By Kim Barto Meeks
A destructive fire at the Rives Theatre could not erase a decade of musical memories.
Musicians who had played at the former movie theater since its rebirth as a live concert venue agreed it was a special place, not only for the building’s acoustic quality, but also due to the enthusiasm and support of music fans in uptown Martinsville, organizers said.
Before the fire on Sept. 8, the lobby walls were covered in posters from past concerts, signed by the artists. One poster from country/bluegrass musician John Cowan read, “I love this theater – 2013.”
That was a common sentiment from musicians, said Rooster Walk Executive Director Johnny Buck. Cowan played at the Rives twice, the second time on tour with one of the Doobie Brothers. “I just remember he was really impressed with not only the theater itself, but the vibe and the love he felt from the fans,” Buck said. “He was struck by the fact that this was in a smaller town, and yet everybody he dealt with, from the production side to the crowd, was extremely engaged.”
Nashville songwriters and musicians Doug and Telisha Williams, who now perform as the Wild Ponies, grew up in Martinsville and were instrumental in launching the local music scene before they moved.
Before holding shows at the Rives Theatre, the Williamses and a small group of friends and family formed the Artisan Cafe nonprofit to bring Americana performers to Martinsville. The first show was held in the basement of the home of Doug (Sr.) and Annelle Williams, Doug Jr.’s parents and grew from there.
When the historic Rives Theatre, which was built in 1928 as a playhouse, was in danger of closing during the recession of the 2000s, the Artisan Cafe joined forces with other interested music fans to try and save the building. The cause attracted the organizers of the Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival, and the combined group of volunteers began holding larger concerts at the theater to raise money.
Even after the duo moved to Nashville to pursue their musical careers, Doug Jr. said, “Telisha and I always loved getting back to play the Rives. We’ve played everywhere – all 50 states and all around the world, but there’s nothing like stepping out onto that stage and feeling the hometown love. We’re really going to miss it.”
One of the earlier concerts in the Rives Theatre’s history was Yarn, now a beloved band that sells large numbers of tickets whenever they come through Martinsville and Henry County. However, their first concert at the Rives only sold 19 tickets in a space that held 250 to 300 people, Buck recalled.
“We joke with them about that first show,” he said, adding that “they caught on really quickly” and developed a devoted local fanbase.
After the Rives fire, Yarn posted the following statement on Facebook: “Many of our greatest friends and fans came from this very place. The love and loyalty the town of Martinsville has shown since our first show here is unparalleled. This place brought us our first of many collaborations with Josh Shilling, it brought us Rooster Walk, Brewster Walk, Will Pannill’s parties up on The Gap, Jay Frith and Pop’s Farm, Johnny Buck, William Baptist, Tom Berry and his killer B3, just so many great times and memories. Too many to list. Those great times and memories will most certainly continue and I’d imagine a new Rives Theatre is already being planned. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the fine folks of Martinsville, is they stand together. As adopted members of this amazing community, we too stand with them and will help in any way we can.”
Grammy-winning musician Josh Shilling, who is originally from Bassett, was still in town on the night of the fire after his performance at Brewster Walk on Sept. 7. He watched from the sidewalk that night as fire crews worked to contain the blaze.
“I hate this. It’s just so sad for so many people,” Shilling said. “Just 24 hours ago, we were inside looking at all the memorabilia from all the shows.”
He estimated he had played the venue eight or 10 times. Growing up in the area, he also had fond memories of the building when it was a movie theater.
“I used to come here as a little boy with my grandparents and watch movies. I remember the lights leading down the hallway to the theater. It felt like getting on a spaceship,” he recalled.
Shilling praised the volunteers and staff who worked to turn the theater into a music venue. “In the past five years alone, the talent they’ve had come through here is amazing,” he said.
Rachel Blankenship-Tucker, a multi-talented instrumentalist, singer and songwriter with the After Jack trio, also shared memories of playing the Rives stage.
“I’ve walked across that stage and stood behind the microphones many times in my life. Every single time, it felt like coming home to a family reunion,” she said. “Even if there were new fans in the audience that you had never met before, they’d leave as family. It was that kind of environment, that intimate.”
The day after the fire, Blankenship-Tucker said, “Much of After Jack’s beginning is tied to the Rives, and tonight we’re reminiscing about the shows we’ve played there, the kindness of the folks who invited us to play, and those who bought tickets to see us there time and again. We’re sad with you, and we love you.”
She said she sees the tragic event as a reminder “to support one another, celebrate with one another, and offer each other our very best.”
Drummer and Martinsville native Camry Harris said the Rives played a formative role in his musical career as well as his personal life. “The Rives Theatre definitely was home. It held my roots tightly here in Martinsville and kept them watered,” he said.
For the past five years, Harris has played music full-time, mostly touring with Marvalous Funkshun and Travis Griggs & Friends. He credited the Rives with “many wonderful memories and great relationships you have helped me build throughout my musical career,” as well as giving him “the push I needed to stretch further than Martinsville and look at the world with no limits.”
Before launching his career, however, Harris remembered the theater for different reasons.
“Not many know, but when my mother passed away, we did a memorial concert here,” he said.
His mother, Trina Harris died on June 14, 2014. In September of that year, the Rives Theatre hosted a benefit show to help him cover the cost of her hospital bills. Harris played with hisd band at the time, which include Riggs Roberson, Griffin Haley, Wenn Harold, and Austin Janey.
“I remember playing on this stage feeling more broken than I ever felt in my life,” Harris said. “I remember crying my eyes out on this stage, but what grew from that pain was even more amazing than anything in this world.”
While organizers of music at the Rives have said it is too early to tell what will become of the venue, many musicians and fans from past shows have expressed their support.
As Doug Williams of the Wild Ponies said after the fire, “Let’s be ready to give back. I have no doubt that the music and community will continue.”
A crowd dances in front of the stage as the funk band Pimps of Joytime plays at the Rives Theatre in April 2011. This was one of the early shows planned by the nonprofit Arts of the Rives Theatre as they worked to turn the historic theater into a live music venue, and “one of the first that started attracting a younger crowd,” said Johnny Buck, one of the organizers.