“I’ve always had music.” Stephen Crawford tells me. He’s standing before a neatly-stacked wall of plastic jewel cases. It’s his monument: a trophy case of EPs, albums, and mixtapes from every player and performer that’s set foot in Del Norte’s Wildwood Sounds over the years. “Music has always been my vibe,” he grins through a long white beard that runs down his chest.
Konnie Martin is beside him. A glimmer crowds her eye as she recounts her own relationship with music: Her high school casting as Graziella in West Side Story, or her time in the church choir. Or falling in love with Stephen, all those years ago, sitting in the sun outside his woodshop and strumming out chords on an acoustic guitar.
For Stephen and Konnie, opening a rural music venue was never a part of the plan. In the beginning, it was just a casual jam with another couple from town. But it quickly evolved into a regular event, drawing as many as 30 people on some nights, sharing songs, banging on drums, and building themselves into a community of small-town music lovers who had no other place to get their fix.
So they started booking shows.
20 years later, Konnie still seems surprised by it: “All of a sudden, there it was. Our way to keep enjoying music while also giving something to our community.”
It’s easy to see why people like playing here. The room is small, but not cramped. The acoustics are tight. Five rows of vintage theater seats are laid out in brief ranks before a modest hardwood stage. The vibe is relaxed, and warm, something you might call ‘high desert bungalow’. The place is ornamented with ravens, etched subtly into the woodwork or hanging on painted canvas. It’s a small joint for a small town … The type of town that Condé Nast Traveler can call “sleepy” and “latest corner of cool” in the same breath.
Neither descriptor would be wrong when it comes to Del Norte. Neither is entirely correct, either.
On a typical night, the Wildwood stage might be occupied by one of the valley’s hyper-local bands, like the Alamosa oldies/rock outfit Blue Sky. Other nights hosted front-range familiars like Taarka, Pete Kartsounes, and Bonnie and the Clydes. Shows like these draw loyalists from as far away as Denver and Albuquerque, and can sell out weeks in advance.
With 50-some-odd seats, there’s a hard limit to the type of band that can make a Wildwood booking work. But for the independent highway musician, gigging their way across the American southwest to the more active scenes of Denver, Durango, and Austin, a venue like this is an invaluable opportunity to hone an act, stay sharp, or just keep the gas tank full.
“It’s not like we’re going to pack the house every time,” Stephen says. “But musicians love playing here.”
No longer the only game in town, Wildwood faces new complications that have made it more difficult to get by. Weathering the pandemic was one thing, a trial that claimed victory over a number of independent venues across the country. Now, the challenge for Stephen and Konnie is re-emerging into a changed rural landscape, where front range transplants have brought new faces, investments, and sounds into a valley that once was a little more quiet.
These days, it’s not difficult to find some live music in Del Norte. On a given Thursday, for example, you could find yourself walking into three no-cost shows: One at the farmer’s market, one at the town’s music in the park series, and another at the Windsor Hotel or the brand new micro distillery.
“It’s hard for us to pull people in the door at $20 a head when you’ve got free music all over the place,” Stephen says, framing it as more of a creative obstacle than a complaint. “But I’ve had my woodworking and furniture business to keep us afloat. We’ve never made much money from the venue anyway.”
Now retired, Stephen and Konnie have had to reevaluate how they’re going to afford critical repairs and upgrades, like replacing the venue’s ancient roof and hot water heater. Annual fundraising concerts and digital performances have been helpful, they say, but donations alone weren’t going to cut it.
More recently, they’ve rigged the place up as a short term rental. Attractive and unique, the property has been a popular summer rental and has made it possible for them to keep the venue alive in the meantime.
“But we’re going to keep doing it.” Stephen says, decidedly. “We might have fewer shows than we used to, but we’re going to keep putting our heart into it.”
“It’s what we have to give to the community,” Konnie agrees, “Meeting new people, drawing folks in, sharing the love of music.”
Last week, Wildwood Sounds hosted its 749th show. It was also Konnie’s 80th birthday. I was there as Blue Sky took the stage for an evening of rock originals and oldies classics. In the back, regulars crowded around the kitchenette as the birthday cake was served and the players rollicked their way through Stan Jones’ “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
When the show is done and folks are trickling out, I ask them about those ravens. Stephen tells me all about the poplar tree outside their bedroom window, and the big dead branch where the black birds are known to loiter. Apparently, they just thought it would make a good mascot.
As I leave, the bird looks down at me from the big wooden sign mounted above the front door. I resist the urge to analyze, but the symbolism is too thick to ignore. Not the symbol of death, no, that was never the case with ravens. They’re about cunning, survival, transformation, and opportunity. The perfect psychopomp for the soul of that little joint.