In Smithfield, there’s a song in the air

Published 11:11 am Wednesday, January 17, 2018

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

From toe tapping Americana to the delicate melody of a violin, music of all varieties can be found regularly in Smithfield.

Hamtown has a vibrant and varied musical repertoire that is served under the umbrella of the Isle of Wight County Arts League — the Summer Concert Series, Smithfield Music and Sundays at Four.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Years before Smithfield became a tourist destination, and prior to its downtown renovation in the late 1980s, Smithfield business owners were looking for ways to bring more people to Main Street. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

That’s when the owners of The Smithfield Times, John and Anne Edwards, agreed to allow musicians to perform on the newspaper’s lawn on Friday nights in the summer.

Among of the first to perform that year in 1987, was the Nelson Edwards’ band, who returned two years ago for the series’ 30th anniversary.

While the concert series began as a way to drive traffic downtown, it soon evolved into a summer community activity and has become an important part of the town’s cultural experience, said Smithfield Times Editor and Publisher John Edwards.

“I am particularly pleased that the series has been able to reach a very diverse cross section of county residents. With everything from jazz and blues to bluegrass, we manage to have something for most everybody. In recent years, we have made a particular effort to bring young performers to the stage and to have events for young families. The “Pirate Night” has been hugely successful with parents of very young children,” Edwards said.

It was in 2005 that the Summer Concert Series joined with the Isle of Wight Arts League.

Next on the scene was Smithfield Music, which was founded by Jim and Elaine Abicht more than a decade ago as a way to bring top-notch performers to town, as well as raise money to support music education in Isle of Wight County.

Jim Abicht said they got tired of going to venues where they couldn’t hear the music because the people around them didn’t care to hear it either.

Then they met a man in Myrtle Beach, S.C. who did house concerts and small venues and donated the proceeds to fund music education for inner city youth.

The Abichts decided to do something similar in Isle of Wight County and Smithfield Music was born. The organization got together with the Arts League to take advantage of its non-profit status, Jim said.

Since it began, Smithfield Music has given about $70,000 to Isle of Wight public schools, as well as Isle of Wight Academy, to fund music programs for its students.

Smithfield Music has also provided scholarships to students wanting to pursue music in college, including Smithfield’s Adam Richardson, who is now pursuing a career as an opera singer.

Over the years, Smithfield Music has been able to bring in people, many of whom haven’t necessarily been heard of, but who are responsible for writing big hit songs, Jim said.

The organization has hosted Elliot Lurie, who wrote, “Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl,” performed by Looking Glass, and Dan Navarro, who wrote “We Belong,” as performed by Pat Benatar.

“We’re amazed at the level of talent out there that you’ve never heard of unless you do something like this,” said Jim.

Smithfield Music is probably best known for its annual Aiken Fest, featuring musician Mike Aiken and features workshops and performance outlets as well as concerts by performers of Americana, bluegrass, blues and more.

Mary Cole fueled the passion and dedication that it took to introduce Sundays at Four to Smithfield.

The first concert was in 2008 and featured the Virginia’s Children’s Chorus. The concerts, generally held at Christ Episcopal Church, were devised to bring classical music and jazz to Smithfield through professional artists and outstanding young musicians, Cole said, adding that instructional opportunities are also part of the package.

The small venue at Christ Episcopal provides an “up close and personal” feel for the audience, as well as allowing them to meet the performers afterwards, Cole said.

One unique annual event is the Terrific Teens Concert that includes selected students from southwestern Virginia. Many of those students have gone on to pursue musical careers, Cole said, adding that some plan to return to Smithfield to perform at Sundays at Four again.

Sundays at Four has a board of directors and is also part of the Isle of Wight Arts League.

Now in its tenth year, Sundays at Four is attracting audiences from as far north as Richmond and south to North Carolina.

“This season we had standing room only audiences for most concerts,” Cole said.

However, community involvement is vital for these venues to continue, said local arts enthusiast Elaine Dairo, who has served in leadership positions with the Smithfield Little Theatre and the Arts League.

“We have a lot going on in Smithfield — something for everyone. The key is identifying what’s most important to the majority and providing it … A few wealthy contributors can keep you afloat for a while; those that refuse to let these venues die. In the long run we need community support to thrive,” Dairo said.  

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series on the arts in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County. Next week focuses on the Smithfield Little Theatre.