Once the dark, grubby site of an occasional hip-hop night or a small rock show, the Pool Room, at Ninth Street and Iowa in Lawrence, hasn't been much of a draw in recent years. But that appears to be changing. Over the past year, Barnyard Beer — a brewery owned by Andy Agnew and operated by Lawrence residents Mike Hummell and Heath Hoadley — has taken over the venue's annex. Gone is the stained, smelly carpet, and the walls have been cleaned and painted barnyard red. Provided that an upcoming liquor-license renewal goes smoothly, Hummell and Hoadley are about to slap up a Barnyard Beer sign outside and finish transforming the space into a full-on craft brewery — one that books live music.
Hummell envisions the new space as a place where musicians can "play a show just like they were in their backyard," he says. Already, Barnyard Beer has been putting on bluegrass open mics. It's also HQ for the musicians collective called Mudstomp Mondays.
Hank Osterhout organized Mudstomp Mondays on and off for several years at other Lawrence joints, including Dempsey's, the Granada and the Bottleneck. He moved the party to Barnyard last Halloween, owing to what he describes as the inclusiveness and camaraderie of the space. "Plus," says Osterhout, the bass player for local bluegrass stalwart Deadman Flats, "beer and bluegrass are two peas in a pod."
The emphasis at Mudstomp Mondays is on what you might call Kangrass, a rough-edged, localized strain of the genre. "Colorado bluegrass is nice, but it's like dancing in a field of wildflowers," Osterhout says. "Kansas bluegrass is like breaking a whiskey bottle. From there, it gets more traditional the farther east you go." Kansas bands such as Scroat Belly and Split Lip Rayfield have spent the past couple of decades pioneering this sound, with raucous, beer-soaked performances and beat-the-crap-out-of-your-instrument playing.
The Walnut Valley Festival — everybody calls it Winfield, after the southern Kansas town that has been home to the fest for more than 40 years — is a mecca for Sunflower State bluegrass, and its influence is audible and visible in Mudstomp Mondays. At Winfield, there's no electricity and, thus, no amplification, which means the acts must play their guts out to be heard. A byproduct of this high-energy approach: the heightened mutual respect between audience and performer, a dynamic made plain at Mudstomp Mondays. Ditto the liberal notion of what constitutes a stage. At Winfield, much of the music making happens at campsites or in small empty corners. At Mudstomp Mondays, small groups of musicians play together outside the venue's doors, in small empty corners, or just wandering around the bar.
On a recent flyby, local legend and former Scroat Belly member Mike Helvy is onstage, tearing into a guitar in a solo performance. The musicians who trickle in between 8 and 9 p.m. all seem to know one another. They sign up to take the dozen or so open performance slots that night. Most play bluegrass (Kansas style or otherwise), but the night is still an open-mic event, so it also yields rock, folk and even rap.
By 11:30 p.m., the annex is comfortably full, with most of the room occupied by musicians and their friends. On this particular night, one of the performers is 14-year-old Rachel Taylor, a freshman at Shawnee Heights High School, near Topeka. She wears braces and looks even younger than her age, but she betrays no schoolgirl shyness once she takes the stage. She runs through an impressive set of covers and originals as her proud father looks on.
"We want to encourage people like her [Taylor] to come out and do this," Hummell says. "Who knows what she'll be doing in five years. She may not be still interested in this, but she also might be amazing."
At midnight, the stomp in Mudstomp is in full effect as musicians perform in a musical-chairs fashion, trading places and playing traditional songs. Brewmaster Hoadley appreciatively takes it in. He says he feels a kinship with the musicians: "I'm a craftsman, too."
Hoadley's crafts tonight include a golden ale, a delicious Irish red, and a deep musky porter. (He prefers ales — wheats, he says, are too protein-heavy.) He says he plans eventually to bottle the beer, once renovations to the Pool Room are complete and a larger brewing setup can be established in the main bar area. Meanwhile, Barnyard is set to expand the variety of its music offerings. Hummell and Hoadley remain bluegrass lovers at heart, but they've already begun opening up the venue on other nights to different genres, including alt-country and indie rock. Beer and backyards go with those, too.