St. Paul’s Grand Oak Opry recently announced its summer concert series. Opry concerts take place in the backyard of the St. Paul home of Sean Kershaw and Timothy Hawkins, who put on two concerts last year with great success. The series will begin on June 6 with local favorites One Brown Shoe: an eclectic mix of folk, rock and blues from Dave Boquist, Herb Ward and Lou Bartholome. One Brown Shoe also kicked off last year’s series, which a Facebook reviewer described as “beyond great music.”
There is no cover charge for the Grand Oak Opry; the suggested donation is $10, but Kershaw and Hawkins stress that bringing live music to everybody and making money for the bands is the most important thing.
“We pick up the dog poop, mow the grass and pick up the yard. It’s not a money-maker for us,” Kershaw said. “It’s important for us that all the money people contribute goes to the band.”
The idea for the Grand Oak Opry started when Kershaw and Hawkins put on two concerts in their backyard last summer, which attracted music lovers young and old to their home just off West Seventh Street.
“We had no idea how many people would be there. There were only 40 to 45 people there for the first one,” Kershaw said about the first concert in the summer of 2014. “Dave [Boquist] said he’d love to try it out, and [One Brown Shoe] was nice enough to be the first band to do it.”
Kershaw and Hawkins were inspired to put on the series by their neighbors’ creativity and passion for the arts.
“We have this super creative neighborhood. One of the great things about it is how many people are in the creative field,” Kershaw said. “Our next door neighbor built a timber frame barn in his backyard just using old tools, and he’d hold small concerts there in the wintertime. He invited people to play the fiddle or play Irish music in the loft of his barn and a few of us would come up and listen. Concerts like this aren’t that much of an outlier.”
Their backyard concerts also came from the desire to be able to enjoy live music with their 13-year-old son.
“Music has always been a shared part of our life. We were at the Turf Club one night and thought how much fun it would be for our son to be there,” Kershaw said. “The Turf Club isn’t a great spot for 13-year-olds.”
Thus the Grand Oak Opry was born. It takes its name from Nashville’s renowned Grand Ole Opry, which has hosted country music acts since 1925—its main namesake is the massive oak tree in the backyard.
“The oak tree is the most prominent thing in the whole yard. We think it’s been around for over 200 years,” Kershaw said.
The wide canopy of the oak tree and the historic feel of their pre-Civil-War house give the concerts an intimate atmosphere that traditional venues can’t replicate. Kershaw recalled the idyllic scene at Communist Daughter’s set last summer.
“It was a gorgeous afternoon for Communist Daughter,” Kershaw said. “People brought their kids, blankets, chairs and drinks, and there was a big beautiful oak tree covering everything. The band really appreciated the closeness of the audience.”
Kershaw and Hawkins say they are thrilled about the prospect of hosting local talent at their home, and creating a space where everyone can enjoy live music.
“We’re excited for all the musicians. Part of it is just self-indulgent, that all this great music happens in our yard,” Kershaw said. “The more people that are there, the more energy, the more money for the band.”
Other acts booked for this summer include Brad Senne (June 27), Roe Family Singers (July 25), Communist Daughter (August 15) and The Cactus Blossoms (September 12). Attendees revel in the shows’ understated Midwestern charm, which foster a healthy sense of community among music lovers of all ages. Dancing, lounging, picnicking and making new friends are regular sights at the Opry. As one Facebook commenter observed, “Nothing better than some local, organic, free range music under a big ass oak tree.”
Robb Larson is a student at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.