Music lovers find enchantment beneath branches of ancient oak
When Tim Hawkins and Sean Kershaw moved into their 154-year-old house on St. Paul’s West End in 1996, they didn’t realize it would become somewhat of a neighborhood landmark. But after they exchanged wedding vows in 2013 under the nearly 250-year-old oak tree in their backyard, the Cactus Blossoms delivered a magical performance. Hawkins wanted to repeat that magic.
Hawkins and Kershaw’s house is located on a double lot at 273 Goodhue St., near the edge of the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. They sought to enliven an already quirky neighborhood with live music beneath the branches of that historic tree.
Thus was born the Grand Oak Opry.
“It was Tim’s idea,” Kershaw said. “We were inspired by the Grand Old Opry, and he thought the tree was such a centerpiece to the yard. If the oak tree wasn’t here, it wouldn’t be as fun.”
From its beginnings in 2014, the Grand Oak Opry has attracted a growing number of music lovers. In recent years, it has come with T-shirts designed by a neighbor, a website created by another neighbor, and six local sponsors. When the audience has gotten especially large, the couple’s next-door neighbors have made space in their yard for the overflow.
“It’s actually nice because cleaning up our yard is not that big of a lift,” Kershaw said. “It’s not fancy; it’s comfortable. You can use our bathroom.”
“It’s really just kind of like having a little party with some friends over,” Hawkins said. “How you prepare for that, that’s kind of what we do.”
The uncanny truth behind these concerts is how easily they’ve been woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. Hawkins and Kershaw believe their house is the 12th oldest house still standing in St. Paul. According to them, it was built by the St. Paul city jailer right before he left to fight in the Civil War.
“The homes in this neighborhood were originally the homes of cigar makers and barrel makers, so the deep history of white people in the neighborhood is creative people who made stuff,” Kershaw said. Today, the neighborhood is home to musicians, graphic designers and other creators who give the area a vibrancy you don’t find in every neighborhood.
Admission to the Grand Oak Opry is by donation. That money goes directly to the musicians, and since Hawkins and Kershaw host the event on their property, a city permit is not necessary, they said. At the same time, they are well aware of their neighborhood’s limitations and strive to minimize any inconveniences.
In fact, it’s the neighborhood volunteers who make the concerts possible. They greet patrons, take photographs and sell merchandise. Hawkins and Kershaw’s children, Grace and Aiden, hand out popsicles. Peg Brown, who lives around the block, has served as “chief bouncer,” she said. However, that is somewhat of a misnomer. “I’m not a bouncer because everybody is so respectful, nice and fun,” Brown said. “Usually it’s breaking up fights between kids more than anything.”
To show their gratitude for the community, Hawkins and Kershaw open each show with a message of thankfulness for their neighbors and for the musicians. This year’s lineup has included Chastity Brown, King Courteen, and Ang and the Ranch Hands.
Jessica Callahan and her husband Kevin Conroy bought a house across the street from Hawkins and Kershaw just a year before the Grand Oak Opry started. This was the first home they had ever owned, according to Callahan, and they immediately felt welcome. “We were invited to three different parties before we even unpacked a box,” Callahan said. “And two of the parties had to do with Tim and Sean.”
Ever since she first heard the music from the first Grand Oak Opry show in 2014, Callahan has wanted to volunteer for the event, which she did in 2015. She hopes the backyard gig will enchant others as it did her. “You can drive by a house a million times without knowing what’s in it or behind it,” Callahan said. “It’s like opening up a secret garden; it’s a lovely spot.”
Hawkins and Kershaw are the heart and brains of the Grand Oak Opry, according to neighbors and volunteers. Kershaw, the former executive director of the Citizens League, is currently vice president of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Hawkins has worked in schools for 16 years, particularly in special education. Currently, he is employed at Stogies on Grand Avenue.
“Sean is the (unofficial) block captain. He’s very organized and ambitious,” Brown said.
“I call Tim Gladys Kravitz,” Callahan said, referring to the nosy neighbor on the old TV series “Bewitched.” “He always knows what’s going on. They both do. There’s a lot of people in the neighborhood who see them, whether they like it or not, in a leadership role.”
The enchantment doesn’t stop with the neighbors. Artists seek out the Grand Oak Opry for its renowned intimacy. Quillan Roe of the Roe Family Singers met Kershaw while leading the music at their church, and he leaped at the opportunity to perform there in 2015.
“They’re really great guys,” Roe said. “They made us feel really welcome. I like old architecture, so they took the time to give me a tour of the whole house and introduced us to the kids.”
The dangling lights, colorful doors, and whimsical oak tree captivated the Roe Family Singers. They agreed to a second performance in 2016 and, as an election year special, led the audience in a grand sing-along of “This Land is Your Land.” Music has the power to unify people, Quillan said, and that night reaffirmed his belief.
“Something like what they’ve done at the Grand Oak Opry doesn’t just happen,” Roe said. “But at the same time, you can’t plan it. What has happened there is, of course, because of Hawkins and Kershaw. It’s who they are. It’s also a product of the community and of the environment.”
A descendant of one of the original owners of Hawkins and Kershaw’s house was seated in the audience at that concert in 2016 and had brought an old photo and record album of the first family to live in the house. They were a folk band just like the Roe Family Singers.
“‘This Land is Your Land’ was the first song on the record album,” Kershaw recalled, “and (earlier that day) we talked about it, but we didn’t mention it and that night the Roe Family Singers played that song without knowing. Weird coincidences show up.”
Perhaps it’s the fireflies, perhaps it’s the oak. Whatever graces each concert in that backyard seems to cast a spell upon the crowd.
“Maybe there’s something about the tree that’s just sort of big, beautiful and symbolic,” Brown said. “It creates an air of warmth and welcome and community. People respect that.”
Upcoming editions of the Grand Oak Opry will feature the Akie Bermiss Trio on August 4, Maria Jette and Dan Chouinard on August 11 and We are the Willows on September 1. The doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit grandoakopry.wordpress.com.