Big Talent in a Small Concert Hall
On a show night at Steve’s Guitars, a group of friends who gathered on the sidewalk walks in the door on the corner of 4th and alley. They drop their money into a bucket where the evening’s price is posted. When the stage lights go up, the focal point is a bass drum hanging high in a corner with the words “Green but Growing” hand-painted in a big nostalgic font.
“The Shop”, as it is affectionately called by proprietor Steve Standiford, has seen 750 consecutive weeks of music and about 1500 shows. Perhaps these visitors are here to see a local singer-songwriter showcase or the current “house band” Let Them Roar. Maybe the performer will be a rising star like Hello Doll Face or a world-renowned act like the Steep Canyon Rangers.
After 22 years, the roots of this home-grown concert hall are deep and the music is always fresh.
Standiford and his wife and “not-so-silent partner,” Mary Margaret O’Gara, moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1979 from Southern California. They wanted to start their family in a place “where we could make a positive impact, and see its development,” so they moved to Woody Creek. Steve worked with the Roaring Fork Energy Center, helping to start the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) and Colorado Mountain College’s solar energy program, which spawned Solar Energy International (SEI).
In 1980, Standiford bought two guitars from Wally’s Music on the second floor of Carbondale’s Dinkel Building—a ’62 Gibson Melody Maker and a 60’s Harmony Sovereign—not knowing that the seeds of Steve’s Guitars were being planted.
On show night, when the band begins, the audience’s attention is palpable. Some sit on old movie theater seats, other prefer the cozy couches donated by Mateo Sandate. The front row offers extraordinary intimacy with the performers—on a full night, one’s knees brush the monitors. Every seat offers strong connections and an open exchange between performers and audience. As John Oats of Hall and Oats put it, “I love the spirit in the room itself. It brings me back to the purest form of live performance…no artifice…no fourth wall…just the artist and the audience, together for a single purpose, to celebrate the joy of music.”
Often the audience is moved to a moment of silence as a song ends and one can hear the forest of guitars ringing out together in sympathy with the last note.
On the right kind of night, the audience will pick up their chairs to clear a dance floor. Sometimes a party will spill out into the street as it did for Diego’s Umbrella on a Saturday night during Mountain Fair.
What Part of “Steve’s Guitars” Don’t You Understand?
During Christmas 1993, Standiford asked O’Gara if she thought it might be a good idea to buy Wally’s Music, the shop where he bought those first guitars. With an atypical lack of discussion, she simply said yes.
The two soon opened Sopris Music with a celebratory 12 hours of live music. “We had to finally cut the last act off,” Steve recalls.
Standiford ran Sopris Music as a traditional music store until it moved to its current location and took its current name in 1998, but it has never been typical. Steve says, “When people ask if I ever sell any of the guitars I say, ‘reluctantly'”. Standiford has amassed a collection of more than 200 vintage guitars which, to an uneducated eye, offer a feast of shape and color. Those who know guitars will spot some particular gems. The guitars are Standiford’s retirement plan, but music is the life of the place.
Steve’s daughter, Shannon Standiford-O’Gara, grew up in The Shop. She says she and her friends attended hundreds of shows, always confident that it was their club too. She has been seeing Lipbone Redding since she was eleven. Now in her twenties, she is struck by how The Shop has seen “the whole story” of many wonderful acts and people. An 80-year-old friend made Steve’s Guitars her place to return to society after her husband died.
How can a guitar shop that doesn’t sell guitars stay open? How can one run a music venue that doesn’t include a doorman or a bar?
While Standiford’s vision—a listening room that is about the music, not alcohol sales, a place that is for people of all ages and walks of life—has attracted a devoted community of supporters, it is not without its challenges.
The first time Standiford and O’Gara contemplated closing their doors, a band called Friends of Your Mother stepped up to be “the house band,” playing regularly without payment—playing out of love for the place and its people.
Since then, most local bands and many visitors have done the same. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Oats has played at least six benefits. Harley Stumbaugh helped upgrade the sound gear and Grass Roots TV has loaned a full video rig. With so many folks giving, Standiford has earned the community’s trust.
That trust is generally, but not always, rewarded. O’Gara and Lark “Monk” Allen, who plays the roles of key holder and sometimes “door Nazi”, are sometimes irritated by folks who don’t put the door fee into the jar. They have even had to deal with people who actually helped themselves from the jar!
But the jar remains. The rent continues to get paid. The BYO policy remains in place and the Standiford-O’Gara family continue to feel that it’s worthwhile to carry on. “Do I wish I had the dollars it has taken to keep Steve’s open?” O’Gara asks, “not really”.
When the house lights come up at the night’s end, the audience mingles with the musicians, often eating cookies O’Gara has made. Making one’s way past the remains of what was once Louis Hayes’ luthier shop to “the back room,” a visitor will discover its walls lined with posters of past shows and an extraordinary array of musical knick-knackery.
It’s a kind of musical shrine, and it’s what becomes of one man’s dream when it is combined with the love and contributions of a broad community of musicians and music lovers.
As artist and fan Alleghany Meddows observed of Standiford, “His humility, dedication, and vision are forces which make our world a better place to live.”
Schedules of upcoming events and a newsletter sign-up will be found at StevesGuitars.net. Author Olivia Pevec sings with Steve’s house band Let Them Roar.