By Michael Granberry
A little more than a decade ago, I made a discovery. I interviewed Janis Ian, a 1970s pop icon who was playing a cool little venue here called Uncle Calvin’s Coffeehouse.
I had long been a fan of Janis, who in 1975 released one of my all-time favorite albums, Between the Lines, which contained the unforgettable single, “At Seventeen,” about the pain of adolescence. I had first become aware of her in 1967, when she bravely released “Society’s Child,” a single about interracial romance. As a teenager, she endured racist heckles in venues around the country in singing her song live.
Janis’ show at Uncle Calvin’s was one of the best I’ve ever seen. It also provided a gateway to many other shows and allowed me to embrace Uncle Calvin’s as a sanctuary, a quiet corner where I retreat on Friday nights to hear some of the best music I’ve ever heard.
At 62, I am a few months younger than Janis and part of the demographic that comes to Uncle Calvin’s on a weekly basis. We go there to hear singer-songwriters who touch our hearts, whose ballads don’t climb to the top of the charts but who leave us with unforgettable stories that remind us of the best in life.
Don’t get me wrong. I have long been enamored of Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and many others who long ago achieved white-hot commercial success. At Calvin’s, I get to hear people who are talented to the max but who harbor no real hope of ever achieving a similar Platinum-studded career.
Uncle Calvin’s introduced me to Jimmy LaFave, a terrific singer-songwriter based in Austin, who delivers one of the best cuts on the newly released Jackson Browne tribute album. LaFave mixes his own finely crafted songs, such as “Only One Angel” and “River Road,” with such dynamite covers as “Walk Away Renée,” first recorded by the Left Banke in 1966.
I have gone there to hear John Gorka, whose searing ballads leave a lasting impression, and Gretchen Peters, who has written numerous big hits for other artists (Martina McBride and “Independence Day” come to mind) but whose own songs, sung in her own voice, leave me in awe. Gretchen’s “Idlewild,” named for the airport now called JFK, is a work of art unto itself, a story of her parents’ marriage breaking up and her grandmother nearing death, set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination and the racial unrest of the 1960s.
Uncle Calvin’s, like similar venues around the country, is set in the fellowship hall of a church, although nothing about it is religious in nature, except for the music, which is often heavenly. Volunteers book the shows and make the coffee and desserts, which alone are worth the trip. Alcohol and cigarettes are not allowed. It’s a listening room, where lyrics go straight to your ear without the distraction of a drunk at the next table interrupting a tug on your heartstrings.
In recent years, a new phenomenon has surfaced at Calvin’s. The crowd remains attached to the senior demographic and yet the performers are increasingly younger. Many are women. I have heard such twenty-something stars as Liz Longley, who reminds me of Joni Mitchell more than any young female singer I know; Emily Elbert, Liz’s classmate at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, who so wowed a crowd of Palestinians and Jews in East Jerusalem that they ended the night holding hands and singing along to Bob Marley’s “One Love”; and Natalie Gelman, who started out singing in the subways of New York but now tours the country with her own poetic magic packed in her suitcase.
These women thrive as anachronistic angels giving us gifts that come without the promise of bullets on a Billboard chart. Sad? A little, I suppose, but I have spent time with each, and none appears the least bit melancholy, except when they’re singing a breakup song.
Like Allie Farris, a gifted singer-songwriter from Dallas, they travel the highways of America, in sheer solitude, moving from one outpost to the next. Allie and Liz now live in Nashville, harboring the hope, I suppose, of selling one of their gorgeous songs to a country artist whose version may sell millions. I, of course, prefer to hear them sing their own songs. It’s a gift I would love to share with you, urging you to attend and support the Calvin’s clones in your cities.
Enjoy. These heavenly voices are bringing us one of the best gifts of life and asking so little in return.
Michael Granberry is an arts and feature writer and a Sunday arts columnist for The Dallas Morning News.
Editor’s note: Mike and I met as college students when we were summer interns at The Washington Post in 1973, when the Watergate investigation was at its height. We hit it off amazingly well — he is a superb storyteller and wickedly funny. When Lori and I were married two years later in California, I asked Mike to be my groomsman. As the years passed, we fell out of touch but thanks to social media we have recently reconnected and I am planning to visit him in Dallas next month.
Read more: Michael’s recent story on 20-something female singers (includes four videos).
Tomorrow: “Riding the NYC subway” by Lauren Dillard