- By: Beth Brosnan
- Photography by: Chris Becker
Carol Noonan will be the first to tell you that Stone Mountain Arts Center — the rustic music hall she and her husband, Jeff Flagg, opened in their Brownfield backyard in 2006 — is a little off the beaten path. Located down a dirt road in the rolling hills of western Maine, Stone Mountain Arts Center is, as its T-shirts proudly
proclaim, “SMAC in the middle of nowhere.”
But when the lights go down and the music starts up, middle-of-nowhere Brownfield feels like the center of a small, special universe: an out-of-the-way, out-of-this-world venue that brings top performers and their enthusiastic audiences closer to what matters most — namely, the music. “If you have the chance to play at Stone Mountain Arts Center,” says singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, “you are one lucky musician.”
“People who play music for the right reasons want to play in a place like this, a smaller place where the people are up close and are only there to hear you play music,” adds guitarist Duke Levine, a member of Carpenter’s band and a Stone Mountain regular. With just two hundred seats, Stone Mountain is both small and expansive, thanks to its timber-frame cathedral ceiling and soaring stage windows that offer up views of the surrounding woods and hills. And this small place attracts some very big names. In 2008, Noonan booked close to a hundred acts, including singer-songwriters like Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and John Hiatt; bluegrass and country legends like Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, and Suzy Bogguss; comedians like Paula Poundstone and the Smothers Brothers; and national treasures like Mavis Staples and the Neville Brothers.
“It’s a little paradise,” says Mike Timmins, leader of the alternative rock band the Cowboy Junkies. “I don’t think that we have ever been treated as well, or come across a venue as perfectly tuned to the touring musicians’ sensibilities.”
Noonan’s ear is particularly well attuned because she knows all about the touring life. First as a member of the Boston folk-rock group Knots and Crosses, and then as a Portland-based solo artist who recorded three highly regarded albums for Rounder Records, Noonan has done her time on the road. “And,” she says, with one of her warm, throaty chuckles, “the road sucks.”
So Noonan and Flagg designed Stone Mountain as a respite for road-weary musicians. “We kill them with good food and hospitality, and it makes them feel like they’re home,” says Noonan. Before a band or a performer arrives, Noonan is on the phone with their manager, asking, “What do they like to eat? What would make them happy?” Country star Marty Stuart and his band got a big pork roast and mashed potatoes, but everyone gets a homemade cake bearing the legend “Maine Loves [band name here].”
All that love pays off big time once the acts take the stage. “It’s such a different experience for the performers, because most of them never play small places anymore,” says Noonan. “As soon as they do the first song, there’s this connection that develops. It happens every time. The audience is like, ‘That’s the Neville Brothers, and they’re just ten feet away.’ And the artists feel sort of the same way: ‘We’re in this funny little place, and people are just going crazy.’ ” Lucinda Williams called the crowd at her July 2008 show “one of the best audiences I’ve ever played for.”
By her own reckoning, Noonan is “weirdly qualified to do this particular job.” Born in Peabody, Massachusetts, she grew up singing folk music and studied classical voice at the New England Conservatory. Following her junior year, she took a summer job at Maine’s famed Quisisana Resort on Kezar Lake, where the young staff waits on guests by day and gives musical performances by night. “I fell in love with the area,” Noonan recalls. “I never felt more right in my life than I did there.” She dropped out of the conservatory and ended up running the kitchen at Quisisana for a number of years until she left to focus on her own music, returning briefly to Boston and then buying a home on Peaks Island. It was in Portland that she met Flagg, a commercial fishing-net builder.
In the early 1990s, Noonan and Flagg bought a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in Brownfield and hired Naples timber-framer Andy Buck to build a barn for Flagg’s fishing-net business. Not only was the finished barn handsome, it also had near-perfect acoustics, and as the commercial-fishing industry began to decline, the couple decided to convert it into a concert hall. Says Noonan: “Jeff put his heart and soul into renovating the barn,” including, with help from many of their Brownfield neighbors, literally picking it up and moving it behind their farmhouse. “Only Maine boys would think that’s no big deal,” Noonan marvels.
Big-name talent doesn’t come cheap, and with just two hundred seats to cover artists’ fees, Stone Mountain tickets can run as high as a hundred dollars (although most shows cost considerably less). Noonan says they make no profit on ticket sales; instead, all their revenue comes from the Stone Mountain restaurant, which serves “gourmet comfort food” before each show, along with wine and beer. “We make no money, basically,” Noonan says. “All we want to do is pay our mortgage, put the shows on, and then we’re happy.” And so is everyone else.
If You Go
Stone Mountain Arts,
695 Dug Way Rd., Brownfield.