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If you want to go, think next year

Watermelon Wednesday concerts typically sell out weeks in advance

WEST WHATELY (July 24, 2013) — Whit Smith, Elena James and Jake Erwin, who make up Hot Club of Cowtown, a western swing band from Austin Texas,  perform to a packed house during a Watermelon Wednesday held at the West Whately Chapel while their Corgi, Eva, used to the music, sleeps at the front of the stage. Recorder/Trish Crapo

WEST WHATELY (July 24, 2013) — Whit Smith, Elena James and Jake Erwin, who make up Hot Club of Cowtown, a western swing band from Austin Texas, perform to a packed house during a Watermelon Wednesday held at the West Whately Chapel while their Corgi, Eva, used to the music, sleeps at the front of the stage. Recorder/Trish Crapo

Recorder Staff

WHATELY — Most Wednesdays throughout the summer, acoustic tunes reverberate inside the West Whately Chapel while watermelon slices wait outside for music lovers to emerge during an intermission.

Nationally known and local musicians turn out for the weekly Watermelon Wednesdays concerts, which are a long-established tradition in the Pioneer Valley, running June through September and typically selling out all of the 80 to 90 seats available.

Earlier this summer, Grammy Award-winning Tim O’Brien, a bluegrass musician, strung his guitar and played the fiddle as feet thumped the old church floor, heads bobbed up and down to the acoustic tunes and hands waved fans in the hot summer air.

This was O’Brien’s first Watermelon Wednesdays performance. The small church with its country backdrop was a striking contrast to New York City, where the West Virginia native performed the night before.

“I play all kinds of shows,” said O’Brien as he chewed on a watermelon slice during intermission. “I love them all. I really love the small crowd, like this. It’s like going to church. The people come to the show with an idea they’ll enjoy themselves and have an art experience. My job is easy. We’re already friends.”

Only two shows remain in the season and the next one will be a rare Thursday concert on Sept. 19 featuring Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas. Last will be The Sweetback Sisters, performing for a third Watermelon Wednesday on Sept. 25.

However, both of these shows are already sold out, according to the series’ website. The fact of the matter is, people need to plan early if they want a seat at the West Whately Chapel.

The weekly concert shows began 14 years ago at the small historic white chapel. The chapel, shared between the Whately and Conway congregational churches, sits at the intersection of Conway and Williamsburg roads. The old building has become a community center for Whately and area residents.

At the time, Paul Newlin, who is a Selectboard member, wanted to host dances and potluck dinners at the chapel similar to the Montague Grange. The dances and dinners, however, didn’t take off as planned. Instead, Newlin and a friend, musician Rani Arbo, thought weekly concerts would generate more interest.

“We thought of Watermelon Wednesdays in Whately,” Newlin said. “We thought we could get good groups on Wednesdays because on the weekends they’d be in New York and Boston.”

Newlin connected with big-time agents and began booking national acts, such as Karrin Allyson, a four-time Grammy nominee for jazz music and Sierra Hull, a successful American bluegrass singer.

The music is typically classical, jazz, bluegrass or independent — genres that Newlin enjoys.

“I do this because I love music,” Newlin said. “I enjoy meeting (the musicians). It’s a real pleasure. I love to bring the music I love to people.”

Newlin is also a musician, playing the fiddle and guitar. He found his love of bluegrass in college.

Over the years, the weekly concerts have grown tremendously in popularity. “It gets better and better every year,” Newlin said. “Tickets sell out weeks in advance.”

There are 80 to 90 tickets available each show. Musicians receive 85 percent of the ticket money, while the rest goes toward buying the watermelons.

Sponsors of Watermelon Wednesdays include the First Congregational Church of Whately, Florence Savings Bank, Signature Sounds Recordings in Northampton and Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton.

For more information, and to check for updates on the next season, visit watermelonwednesdays.com.

Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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