How a church-sponsored music venue has endured for more than 30 years
Almost every Friday night, NorthPark Presbyterian Church is empty, except for one corner of the building. Just inside the door, a blackboard displays the names of the night’s performers in multi-colored chalk — it’s the only indicator you’ve arrived at a live music venue.
Friendly, bespectacled ladies greet and take cash from visitors and place it in a tin box. Coffee, tea and other refreshments are for sale, including $2 slices of pie on Saran-wrapped plates. Behind a set of double doors, in the dimly lit auditorium, white-haired patrons sit at round tables covered in blue tablecloths, each accented with flowers and a flickering votive candle.
For a club-goer under the age of 40, Uncle Calvin’s Coffeehouse is decidedly uncool. But then, the music starts.
The acoustics fill the room, and Lisa Markley’s heartfelt jazz tune, backed by William Foley’s orchestra, draws every eye to the stage.
“It’s a listening room,” says Woody Woodward, Uncle Calvin’s “sound guy” who volunteers his talents. “People who want to have a drink and talk don’t come here.”
There’s a rich tradition behind this type of music venue — a performer-friendly space inside a church — and Uncle Calvin’s helped start it more than 30 years ago.
In 1982, as North Dallas became the center for upscale clubs, and loud, smoky bars populated Lower Greenville, the Rev. Trey Hammond of NorthPark Presbyterian saw a niche: to provide a laid-back acoustical stage free of smoke and alcohol where fans could truly appreciate the music. That year, Hammond founded Uncle Calvin’s Coffeehouse at the church, featuring unknown singer-songwriters in genres such as folk, jazz, blues, Americana and bluegrass.
“It’s a throwback to the old ’60s coffeehouses,” he says.
Historically, the venues operated on college campuses or progressive churches and created hubs for emerging artists.
One of the most notable groups to perform at Uncle Calvin’s was the original Dixie Chicks from 1989-1990. The country music band, which formed in Dallas, comprised Laura Lynch, Robin Lynn Macy and the Erwin sisters, Martie and Emily (Lynch and Macy later left, and Natalie Maines joined Martie and Emily to form the Dixie Chicks as they’re known today). Uncle Calvin’s hosted a CD release party that drew about 400 people.
Other big-name acts who have graced the stage include the Grammy-nominated duo Trout Fishing in America, “Prairie Home Companion” regulars Robin and Linda Williams, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, who noted that Uncle Calvin’s is “the only place I’ve ever played that wasn’t Godforsaken.”
NorthPark Presbyterian subsidized Uncle Calvin’s for the first eight years until the venue became self-supporting. It’s run entirely by volunteers, and all funds from ticket sales go to the performers and church mission programs, including North Dallas Shared Ministries, Vickery Meadow Learning Center and the Stewpot. The name “Uncle Calvin’s” is a playful spin on John Calvin, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation in Geneva.
In the early days, the venue thrived on local music. Hammond received auditions on cassettes, vinyl and 8-track tapes. It grew from there by word of mouth, beginning with the first out-of-state performer, Tim Keller.
“He was the first performer who made us realize what we had here, and word spread to Kerrville,” says Ed Gunsalus, Uncle Calvin’s dedicated manager, who began coming to shows in 1984.
The annual Kerrville Folk Festival is the epicenter for new and established musicians from all over the country, and volunteers from Uncle Calvin’s scout the event for talent (often competition winners), bringing a little piece of Kerrville to our neighborhood on Friday nights.
While Uncle Calvin’s attracts nationally acclaimed artists, it also brings people together — often the same people week after week.
“There’s a social dimension to Uncle Calvin’s,” Hammond says. “To me, a true coffeehouse provides a place that builds community.”
Gunsalus met his wife there in 1987; they were married five months later. Ira Hantz is the unofficial photographer and still pays admission each week. Bill Nash has battled multiple sclerosis for 26 years but never misses a show. A musician himself who plays the Uncle Calvin’s stage once a year, he even wrote a song about it, “House of Rhapsody.”
“It’s my love song about my favorite place on Friday nights,” he says.
Woodward often is the first to arrive and last to leave, setting up and taking down sound equipment, from 5 p.m. to midnight. He says today the core audience is not much different than it was in the beginning.
“It’s the same people, only we had darker hair,” he quips. “I know our audience is aging, and we need to figure out a way to get younger people there.”
Sometimes the musical acts dictate what type of audience might turn out each week.
“When we book younger performers, we get younger audiences,” Gunsalus says. “It’s something we always work on.”
Despite its musical success and longevity, Uncle Calvin’s still is relatively obscure, hidden away inside a church, which can both help and a hinder the mission, Hammond says.
“It’s a ministry of the church for sure,” he says, adding that Uncle Calvin’s has attracted new members to NorthPark over the years. But, he adds, “It can be a threshold to cross, and people may have some anxiety that they’re going to be accosted.”
While the entertainment is family-friendly — folk music by nature is sensitive to a broad audience — Uncle Calvin’s doesn’t proselytize. For some regular audience members, it’s the only time they come to a church.
The atmosphere may feel strange to some newcomers, but the music often transcends all of that.
“It’s an expression of deeper spiritual realities that people bring to the stage,” Hammond says. He left NorthPark after five years of leading Uncle Calvin’s and now serves at La Mesa Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, N.M. He recalls one performance from the early years during which a Vietnam veteran sang about his experiences. The room cleared out.
“His music was like a firefight in the Vietnam jungle,” Hammond says. “It was too intense, too raw.”
Hammond encouraged the musician to keep playing anyway because a handful of volunteers were willing to listen.
“From a faith perspective, it wasn’t about making money or building a huge audience. It was about substance.”
Performances at Uncle Calvin’s Coffeehouse run at 8 p.m. every Friday inside NorthPark Presbyterian Church, 9555 North Central. To view this month’s lineup and buy tickets, visit unclecalvins.org.