.”

Steele operates through the International Folk Alliance. Because of copywrite restrictions, she must operate as a private venue.

“You have to call or email me ahead of time to let me know you are coming and how many people you’re bringing with you. Your name and all the names of your party are put on a list,” she said. “If your name is not on the list, you aren’t getting in."

If your name is on the list, it is checked off at the gate and you pay a suggested donation (which starts at about $25, depending on the size of the crowd and the artist).

"All the money we raise goes toward paying the artists," Steele said.

Two stories converge

In March of 2011, Chris Helton came to see his first show at the Frog Pond and he was immediately drawn, not only by the quality of the music, but by the eclectic mix of people drawn to the venue.

“You have the artists performing on stage,” he said, “but then there are the people. There are street performers, jugglers and others that perform along with the music, along with everything from bikers to doctors and lawyers who come to listen to the music.”

He was also drawn to the fact that the venue was a place where people could come simply to listen to the music.

“We have areas called ‘listening zones,’” Steele said. “When you’re inside the listening zone, there’s no talking, no smoking, no catching up with friends, we have areas on the outer edge where folks can meet and catch up if that’s what they want to do. But inside the listening zone is strictly for listening to music.”

In September of 2012, Helton called Steele and asked if he could come and begin filming the performances.

“For me it’s a way for us to have an archive of what goes on here,” Steele said. “When we started this, I had no idea how special it would be. I’m not trying to brag, but it’s magical how everything came together in this place.”

So Helton began filming the four-hour performances every week, sometimes using two or three cameras to capture different angles. He also shot hours of interviews with the artist, along with crowd shots and shots of the other performers who come to the shows.

The result is hundreds of hours of footage from more than six months of performances and other footage.

“We have captured footage that you won’t see anywhere else and artists performing together that you won’t see anywhere else,” Helton said.

The project

At the end of this past season, which ended at the end of April, Helton approached Steele about the possibility of putting the footage together.

“The original idea is that each performance could be made into a 30-minute show, which could air on PBS or one of the cable documentary networks,” Helton said. “But we’ve run into so many problems with red tape the idea had to be put on the backburner.

In the meantime, Helton has been working on a “best-of” video, which will take a dozen or so performances, along with interviews and other footage into one DVD.

In addition to Willie Sugarcapps, which was formed through performances at the Frog Pond, Helton has captured footage of artists such as Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of Woodie Guthrie, singing the popular folk singer’s hit “This Land Is Your Land.”

The venue has also played host to popular artists such as Kinky Friedman, a nationally known singer/songwriter and author.

The campaign

Helton has launched a campaign on the website kickstarter.com to fund the DVD with the goal of $18,000. As of Monday, July 1, the project has 31 backers who have pledged $2,791.

“How it works is you go to the website and pledge to donate to the campaign,” Helton said. “It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. If we reach our goal of $18,000, then we get the money to finish the project. If we don’t raise the money, then nothing happens. You don’t owe anything and we look for other ways to fund the project.”

The deadline to raise the funds for the Kickstarter project is July 18. If all goes well and he reaches his goal, Helton said, he is working with Grammy-award winning audio engineer Trina Shoemaker to put the project together by mid-December.

About 10 percent of the money will go back to Kickstarter, he said. Another 30 percent will go to producing DVDs and CDs which can be autographed by the participating artists.

Along with the video project, Helton is also working on a coffee table book, which will include photos, original writings by select artists and hand-written song lyrics from some of the artists.

“I’m not looking to make any money off of this,” he said. “It’s just something I felt needed to be done. It has truly been a labor of love.”

To learn more about Helton and his work, you can also visit chphotovideo.com. To learn more about the venue, you can like The Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm on Facebook.