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Bringing it all back home

On making a living in other people’s living rooms

Editor’s note: This article was originally scheduled to run during SXSW 2020. As first that event, then most of the city, shut down because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, its look at paring down musical performance to its essence, to the intimacy of sharing one’s home and being invited into others, to the need to be nimble and have options as the world shifts, has seemed ever more resonant.

As an American rock musician living in the 21st century, in a First World country, with access to recording studios, radio play, television appearances, electric guitars, amps, and the electricity to power them—as well as the internet, YouTube, PA systems, and vehicles to tour in—I feel very lucky. When, in the history of humankind, has so much been available to the musician?

It may be a long, long shot to making a living being a musician, but the means to get your music out there and heard, and to get “a ticket to the casino,” exists. All of it is relatively easy to access for your would-be American rock star. But it could all go away tomorrow. Without these electronic and mechanical assists, what would our experience of music be like?

The answer, it turns out, is something like what has already become a phenomenon: the house concert.

A white 50-something woman holding up an acoustic guitar as she plays, looking to the side and laughing. There is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of books behind her.
Kathy McCarty plays a house concert in Austin.
Courtesy of the author

Typically, a house concert happens when someone who loves music, loves entertaining, or just plain loves a particular performer will borrow a bunch of chairs from neighbors and host a show in their home. Due to noise ordinances in most cities, house concerts are usually acoustic. Sometimes the host rents a primitive PA system, but most of the time the performer just sings without a microphone—just standing there, singing and playing in the living room. “It’s like playing songs at a friend’s house—to 30 of their friends,” says Austin music legend Jon Dee Graham, who has toured for some years playing primarily house concerts. “It’s a return to the original troubadour tradition. I show up by your campfire, and if I am able to entertain you well enough, then you feed me and give me some money.”

Because individuals in their homes do not suffer the high overhead, payroll taxes, liquor license woes, and associated evils a commercial bar or nightclub endures, house concerts can be far more lucrative for the performer than small club dates. Often the host is able to put a touring performer up for the night in a spare room or loft, saving the talent considerable expense (especially if breakfast is thrown in!). It all goes toward the bottom line and can genuinely make the difference between getting to tour or having to stay home.

Like it or not, the live-music-loving demographic is an older one. Most of the time, if you go to see live bands, the people who equate seeing a live performance with fun are generally in the 40- to 60-year-old range, even when the performers onstage are young. I’m not sure where the young people are (glued to their phones no doubt, or binge-watching TV, which, I hasten to add, is also fun), but those in the mature demographic are the workhorses of the live-music audience: showing up, filling the tip jar, and listening. One thing that particularly appeals to this demographic (to which I belong) is sitting in a comfortable chair at a reasonable hour. House concerts usually take place around 8 or 9 p.m., allowing the audience to get to work the next morning without being destroyed.

“There are the obvious appealing factors, like early nights, and it’s easy on the back,” says Will Johnson, a songwriting luminary who works house concerts into his tours alongside club dates. “And you can show up literally four minutes before you have to play.”

“But there are other factors,” he says, “in that it tends to put everybody on neutral turf in so many ways, and it is kind of founded on these elements of trust and vulnerability in the room—not just on the performer’s behalf, but from the people going to the show and the host themselves, in that they are welcoming 30 or 40 strangers into their place. I think that kind of energy in a room is healthy, and kinda keeps us all on our toes. I think it teaches us something new. And if it teaches us something new, then in my interpretation that’s a positive, we’re learning.”

Johnson laughs and adds, “I often steal decor and paint color ideas from these things. I have for 10 years now. I don’t get that from the backstage at the Bottleneck in Lawrence.”

Increased intimacy with the performer or star is a given at a house concert. There they are, right in front of you. Afterward you can mingle, drink, and talk with the performers, like human beings do. Which, after all, is what we are. As a performer who does house concerts, from my perspective there is an excitement about presenting your “show” to people who genuinely want to hear you that is unrivaled. There is no striving to be heard over bar chatter, no “WOO GIRL!” bachelorette party screams, no murmur of people actively seeking some tush.

It is intoxicating.

In addition, the intimacy of being in a home is itself both solacing and stimulating. Unlike many dive bars I have played (I played one last week where the bar owner had removed all the lightbulbs from the bathrooms to save money), there is a bathroom with decent lighting where you can put in your contacts and get your makeup on. There is a clean bed to lay your guitar case on, and often a dog or cat to pet, to make you feel human and welcome.

“The most common sentence I have heard in my travels?” Graham asks. “Without a doubt: ‘I hope you like cats!’”

Hosts usually also provide some sort of food for all, ranging from gourmet spreads to having a food trailer set up in the driveway. It adds to the special, once-in-a-lifetime-event vibe. The majority of home concerts are BYOB, but some provide beer, wine, and soft drinks as part of the cover charge—I mean donation—which usually hovers in the $20-$25 range.

My very first house concert was in the home of my first husband’s second wife! Who is a fan of McCarty! Which I wear as a badge of honor—one that says, “How likable is McCarty? She is so likable that her first husband’s second wife likes her! And wants to promote her career!”

She has a lovely, lovely, spacious home in a primo, and I mean primo, location. As I sat in the “second den,” which had been reserved as my green room, drinking whiskey from a flask and waiting for the room to fill, I was also able to reflect on the divergent fortunes of Music Biz professionals vs. the talent. I wouldn’t change anything—I am a star—it’s what I am, and I can’t help it. I am miserable doing anything else. But as I sat there, with charming photographs of my (tragically deceased) first husband looking down at me, I have to say that the level of intimacy was extreme. I had no trouble being very real and vulnerable with the audience.

At house concerts, as fellow musician Rich Brotherton puts it, “the wall between the performer and the audience is pretty much obliterated.”

Kathy McCarty was a founding member and co-leader of the band Glass Eye, for which her idiosyncratic guitar work and songwriting helped garner an enthusiastic following on the indie college rock circuit in the 1980s and 1990s. She has released two highly acclaimed solo albums—Dead Dog’s Eyeball and Another Day in the Sun—and is recording new material for a planned 2020 album release.