Like many live music venues, the Albert Music Hall in Waretown has struggled since the pandemic began nearly three years ago. A New Jersey institution that celebrates old-timey tunes and Pine Barrens folklore, the nonprofit venue is the Garden State’s answer to the Grand Ole Opry.
The hall has endured for decades, coming back from fires and hurricane damage, but COVID is proving to be a whole other challenge. It was shuttered for months during the first two years of the pandemic, holding outdoor summer shows when the weather complied. It lacked the staff to open the Pickin’ Shed next to the hall and couldn’t serve up its signature hot dogs and sauerkraut. Although the venue has resumed its regular slate of Saturday shows year-round, replete with hot dogs, the pandemic continues to impact attendance and the volunteer base.
That’s why it is starting the new year with a matinee fundraiser on Jan. 8 called “The Hootenanny in the Pines,” featuring nine bands and an open jam. Tickets are just $10 for a full day of bluegrass, country, folk and four-part harmonies. Proceeds will go towards updating the sound system and other improvements.
The Albert Music Hall grew out of an unheated hunting lodge deep in the spindly woods where amateur bands would jam during the 1950s, singing songs of sugar sand roads, the Mt. Holly Jail and, of course, the region’s famed flying mascot, the Jersey Devil. The owners of the cabin, George and Joe Albert, were factory workers from Sayreville who moonlighted as musicians, playing fiddle and washtub bass, respectively. The cabin was nicknamed the Home Place.
Home Place bands were honing their own South Jersey sound with banjos, mandolins, dobros and spoons back when Bruce Springsteen was in feet pajamas and Frank Sinatra had left Hoboken for Hollywood.
After George Albert died in 1974, the cabin players organized a Saturday night concert series called “Sounds of the Jersey Pines” in his memory. That series continues to this day. No one gets paid to perform at the hall. It is operated by the all-volunteer Pinelands Cultural Society. Roy Everett, a lifetime member of the Albert Music Hall and President of the Pinelands Cultural Society, died in 2018. His wife, Elaine Everett, now leads the organization.
The original Home Place burned down in 1988, prompting a move to the Waretown Auction building, which also was destroyed by fire in 1992. Its temporary home was the Frederic A. Priff Elementary School until the current building opened in 1997.
The hall is a 300-seat theater with a stage built to resemble the Albert brothers’ rustic deer cabin. In addition to its weekly showcases, it also hosts annual specials including an Irish jam, a Ladies of County night and a Jersey Devil Halloween show featuring a cameo from the winged monster.
I talked to Danielle Marrone, PR director for the venue and author of “Sounds of the Jersey Pines: The History of the Pinelands Cultural Society and Albert Music Hall.” A singer and guitarist, she will take the stage at the Hootenanny as a member of Redbird & Raven.
Q. What do you think has contributed to the longevity of the hall?
A. Its camaraderie. The hall gives people a warm feeling of togetherness. Albert Hall is so much more than a building. It’s a community. People get to leave with that sacred, old-fashioned feeling, which is why we don’t want to modernize too much. There are certain things we have to update, but we want to stay true to that feeling, just like what the Albert brothers had in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a little tight right now. Our attendance has been down because people are still afraid to come out. We haven’t been able to have our steady influx of volunteers.
Q. How did you first get involved with the venue?
A. In 2016, I got an invite to see friends of mine playing there and I fell in love with the place. How many places do you know that have survived for more than 40 years where no one gets paid? People make a connection with the place. Some people have their connection with the music. Some people have their connection with the history, which is where I’ve really found my connection. Some people come because it’s a nice cheap $5 night and they bring their kids. Some people remember coming with their grandparents and their parents. And there are some people that come one time and it’s not for them, but the ones that return come back because they have some sort of connection.
Q. You connected with the history?
A. It’s an amazing place that was created by musicians. They weren’t business people. They weren’t looking to change the world, just their little part of it. They wanted to preserve this music and preserve this feeling. They wanted people to know what it was like to go down to Joe’s on a Saturday night. When they first started going to the cabin, it would take eight hours to get from Sayreville to Waretown. The cabin has no electricity, no running water. They used wood for the stove and oil for the lamps. They would hunt during the day, and at night, to pass the time, they played music. George was a master fiddle player and he created this washtub bass for his brother that was nicknamed the Gut Bucket. Their friend Sammy Hunt played a homemade banjo. At 10 p.m., they’d put on the coffee and serve cake and just sit and play. By the ’70s, there were thousands of people who had come onto their property.
Q. A lot of people associate New Jersey with Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi or hip-hop. New Jersey sometimes gets short shrift because people don’t realize that there are all different kinds of music that come from the state. Is it also part of your mission to represent that New Jersey has a lot more going on than people might think?
A. We want the world to know Jersey’s more than just Asbury Park. Nothing wrong with Asbury, but we’re a little bit bigger than just Asbury. We always say Albert Music Hall is the best country and bluegrass music this side of the Mason-Dixon line. But Albert Hall’s not just country and bluegrass. The original Albert brothers were playing standards from the ’20s and ’30s. They were playing anything people could sing together. That became our Pinelands music. You had a song about the cedar swamps. You had a song, “Come on Down to Waretown,” about Albert Hall. You had Merce Ridgeway & the Pinehawkers. You had the Pineconers. These bands were playing songs that told the history of the area.
Q. How would you compare like Pinelands music with bluegrass from Kentucky? Do you think that musically there’s a little bit of a difference between the bands that play at Albert Hall and the bands that play down in the South?
A. A band like Merce Ridgeway & the Pinehawkers, their style had that bluegrass twang but it was more traditional folk. Pinelands music is a little more bluesy, a little more swampy. It doesn’t matter if you’re here or in Kentucky or Appalachia, each region is going to have their own take on it. The music that you hear at Albert Hall is not a watered-down version of bluegrass. It’s just a more regional version of bluegrass.
Q. Were you interested in this style of music before you became involved with the Albert Hall?
A. I didn’t know about Pinelands music. I was interested in country. Once I started digging into the history, I discovered songs like “Forked River Mountain Blues” and “Piney’s Lament,” where they talk about how their life has changed, how all the people from North Jersey are coming down because they love the beauty of the area, but then they want it to change. They love our beautiful lakes but then they say, “Put in a mall,” or, “Put up a traffic light.” So when you listen to those songs, you’re like, “Wow, you see this was going on even back in the ’70s.” And it still goes on today.
Q. The times I visited the venue, I passed a Wawa on the way but it was still pretty remote. That was eight years ago and a lot can change in eight years.
A. They’re building up the area so much. The people that are moving in, they don’t know about Albert Hall, they don’t know about the history. So this is what we’re trying to preserve. During COVID, a lot of people left New York City and came down here. They’re building condos and the old-timers don’t want it. They want their cedar swamps and their old-fashioned ways. They don’t want big huge developments and strip malls.
Q. What I love about Albert Hall is that you don’t even feel like you’re in New Jersey.
A. It still feels like that. It’s like you’re in Joe’s backyard or on Joe’s porch. But now when you pull out of the parking lot, you’re in a developed area.
Q. Is there any silver lining: that some of the folks who are moving down there might develop an appreciation of it and you might have a new audience?
A. We do see that a lot of the newer audiences coming in, once they find out about the place and they find out about the area, they respect it. It goes beyond the music scene. It’s the history and the traditions of a beautiful place. Our audience, everybody always calls it the audience of gold. When you go on that stage, they’re there for you. You’re not performing for them, you’re performing with them.
For more on the Jan. 8 benefit and other Albert Music Hall shows, visit alberthall.org.
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