isit in the half-dark of the audience, hoping the shadows shield my face from view. The stage lights go up as the band walks out. These musicians have done this countless nights, for decades. They’ve done this in big auditoriums and at the Grand Ole Opry. They’ve done this in Europe and Asia. Now they’re in western Maine, in a 200-seat, 200-year-old barn, yet I still feel the anticipation and their nerves as each musician picks up an instrument—guitar, fiddle, bass, drumsticks—and adjusts their mics. I know I’m going to cry. I always cry. I just don’t want it to be a messy cry.
The lead lifts his eyes, smirks a half grin, and counts them in. On cue, I feel the rush of the sound hit my body. The vibrations of the drumbeat. The bow on the fiddle. The mix of amplified chords—and best, the waves of harmonized voices. Yep, and the tears. Damn, I wish that didn’t happen. But it always does. I drop my chin to my chest until I can gain control and wipe my eyes and nose without being noticed. Then I can breathe again, and squeeze my husband’s hand, who knows to give me this time until I surface. I get the crying out of the way and relax into the music.
It was a leap of faith that led Carol Noonan and her husband, Jeff Flagg, to believe they could lure musicians and audiences out to this remote place in Brownfield, Maine. Stone Mountain Arts Center (SMAC), owned and run by Noonan and Flagg since 2006, now attracts legendary musicians such as Lyle Lovett, Mavis Staples, and Béla Fleck to their stage in this magical part of nowhere. Comedian Paula Poundstone makes her way out to Brownsfield at least once a year, as well. Carol and Jeff live in a small house at the top of a gravel road on Stone Mountain. The barn where these performers play is in their backyard, three steps from their backdoor.
Even with that leap of faith, Carol and Jeff had no misconceptions of the risks they were taking opening a music venue on a road named Dugway so far west in Maine it’s practically in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Carol, after so many years on the road with her popular ’90s band Knots and Crosses and her subsequent solo career, was done with music touring; she wanted to stay put. Jeff, a commercial fishing net maker, was also ready for a change and signed on for the dream. They had a vision that if they brought the best musicians to the best venue, audiences would show up. And as a result, they’d be bringing good-paying, year-round jobs to the community.
Carol also learned from her side gigs as a musician how to feed people right. The kitchen now brims with colossal comfort foods like lobster stacks and beef stroganoff, flatbread pizza and giant salads for dining pre-show. The servers and hosts—the loyal and long-standing SMAC team who also sell tickets, cook, tend bar and clean up—are fast and efficient, delivering heaps of the best nachos and veggie chili and your favorite cocktail, local beer or bottle of wine to your table. If they don’t already know you by name, by the end of the evening they will. Seeing these familiar faces each time we go to a show is like a reunion with friends.
Full disclosure: I got married at SMAC in 2006, the year the barn opened. And my husband, Dean, was the architect, designing the layout of the stage, seating, kitchen, balcony and the famous greenroom. So of course I love this place. I stood saying my vows in the exact place where the Indigo Girls have since played. In that same spot, Richard Thompson sang about Red Molly, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason performed “Ashokan Farewell” and Keb’ Mo’ blues’d the house down. Our wedding dinner was where I’ve now sat numerous times, 20 feet from the stage, blown away, for example, by Rhiannon Giddens pouring out her soulful vocals. (P.S. You too can get married on stage in this beautiful barn!)
I imagine these musicians are attracted to SMAC for many of the same reasons I am. It’s cozy; it’s intimate. The acoustics are amazing. One step inside the doors of the timber-frame barn, where heavy dark wood meets strings of warm white lights, life calms down. In this venue, every performance is personal and up-close. The onstage banter is easy and relaxed, like you’re in a living room. The audience feeds the musicians with direct energy, and the electricity of the music has nowhere to go but right through you.
Every musician I’ve seen at SMAC, at some point in the show, talks about the greenroom, the room downstairs beneath the stage where the performers hang out while they wait to go on. Every theater has a greenroom, apparently, but it’s a rare one that warrants such affectionate onstage mention. There’s a cozy, woody feel there too, along with big, comfy chairs and a billiard table to while away some time and calm some nerves before going on stage. There’s a record table, with all kinds of vinyl collected over the years—enough to make a musician’s heart beat faster. Dinner is brought down, including all the good stuff the kitchen has to offer.
The greenroom experience is deliberate, according to Carol. She has seen plenty of drab fluorescent-lit greenrooms herself, during her years of touring. She couldn’t not provide the best for her guest musicians, just as she brings the best to her audiences, making everyone feel welcomed and cared for.
It’s all done right, and it’s all done by hand. Jeff takes care of the barns, now two of them side-by-side since 2010, enhancing, adding, upgrading every table, bar, corner and nook. Jeff’s “projects” never cease. Just this year, the Queen Post Café was added, serving dinner on weekends and show nights. And you’ll see Jeff in the kitchen too, along with Carol and the team, prepping and plating food. Just as the show is about to begin, Jeff walks around dimming the lights.
Carol still writes songs and performs, though it’s much less frequent these days given her time promoting other artists 52 weeks a year. She and her house band, the Stone Mountain Boys with Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, play sold-out shows before the holidays, called Stone Mountain LIVE Christmas. You have to jump fast to get these tickets when they are announced.
The holidays wrap SMAC in warmth that makes me want to set up a cot and stay in the balcony of the barn for a week. My little stowaway fantasy aside, every season brings a stunning beauty to the barn. Summer lets the late evening sunlight filter through the cathedral-like windows on the back of the stage. Fall brings fiery reds, oranges and golds to the mountain. Snow piles to the roof in winter, and the frost heaves on the roads in the spring are an adventure all to themselves.
While audiences are now coming back to SMAC and shows are filling up, Carol and the gang did a major pivot in the spring of 2020 to keep the lights on, keep the staff working and continue to nourish the community, in this case, literally. Instead of concerts they did curbside, (“Fatten the curb!” as they called it.) Instead of performances they did plates—plates and brown boxes of their takeout for folks like Dean and me who were hungry to have that comfort and connection. And the brown boxes also brought food to local families, a hundred or more in Brownfield and beyond, every week. Every meal purchased supported another gigantic meal delivered to a family in need in the cold, winter months.
SMAC, remote as it is, is a gathering place that looks out for its neighbors and guests. And, while it’s clearly off the touring circuit for these well-known performers, that’s equally the attraction: It’s delectably unplugged. Be careful getting there, though. The SMAC website warns in all caps not to use GPS to get to the concert. If you do, you’ll end up on a logging road, off in the willy wacks, as we like to say.
But trust me: If you follow the directions, you’ll get there, no problem. And in that high-ceiling barn with the cozy wood and dimmed lights, when dinner is done and cleared away, and the hush settles in, I wonder how many people besides me tear up at the first sound of the voices. I wonder how many people feel the magic run through them, get gently pushed over into another realm, and have a messy cry in the half-dark of the room.
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CAROL NOONAN found some time to answer a few questions about the joys and realities of the music world and running a business in Maine.
(Photo: David Griffin)
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You and Jeff work three steps from your home. What does “home” mean to you and him these days?
Home means working a lot, but for me, I get to sleep in my own bed every night instead of being on the road. For both of us, it’s an extended family of staff and great music in our backyard.
Do you have a performer you would most like to lure to SMAC? Maybe if we put it out to the universe, it will happen...
Willie Nelson for sure and I would love to have Brandi Carlisle back again, but she has gotten so huge since she came to us, she might be out of reach now. It was one of the best shows I have ever seen in my life when she was here.
What’s an everyday moment of what you love most about SMAC?
Just before the show starts… it’s always nutty and exciting.
Your team has been with you for many years—some since the very beginning. What’s the mix that allows this to happen?
A few things: the location for some, the music for some, and the uniqueness, I guess. They are all a weird little band.
You’re so busy running the place, I’m guessing you don’t get to sing and perform as much as you’d like to. Is there anything that has brought you as much joy (or more joy) than singing and performing these past few years?
This year I got to really rethink the space while we reinvented ourselves. And that tapped a lot of what I love: salvaging, flea-marketing, knickknacking, creating welcoming spaces.
Fifteen years of SMAC (and 15 years since Dean and I got married there!)! After knocking on wood that we made it through 2020, what have you done to celebrate the milestone?
July 31, we did a show with my band!
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