Singer-songwriter Avi Jacob performs Wednesday in front of dozens at the Sunstroke House in Columbus. "Sunstroke House" is the name homeowner Jami Nettles gave to her home-turned-concert venue, where she hosts monthly living room concerts, drawing musicians from across the U.S. Photo by: India Yarborough/Dispatch Staff
July 20, 2018 11:15:16 AM
Four years ago, Columbus resident and music fanatic Jami Nettles left the continent to see her favorite band.
"I've always loved music, always been obsessed with it," Nettles said. "If I'm not working, I've got something in my ears."
That's why in October 2014, she shelled out $55 for a concert ticket, hopped on a plane and headed to Meeniyan, Australia -- a town of just over a thousand residents -- to see Augie March. The five-member Australian band played at Meeniyan's town hall, a building with a capacity of nearly one-fourth the town's size.
"They packed a ton of people into that little venue," Nettles said.
And that's when inspiration struck.
Nettles thought she could recreate the small-time concert at her home on southside in Columbus, eventually drawing musicians from across the country to the Sunstroke House.
Making it happen
Nettles, a full-time research hydrologist for Weyerhaeuser, said she's always had an affinity for two things: "music and making things."
Living room concerts offered the perfect opportunity to meld them.
About once a month, Nettles transforms the living room of her home -- with walls covered in band posters and tour dates -- into a stage. Visiting artists play in front of the room's fireplace, while audience members fill metal folding chairs and the living room loveseat, often spilling over into the adjacent hallway and dining room.
"Sunstroke House" is the name of a 2002 Augie March song. Nettles said she used the song title as her Wi-Fi network name for years, and in 2016, it took on new meaning. It became the name of a concert venue -- "The perfect stop between Nashville and New Orleans, Memphis and Mobile or Birmingham and Austin," she said.
Hours before guests grace her doorstep, Nettles is busy preparing a full meal and helping the night's artist set up equipment, as dinner and a show is the norm at the Sunstroke House.
Nettles said someone once told her, "You're only as good as your last concert," and she's taken it to heart.
"She's introduced me to music I never thought I'd like," said Nettles' niece Emily Espy. "She's one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know. This is a way for her to give back."
Wednesday night, Nettles and her niece worked for two hours preparing taco salad.
"Even if it's on a weekday but it's a big show, I'll cook a full meal and provide the booze," Nettles said.
Though she charges for the shows -- $20 for adults and $10 for students or "underemployed millennials" -- none of the money stays with her. Whatever she brings in goes directly to the artist.
"We keep a tally of how many people attended," Nettles said. "So I think I'm much more accountable to the musicians than a lot of house shows."
Wednesday she welcomed singer-songwriter Avi Jacob from Providence, Rhode Island.
Nettles often reaches out to artists she feels would be a good fit for the Sunstroke House, but sometimes musicians contact her, as was the case with Jacob.
"I wanted to play here," Jacob said. "I love house shows, especially the ones that are well-planned and well-established, because people listen."
Nettles has brought in musicians from across the United States -- New York, Pennsylvania, California and nearby Memphis, Nashville and Tuscaloosa, among others. For each artist, she provides a stage and a home for one or two nights.
"I'm trying to bring people to a small town who wouldn't be here otherwise," Nettles said.
Nettles' first concert, in the fall of 2016, drew 27 listeners.
"I begged people to come," Nettles remembers. "I would say, 'Trust me, we're going to get better and better musicians, but come and listen for now.'"
Her goal was to start with "universally likable" artists in hopes she might attract a diverse audience, keep people coming back and encourage regulars to tell their friends.
"You have to have the people who are willing to slip the artist a $100 bill -- which has happened before -- but you also have to have the younger people with great taste," Nettles said.
Since her first show, Nettles has seen her audience nearly double. She draws crowds of about 40 for weekday concerts and may attract more than 50 locals on weekends. The private Facebook group in which she posts about upcoming events has more than 500 members, and her mailing list tops 170.
Shane Kinder of Columbus has been attending Sunstroke House shows for about a year.
"I've worked radio for 29 years so I've been around music a lot, and I've been around a lot of shows, and what Jami's doing is really one-of-a-kind," Kinder said. "You take her great taste in music and couple that with the fact that she cooks food and has drinks for everybody -- just the atmosphere in general is fantastic."
Kinder grew up in Columbus, moved away for many years and is now back as a permanent resident.
"From the time I left here 15 years ago and moved to Tuscaloosa, there was no (concert) scene of any kind," Kinder said. "Young people especially are looking for things like what Jami's doing...It's something I wish I had growing up here in Columbus."
Nettles said she's learned a lot over the past two years. She's found out what people care about.
"Dessert is more important than a fancy side dish," she joked.
Above all, she notes, it's about the artist, the audience and the music.
"You're not going to walk down the street and see your favorite band (here), but by me picking people you might like and letting you listen ahead, it might turn into your favorite band," Nettles said.
And the important thing to remember?
"Everybody's welcome," she said. "Everybody."
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