Bluegrass grows in south Jersey, just down the Garden State Parkway, off Exit 69.
That is, bluegrass music, along with country-western, folk, pinelands, and other traditional genres, together known as the “Sounds of the Jersey Pines.” It’s all in the spotlight every Saturday night, year ‘round, from 7:30 to 11 p.m. at the 350-seat Albert Music Hall in Waretown. It’s been that way for decades at the venue, where musicians take the stage with their acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, upright basses, hammered dulcimers, autoharps, harmonicas, spoons, and, of course, their voices.
Presented by the all-volunteer, non-profit Pinelands Cultural and Historical Preservation Society (PCS), Albert Hall hosts a variety of talented musicians from the tri-state area, who also volunteer their skills. The Saturday night concerts are a true display of equality, where old-timers share the stage with newcomers, and physicians play alongside carpenters. On stage and in the audience at Albert Hall, no one cares about your day job or socioeconomic status as long as you can play.
“They’re all together as one, and only the music is important,” says Elaine Everett, the PCS executive committee’s chairwoman for public relations.
The musicians do it for the love of playing and for the welcoming, respectful audience. It is a real concert hall, where people come to listen thoughtfully — a joy for many musicians who are otherwise used to distractions when playing at noisy clubs or vast outdoor venues.
“There’s lots of interaction between the musicians and the audience,” Everett says. “When the players go off the stage, sometime we’ll hear them shout, ‘Wow that was fun!’ And, every half an hour there’s a different band; typically, there are six sets every Saturday night, so if you don’t like this or that band, get up and have a cup of coffee, and come back a little later.”
Inside the hall, bumper stickers on display read “Piney Power” and other Pinelands-centric themes, and Western-style boots are the choice of footwear.
The congenial audience, which often sings along with the music, and the volunteer staff who do everything from booking the bands to serving homemade banana cream pie and brownies at the snack booth, give Albert Hall an atmosphere that’s a mix of Grand Old Opry and coffeehouse.
The exterior is an homage to a traditional home in the Pinelands, with its peaked roof and generous porch. The stage itself was made to look like the front porch of an old home in the Pinelands and was designed by Roy Everett, Elaine’s husband, longtime PCS president, the PCS webmaster, and a former engineer. In fact, Everett designed the entire building, and working together with Fasolino Contracting Corporation, the current Albert Hall was built in 1996.
Brothers George and Joe Albert — namesakes for the venue — probably did not foresee the current hall, with its air-conditioning, modern practice rooms, and well-equipped stage. The Saturday night “Piney pickin’” first began during the 1950s at the Albert’s deer lodge and cabin, way out in the Pinelands west of Waretown. What became known as the “Home Place” didn’t have running water or electricity but was a welcoming place for musicians who might pick up a banjo or guitar after a day of fishing or hunting.
The performances, which sometimes lasted all night, featured brothers George on fiddle and Joe on washtub bass. Soon word spread about the festivities, and the crowds outgrew the Home Place.
George Albert died in early 1974, but a handful of diehard music lovers rented the Waretown Auction Building on Route 9, and by November of that year the Saturday night tradition was revived. The PCS was founded the following year to oversee musical and educational activities, as well as assist with fund-raising and publicity.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s Albert Hall saw many noteworthy performers, but the most famous was the late Pete Seeger, who played the venue in 1976 and 1980, both times to help raise money for a new building. “We’ve always had a special place in our hearts for him,” Everett says.
A fire destroyed the auction house in the summer of 1992, but the musicians and their audience simply moved outside to the parking lot.
“We passed the bucket around for donations, and one of the local churches donated chairs and whatnot,” Everett says. “Somebody put a rug on the ground, and that was the stage.”
Shortly after the fire, the Priff Elementary School offered its all-purpose room for the Saturday night shows.
In early 1996 the Ocean Township school board donated land adjacent to the Priff School for the new Albert Hall, with groundbreaking and construction continuing throughout the year. The grand opening of the new 6,000-square-foot building and concert hall was January 5, 1997, with more than 1,000 people attending the day of music, which featured some 40 bands.
September, 2000, was a landmark month for the PCS and Albert Music Hall, which were formally established in the Library of Congress Folklife Archives in Washington, D.C. PCS documents, photographs, and audio and video recordings were entered and accepted into the Library of Congress, Bicentennial Local Legacies Project, under the sponsorship of former Congressman Jim Saxton of New Jersey’s Third District.
In the summer of 2007, regular Albert Music Hall performer Jim Murphy was inducted into “America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame” in Anita, Iowa, sharing the honor with such greats as Johnny and June Carter Cash, Hank Williams, and Jimmy Rodgers.
September of 2012 saw the 250,000th person come to the current Albert Music Hall building. “We’re now up to 273,000 visitors since January, 1997,” Everett says. “We also have a database of more than 1,000 musicians.”
A perusal of that database shows legions of musicians and bands, many with Jersey-centric names like the Salt Marsh Serenaders, the Ong’s Hat String Band, What Exit?, and the Pineconers. It was this last group who first drew the Everetts, residents of Middletown, to the venue in southern Ocean County. They came to their first show in 1985 and have hardly missed a Saturday night since.
“Both Roy and I have always liked music, but especially folk and traditional country,” says Everett, a retired educator. “We saw an article about the Pineconers and the Pinelands Cultural Society in the Asbury Park Press. We didn’t know much about bluegrass and whatnot, so it was an education. Now we love every second of it.”
Everett grew up in north Jersey, with a music-loving father who had a sizable collection of 78 rpms, mostly Dixieland jazz.
She and Roy got involved with Albert Hall after seeing a few shows and learning that help was needed. Everett also notes the names and efforts of the Albert Hall’s elected board members besides her husband — Emilie Ahearn, Marion Meredith, Dan Dugan, Kelly Reilly and Jackie Bodine, Joan Hansen, Grant Apgar, and Manny Gomes, who live in Ocean, Monmouth, and Middlesex counties.
“These people spend many, many hours and drive many miles per week working for the Albert Hall, and are very important to its running,” Everett says. “In fact, without them and the huge amount of work they do on a daily basis, the hall could not run.”
Since the early 1990s the PCS has given more than $100,000 in scholarships to students from the Ocean Township school system. “The schools have been very good to us, and this is our way of doing something for them,” Everett says.
One of the PCS’ yearly highlights is the “Legend of the Jersey Devil Night,” with a singing “Jersey Devil” performing during the 8 p.m. set, which this year will be held on Saturday, November 1. Another notable event is the Ocean County Bluegrass Music Festival: the 41st annual festival happens this year at Albert Hall on Sunday, September 7, featuring a leisurely afternoon of pure bluegrass, starting at noon.
Except for the weekends near the Christmas and New Year’s holidays when the music hall is closed, and a couple of times when hurricane winds blew too strong to open the venue, the show has gone on every Saturday night since 1974.
“We had to cancel for a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy,” Everett says. “Many of our regular audience members were greatly affected by the storm because they lived near the water; many lost their homes or had a lot of damage. But as soon as we opened again, the people came back, too, and now we have our old audience back.”
In addition to the regular audience members from the region, Albert Hall has seen visitors from as far away as New Zealand, who likely read about the venue in “Bluegrass Unlimited” magazine, Everett says. Sometimes far-flung music lovers plan their visit as part of their travels along the East Coast. Everett says her own sister insists they all go hear the “Sounds of the Jersey Pines” when she visits from Nebraska.
Of all the sets on a Saturday night, an Albert Hall favorite is often the last one, known as “The Pickin’ Shed Jam,” and features musicians who have played earlier and stayed to jam. It’s a welcoming place for younger musicians to sharpen their talents, and more so, their stage presence.
“We’re all here to help the musicians and further their work, and at the jam the newcomers can watch the others and learn — it’s another way we provide training,” Everett says. “They’re up there with other musicians who are probably strangers, but the newcomers have to pull it together and make music. They know how to play, but they haven’t played in front of an audience, and this way they get to learn how to be comfortable onstage.”
“The audience really looks forward to it, they know the Jam will always be good,” she adds. “I think the ‘Pickin’ Shed Jam’ is the highlight of the night, definitely my favorite. It’s so spontaneous.”
The Pinelands Cultural Historical and Preservation Society, “The Sounds of the Jersey Pines,” a variety of traditional music, every Saturday night, from 7:30 to 11 p.m. at Albert Music Hall, 131 Wells Mills Road, (Route 532), Waretown. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. $5 for adults, $1 for children 11 and under. All proceeds from the concerts and concessions benefit the Pinelands Cultural and Historical Preservation Society and the Albert Music Hall Scholarship Fund. 609-971-1593 or www.alberthall.org.
From the Princeton area: Albert Music Hall is roughly a 90-minute drive. Take I-295 south and I-195 west to Route 539 in Allentown, then merge onto the Garden State Parkway to exit 69 toward Waretown.