Scott Cullen — who long ago made the transition from folk music fan to concert presenter — may look like he’s doing business as normal when he presents singer/songwriter Liz Longley on Saturday, March 28, at his usual concert location: the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington’s Crossing in Titusville. But the concert will be the start of his wrapping up 20 years of concert productions with his nonprofit group, Concerts at the Crossing, later this year, with two final shows in October and November at the same venue.
“The last three years have been quite challenging,” says Cullen, 56, from his home in Ewing. “I think audiences now have a lot more ways to spend their money and more ways to find out about concerts going on elsewhere. We’ve had an E-mail newsletter that goes out periodically, but still, the numbers of people coming out have dropped off quite a bit, to be honest.”
Combine that with a dedicated crew of volunteers, and you have a handful of people expending a lot of energy and putting in a lot of effort for not so many people to come out and enjoy the shows.
Cullen and his crew keep scrupulous records. In 2008 and 2009, he said, “we averaged 187.6 people per show. The next year we averaged 145 and then we went up to 165 in 2011, but in 2012-’13 we only averaged 102, and last season we averaged 122. So it’s gotten to the point where it’s harder to get people out to shows, and they’re less willing to take a chance to see new performers like they used to in the past.”
Cullen — whose concerts included folk, folk-pop, folk-rock, and blues-rocks — is quick to credit his core volunteers for sticking with him for most of the last two decades. They include Susan White, Pete Hester, Mary Acciani, Lisa Roth, Ree Smurthwaite, Julie Cullen (his former wife), sound man Ted Klett, and others.
Yet despite the positives regarding support and venue — it is a facility with comfortable chairs and wood paneling that makes for some great concert sound — there has been a change. “It’s starting to feel like a job,” Cullen says. “Our audiences are getting a little older, and we’re competing for their time and dollar.” Cullen mentions the New Hope Winery, which books some of the same acts and attracts the same audience.
Nevertheless, over the years Cullen and his crew have presented a strong list of performers that includes Southside Johnny & the Poor Fools, Edison-born folksinger John Gorka, Pete and Maura Kennedy, Canadian folk-rock duo Dala, New York-based folksinger Christine Lavin, country and folk performer Iris Dement, and blues people Chris Smither, Maria Muldaur, and Odetta. “One of the most gratifying acts to present was Odetta. We had her here twice. The second time we had her here, she was in a wheelchair, and it was really clear to me and my volunteers that we weren’t going to be seeing her again.” She died later that year in December, 2008.
In fall, 1996, Chicago-native singer and songwriter Lucy Kaplansky was the first artist he presented. She still enjoys an active touring and recording career, including duet shows with New Jersey-native guitarist/song writer Richard Shindell. Other musical high points, he says, included having Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Sebastian perform.
Cullen, who works as a writer and editor and specializes in office technology equipment like photocopiers, fax machines, personal computers, modems, and other equipment, was raised in Norwalk, Connecticut. He has an associate’s degree from Norwalk Community College and is largely a self-taught trade magazine editor and writer.
“My parents were not musical at all,” he said, pausing, “and I don’t know how you want to present this, but I grew up in a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family. I have two brothers and a sister who died in 1971 from cystic fibrosis. I’m the oldest. My mother was a housewife.” He adds that his father worked for Connecticut Light and Power and had a problem with alcohol. “I found solace in my room. Like the Beach Boys’ song, I spent a lot of time in my room, and that’s where the passion for music started. I learned to recognize good music, and I’m always looking for something new and exciting. To this day, I’m still always going out to hear new music.”
He says he got into folk and acoustic music by attending shows at a church in Stamford in the late 1980s and early ’90s, before the office technology magazines he was editing moved to Spring Hill, Pennsylvania. “I saw Aztec Two-Step and Christine Lavin at this little church hall in Stamford. I realized there were people like me putting on these shows. After a while I was thinking I could do it, and when I ended up moving with my job in the mid-’90s to New Hope, they had just built the addition to the church here. I remember I said to my wife at the time, ‘this would be a great place to hold concerts.’” Cullen and his first wife were attending concerts in New Hope, the Temperance House in Newtown, and Hightstown.
“We were seeing people like Gorka, (Philadelphia-born singer/songwriter) Vance Gilbert, and (Independent Music Award winning performer) Martin Sexton. I got the bug, I decided I wanted to become a concert promoter,” he says. Cullen then approached the Unitarian Church congregation, and they gave him the green light. For the first six years of Concerts at the Crossing, all shows were fundraisers for the church. After that, he incorporated as a nonprofit organization and monies raised at concerts went into putting on more concerts.
“The church has been very gracious through the years in allowing me to continue hold my concerts there, and I would not have been able to get this series off the ground in the first place without the support of the congregation,” he said. “They really made a difference by coming out the first two and three years.”
Like many with little formal training who enter the music business, Cullen was naive at first. His first season in 1996 and 1997, he presented Kaplansky, singer and songwriter Kate Jacobs, and Sexton, using local musicians as opening acts.
“It turned out to be a lot more work than I imagined. When I started putting these shows on, I kind of said, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And early on, we did get a lot of church members coming out, but that tapered off after a while.” Early sell-out shows included Lavin, Sebastian, Dement, he recalled and “then we had some shows that bombed with 35 or 40 people.”
Cullen says for a number of years in the late 1990s “we were able to get good audiences for obscure performers who hadn’t played this area before. I remember we had Dee Carstenson, who played [Jimi] Hendrix on the harp, among other things. We had 195 people for her.”
“My proudest moment was when we had over 300 people for Dala when they were first here,” he said of the 2009 concert. “It was an act that nobody had ever heard of, but I would play their music on the P.A. before I went up to announce that they were coming soon, and the audience just kind of fell right into my trap,” he recalled. “Dala put on a tremendous show, and we got great press for that concert as well.” Naturally, when a show sells that well, you bring the act back, and Cullen has twice brought Dala back to Concerts at the Crossing. Alas, the audience numbers weren’t as stellar as that first show six years ago.
Cullen is excited about Liz Longley, whom Concerts at the Crossing presents on Saturday, March 28, along with opening act Barnaby Bright. Longley recently signed to a very good independent record label, Sugar Hill Records. The show will be a CD release party.
“I think Liz has great potential to go on in this business,” Cullen says, noting she broke the record for CD sales a Concerts at the Crossing a few years ago when opening for Francis Dunnery. Longley had the most CD sales ever by an opening act when she did more than $1,000 in sales, he noted.
Asked about difficult performers, Cullen said Maria Muldaur didn’t show up for her sound check with her band and came in at the last minute after insisting on coffee with a straw on stage, but then put on a great show and ended up giving him a hug at the end of the night. Her actions and performance made all the extra effort worthwhile.
Cullen said there were only three performers he has had over the years who were total jerks and vowed to never have them back. They shall remain unnamed.
Cullen and his crew of volunteers will close out their 20th season later this year with concerts in October and November. On October 24 they present Garden State perennial favorite John Gorka, raised in Woodbridge, and on November 21, the grand finale show includes four acts that have been very special to the organization: Pete and Maura Kennedy, Tracy Grammer, Jess Klein, and Ellis Paul.
“There were a couple of other people I’d like to have put in there, but their booking agents weren’t as sentimental about the end of this concert series as I was.”
Pressed for memories of other memorable shows he has put on, Cullen recalls when the Canadian folk-rock duo Dala returned to church their second time.
“We had a power outage, and it was just as I was announcing them,” he recalled. “They decided to play anyway, and the first song they were doing was a Joni Mitchell cover. Midway through that first song, the power came back. It was a magic moment inside the church.”
Liz Longley/Barnaby Bright, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington’s Crossing, 268 Washington Crossing Pennington Road, Titusville. Saturday March 28, 7:30 p.m. $20. 609-406-1424 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.