An old barn gains new life as a concert hall

The barn’s deep red paint is peeling and the roof leaks during rainstorms. The old structure lacks toilets because its original occupants, hogs, did not require such niceties.

Barn owners Chris and Martha Staples started using this agrarian space for concerts in 2010. In the barn’s first three summers, it went from just a couple shows per season to over 55 last year. Right now, there are 38 artists on the Shitty Barn 2013 schedule, with the possibility for more as the season progresses. The first show of this year is on Wednesday, May 1 and the Barn’s season opener is Grammy Award-winner Sean Carey.

It is a music venue that draws many Madisonians 40 miles west to Spring Green, Wis. The place is hard to forget, not least of all because of its name: The Shitty Barn.

What is it that makes a dilapidated, old pigpen an attractive modern entertainment destination? Environmental sociologist Michael Bell studies such conundrums at the UW-Madison and offered an answer.

From a sociological perspective, Bell said calling the barn “shitty” is a way for people to think about connections.

“I think it’s interesting that they’ve chosen that word -- may I say it? -- Shit!” Bell began. “It’s a delightful word. There’s something funny about it.”

Martha and Chris both acknowledged that the name sometimes takes people by surprise.

“It requires a slight sense of curiosity, and adventure, and playfulness for someone to get over it enough to come,” Martha said of the slightly shocking venue name.

Though surprising in delivery, the barn’s name refers to a very ordinary substance, Bell pointed out. Bell said that naming a concert hall after something ordinary, rather than something grand, sends a social signal.

“The Shitty Barn is a dilapidated structure, it’s not an elite structure,” Bell said. “It’s a place therefore where we come and celebrate our common humanity.”

One musician who has played at the barn several times, Amanda Rigell of the band Count This Penny, said that the barn and the people in the barn feel instantly familiar.

“Even though you haven’t met the people there, you feel like you’ve known them your whole life,” Rigell said.

In addition to facilitating connections among people, Bell said that using a barn as a music venue also evokes rural images and ideas.

“The countryside for the urban dweller has long represented, in part, a place to escape the roles that often confine us, define us too much, inside the city,” Bell said. “There is a passage out of those roles that takes place as one is driving out into the countryside.”

One concert attendee, Madison resident Jordan Berken, echoed Bell’s description of evading urban life by traveling out to a Spring Green barn.

“It’s a nice escape from the city,” Berken said. “Something draws you back to the country.”

Shitty Barn staff member Sara Stellick said that the journey back into rural area for people who drive over from Madison is part of their experience.

“They have to drive through some fields, maybe a rainstorm. They see small towns,” Stellick said. According to Stellick, the drive and the setting of the concerts in a barn helps people let go and makes their experience in the Shitty Barn more poignant.

In a barn, and in the idea of the countryside, Bell said Americans share a common sense of identity, a common cultural heritage.

Chris and Martha embrace the cultural heritage of their barn, so much so that they think the barn takes on its own identity. They initially hoped to use the barn as a brewing facility, but the occasional concert held in the barn was so popular, the barn became a music venue instead.

“We realized that it had its own life, and that we should get out of its way,” Chris said of the Shitty Barn. “We let it be what it wanted to be, which was a venue for people to congregate, have fun, and listen to music.”

To see the Barn’s schedule and ticket prices, visit their website.