755 8th Avenue South, Naples, FL
If you go: The Kruger Brothers
What: A bluegrass band with a classical music mindset
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Norris Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
COLLIER COUNTY — Bluegrass in Collier County wandered in the wilderness for years. After a heyday in the 1980s, the young folks who made the scene moved on and the sound slowly went away.
“We all got married and had kids and got old,” says Russ Morrison, a local musician and concert promoter. “Things just kind of died.”
But a few years ago, a group of bluegrass lovers headed by Gene Vaccaro started up a weekly showcase in 2007 at an East Trail bar called Donna’s Silver Dollar. They even spent their own money to build a stage for the bands to perform on at the bar.
It was packed from the get-go. The organizers weren’t surprised. A mix of Kentucky and Ohio transplants and local acoustic music buffs have brought a big market for bluegrass and folks, Morrison says.
“There are a lot of bluegrass fans down here,” says Jon Garon, owner of My Favorite Guitars, an online instrument seller.
While Bluegrass Saturday nights were a hit, Donna’s wasn’t. Less than a year after starting their weekly sessions, bluegrass in Naples was again homeless.
“We had to go in there and get all of our equipment out because we were worried the doors would be chained shut,” Morrison says.
This time bluegrass aficionados didn’t have to wait too long for the scene to be reborn. Shelter came in the form of the Norris Center.
Often an afterthought in the local arts scene, the Norris Center offered a convenient space for bluegrass shows downtown and with what seemed like enough seating at the time.
Still it took a while for things to take hold.
“Those first few shows we probably only had 40 or 50 people,” Garon says.
People just didn’t know the concerts were happening. But Morrison got into marketing the shows and things changed. He contacted the acoustic music society. He sought out bluegrass Hall of Famer Dick Spottswood. He called and e-mailed anyone he could think of.
Once the fan base knew the shows existed, then things started picking up. It helped that the quality of performance was being upped at the same time.
Garon had spent a the first half of his adult life playing backup guitar for a lot folk, bluegrass and country acts and had built up a lot of contacts. Although he was in transition to the business side of the music industry, Garon didn’t want to give up playing gigs with professionals.
So he started calling up his friends and playing with them. When he set up his guitar shop in Naples, he started bringing them down to play.
Turns out his picking buddies are Grammy winners and musical savants, such as Clay Hess. Hess has become a frequent visitor to Naples, playing to sold-out shows at the Norris Center.
“We’ve been turning people away from the door,” Garon says.
Booking gifted players such as Hess and the Walker Brothers has opened the doors to other talented musicians. Lou Reid, Sierra Hull and other big bluegrass names have started making their way down to play shows to the 200 rapt audience members at the Norris Center.
“Once we kind of got our name out there, now people are calling us,” Morrison says.
For the Norris Center, bluegrass was a lucrative addition to their repertory. Jennifer Fox, the park manager in charge of the center and adjacent Cambier Park, says it has helped expand the audience for her venue.
“It’s popular with all ages,” she says. “It wasn’t something being offered through other venues. It’s worked out fabulous for us.”
And the Norris Center’s stability has proven a boon for the bluegrass scene. Morrison says the group plans to keep up its monthly slot and to fill in when other things fall through the cracks.
He’s also looking to expand to other venues. Because it only holds 200 people, it’s not the best venue for every show. Morrison is looking at churches and other venues with a bigger capacity.
There have been shows at the flea market in Bonita Springs, run by Vaccaro, and the Bayshore Landing Cafe, whose owner, Robyn Schoessel, is a bluegrass musician in the band Monroe Station. But he sees room for more, as long as the crowds are there.
A big crowd for last weekend’s Claire Lynch show portends more bluegrass fundraisers, which could bring in big names.
And then there’s Morrison’s big, bold idea. He’s hoping to set up a cooperative of bluegrass promoters throughout Florida and south Georgia in order to create a sort of a “fish hook tour.” The idea is to be able offer a band a set number of guaranteed dates and defraying the costs of travel among several venues.
“Right now our budget doesn’t have any money to pay someone to travel from Nashville and stay here in Naples,” he says. “But if we can guarantee them (other) gigs, then we’ll be able to bring in more people.”
As it is, he’s planning on expanding the venues he is promoting, while keeping the Norris Center as a signature showcase for great acoustic music.
“It’s just a great place to hear this music,” he says. “And the people who come are there to hear great players.”