Certain towns in northern New Hampshire are becoming destinations for artists. But why? And can music fuel community development and growth?
Jason Tors thinks so. He’s the owner and artist behind the Loading Dock in Littleton. It’s an unlikely space for music.
“I was instantly attracted to it because it was super raw, had brick walls and exposed ceilings and felt like something that I would find in New York City or Brooklyn,” said Tors of the former newspaper storeroom that now houses his business.
In the past four years, Tors and a handful of volunteers have created a place for up and coming artists to perform. He's also tried to encourage more people to move north. Inspired by a 1960s ad campaign that read "Nebraska Needs You," Tors made buttons with an image of Mount Lafayette and the words "The North Country Needs You."
"And the idea is to try and draw out some of these younger folks with, you know, horizon broadening experiences and bring them into rural areas," he explained.
Arts aren't something people tend to think of when they think of the North Country, says Kate Griffin, director of the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire. “You know, people come here to hike to snowmobile, to ride ATV trails, all that kind of thing. And that is absolutely true. But the arts and culture sector is actually really thriving here.”
For bands just starting to make waves by touring through the Northeast, Littleton makes for a great place to hone their craft through performance. It’s also ideally located.
“You know, we're equidistant between Boston and Montreal or Portland and Burlington,” Tors said.
But while the scene is thriving right now, it’s not necessarily a new thing.
“Going back to the days of, you know, artists coming to the White Mountains, but more recently than that, even thinking about lots of folks who migrated here and settled here in the 70s, who brought all kinds of artistic endeavors to the region. And I think there's sort of a generational pattern of like renewing around those arts, because there really has been a ton of stuff happen over the last 10 to 15 years that has cropped up,” explained Griffin.
One group that’s been making music in the North Country for generations is the North Country Chamber Players. Director Ronnie Bauch has been there since the beginning.
“In the first summer, we had a summer festival of two weeks, and that has expanded over the decades to now We do six weeks of concerts in the summer and then we do programs all all year round,” said Bauch.
Over the years, the Chamber Players have performed for over 80,000 New Hampshire students; everything from high schools in Berlin to one-room schoolhouses in Stark. For some kids, it’s the first time they’re seeing a bassoon or oboe. Ronnie remembers a visit to one elementary school.
“So one kid raises his hand and says, ‘excuse me, if you guys are so great, why are you playing here?’ Of course, we chuckled, but we said, because, ‘you know, you guys are just as important as any audience that we play for in Vienna or in Tokyo or New York. It doesn't matter where we are. You're listeners. And that's that's what's important to us," Bauch said.
Among the people drawn to the North Country music scene is Andrew Maki.
“If you had told me five years ago, I would want to move to the north country of New Hampshire, you know, I might not have believed you,” said Maki.
Maki grew up in Claremont and decided to move to Littleton and open a barber shop after visiting the Loading Dock. The two soon teamed up on a joint artistic venture.
“Hey, I got this crazy idea to do kind of a, you know, a la Tiny Desk style concert in the barbershop,” said Maki.
The "crazy" idea became “The Last Cut,” a web series recorded in the barber shop with visiting bands.
“It's worked out pretty well because the last few times we've been loading in, literally the last cut of the day is happening as we're loading a soundboard into that barbershop, which is a little confusing for our last customer of the day,” said Tors.
Kate Griffin says that the creative sector is a “real economic driver,” creating new businesses and attracting new residents.
Tors tells the story of a young woman from Exeter who visited a show and was so impressed by the venue and performances, she told him she was thinking about moving to the area.
“And I think that, like we may have converted her that night just by, you know, having live music and, you know, that's a pretty powerful thing."