The Front Porch’s Emily Morrison wants artists of all backgrounds to find peace at the roots music school she founded in 2015. With help from friends, Morrison began the school in a back room in her home and soon moved into a space at Mountaintop Montessori. Last June the nonprofit moved into the old Michie Theater space on Water Street East. Morrison says the school offers a service she couldn’t find locally as a burgeoning banjo player—a space to host jams, performances and lessons in genres ranging from bluegrass to African dance.
“The essence of what we’re trying to do at The Front Porch is encourage people to sit together and share inspiration, stories from their background and what moves them—to bring the songs they want to learn to the table and play with other people,” she says.
Since childhood, Morrison has felt drawn to the Appalachian sound and language of roots music. That’s not what excites her most about music-making, though—it’s the merging and blending of genres that happens over time as cultural pasts converge.
“There’s a source of music here that’s worth exploring,” Morrison says. “But, there are many other cultural groups with musical histories that are valid, important and should be celebrated.”
Upcoming at The Front Porch
An Evening with the Darrell Rose Power Trio
Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer concert and workshops
Songwriting class with Jesse Harper of Love Canon
West African dance class
Starry Mountain Singers
Sunny Mountain Serenaders
Morrison sees an increasing need for artists to have a peaceful place to communicate through the language of art, especially since words in today’s world can be so divisive, she says. Devon Sproule, a guitar and songwriting teacher who recently joined The Front Porch, describes her methodology as “musical mentoring.” Sproule sees music as therapeutic, and says she helps students process life’s joys and pains through creative writing.
“The Front Porch’s path is the same as that: It’s about connecting people and people enjoying music for the experience, not for competition,” Sproule says.
Pete Vigour has taught music for 30 years, tours internationally and teaches clawhammer banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar at The Front Porch.
“The philosophy to be inclusive of people of different backgrounds, ages and socio-economic background is quite exciting,” Vigour says.
To make The Front Porch more inclusive and accessible, executive director Morrison and board chair Angel Gunn plan to increase funding for student scholarships and strengthen partnerships with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and International Neighbors, a nonprofit providing support for refugees and immigrants.
A number of “champions,” Gunn says, have been instrumental in the move to the downtown location. They began full-scale renovations by creating a large multi-purpose room that connects to classrooms and installed new dance floors, though Gunn says there’s still much to be done.
“We were given a raw space and we’re so grateful for it, but it was a puppet theater,” Gunn says. “There was a little stage and miniature bench seats for 4-year-olds. …We said, ‘Okay, we can fit 10 people in this space.’” Gunn says acoustic improvements and other renovations will continue in order to match the caliber of The Front Porch’s performers and teachers.
Fitting the bill for that quality are Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, who perform and host ukulele and guitar workshops. After meeting in 1980 at a Toronto folk festival, and receiving mentorship from musicians such as Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton, Fink and Marxer went on to play at hundreds of festivals and garnered two Grammys for their style of music that they call “well-rounded Americana.” The duo married in 2012, “pretty much as soon as we could,” Fink says. At their wedding, Fink, Marxer and Paxton performed Paxton’s “You Are Love” together, and Marxer says there was not one dry eye in the room.
“Roots music and activism have always gone hand in hand,” Fink says. “What we do as artists is distill the world’s complication and make it feel like we can do something positive with it—to make good music that inspires people.”
Their new album, Get Up and Do Right, aligns with The Front Porch’s mission to celebrate cultural exchange and tradition. They look forward to performing and teaching in Charlottesville, where Marxer says she sees a tremendous amount of talent and musicality.
“The list is long in how we’ve received support,” says Morrison. “It’s really been a beautiful experience.”