NEWS-Prism renewal: Former local icon moves south

A year after the Prism Coffeehouse vacated its home at 214 Rugby Road, and three months after a board member promised the organization would return, there's good news and bad news for Prism fans. The non-smoking, non-drinking nonprofit has resumed operations, announcing in a mass email last week that it will be sponsoring a concert on May 5 by famed Irish piper Paddy Keenan. The bad news: local fans will need to fill up before heading to the show.

"The Prism, formerly of 214 Rugby Road, in Charlottesville," announced the email, also posted on the website, "has moved its operation to the beautiful mountains of Patrick County, Virginia."

That the Prism has settled outside Charlottesville is not a surprise. In January 2006– following two years of infighting between board members, volunteers, and the allegedly hot-tempered artistic director– the Prism announced plans to relocate to the former O'Dell's restaurant space in Gordonsville. When that deal fell through, the Prism was unable to renogotiate a lease with Westminster Presbyterian Church, its local landlord for 40 years. Moving to Gordonsville didn't appear to bother fans, but even those who spent years involved with the Prism say they hadn't heard anything about a new venue three hours south.

"That's new to me," says Jim Childress, a fiddle player and one-time Prism board member who is a founding member of the new 214 Community Arts Center at 214 Rugby. 

Of the new Patrick County venue, "I don't know a thing about it other than what I read on its website," says Kathleen Hogan, a long-time Prism volunteer who remained friends with former artistic director Fred Boyce throughout the controversy.

The birthplace of Civil War General J.E.B. Stuart, Miller Center director and former governor Gerald Baliles, and former attorney general Mary Sue Terry, Patrick County is 450 square miles of scenic mountain overlooks, wineries, and working farms. Nearly 200 miles south of Charlottesville and nestled against the North Carolina border, the county had a 2000 population of approximately 20,000, but it's now at least 20,002, thanks to the arrival of Boyce and his partner, Kenyon Hunter. 

The couple did not respond to the Hook's request for comment, but Joe Ayers, who is still chair of the Prism although he lives in Fluvanna County, says the couple have family connections in Patrick and moved down soon after the last Charlottesville show at the local venue in March 2006. 

But the Prism's relocation is about more than convenience for Boyce and Hunter, Ayers says, citing the county's deep musical tradition. In fact, the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, a 500-plus-mile historical by-way, wends across the western and southern borders of Virginia and through the Prism's new home base in Stuart. Along the trail are museums, shops, and small performance venues showcasing bluegrass and other traditional Virginian musical genres. In nearby Critz, the historic Reynolds Homestead has long played host to festivals and concerts, and in fact, the Paddy Keenan show is a joint venture between Reynolds and the Prism.

According to the Prism email, the performance space at the Reynolds Homestead accommodates more than 200. The email points out a few other perks of the manor house, built in 1843, that may also be subtle digs at the former Prism space: "superb" acoustics, a baby grand piano, and a welcome lack of distractions "with no buses, motorcycles or frat parties roaring by during the music!" 

Teaming up with the Reynolds Homestead is "an opportunity that presented itself," says Ayers, who expresses excitement that the Prism's renaissance should occur in the birthplace of the music it promotes. But while the Reynolds Homestead is an attractive partner for presenting concerts, Ayers insists the setting of this first concert should not be seen as limiting future Prism-sponsored performances to that area. In fact, says Ayers, the Prism's five-member board is currently recruiting new board members from across the state with the goal of bringing traditional music to venues in far-flung locations.

"We'd like to have a presence in Charlottesville," he adds.

 Guitar whiz Jay Pun, who performed at the Prism shortly before it closed shop on Rugby, says he's in "total support of Fred and Kenyon presenting concerts." As for the nomadic nature of the reinstated Prism, "I don't think it really matters," says Pun, who recently came to the Prism's defense when a new group calling itself Prism Community Arts Center announced it would be occupying 214 Rugby Road. 

That group– which changed its name to 214 Community Arts Center when it appeared that the old Prism might object– has begun sponsoring shows and classes in traditional music in the Rugby Road house. "We're having good success and getting more and more people involved with old-time, bluegrass, klezmer, country, and Irish music," says Childress, who promises "much more to come."

Ayers says he hopes the Prism's new direction coupled with the success of 214 Community Arts Center in the old Prism space signals a new, peaceful era for lovers of traditional music in Charlottesville.

It's time, says Ayers, "to build bridges, heal. I don't see any future in maintaining hostility." Childress says 214 board members feel the same toward the Prism: "We wish them the best."

Sounds like sweet harmony.

Fred Boyce and Kenyon Hunter take the Prism south to the Crooked Road.