Feature: Janet Kenworthy’s Musical Conduit

The Spot stands empty today. But last night The Spot was hopping.

On that evening, the stage hosted folk duo Richie and Rosie. It was a good night, says Janet Kenworthy. The youngest audience member, she’s pleased to report, was a three-year-old kid who stayed in the front row for the entire concert. Again, it was a good night.

Today it’s just Kenworthy in this small-town venue and event space with at least three names. It’s the Poplar Knight Spot – cleverly named for the nearby intersection of Poplar and Knight Streets in downtown Aberdeen – but this is often shortened to “The Spot.” It’s also commonly referred to as The Rooster’s Wife, which is Kenworthy’s nonprofit performing arts association.

Standing in its comfortable listening room, Kenworthy is completely at home in the venue she has brought to the Sandhills. Consider the seats: some are antiques, others are simply used and well-worn; others are couches, building an overall vibe that is equal parts thrift store and furniture auction. Consider the stage: it’s low and close and easily seen from any seat. And then there’s The Spot’s warm weather potential.

“The two back doors slide open. You can sit outside,” Kenworthy says. “If I had that view on my TV, I would get a TV. [The stage] is framed perfectly in that door.”

For 13 years, Kenworthy has brought a slew of folk, bluegrass, jazz – you name it – musicians to Aberdeen under the Rooster’s Wife moniker. At first, she hosted these shows in her own home. Then, in 2009, Kenworthy and her mother Priscilla Johnson renovated what would become The Poplar Knight Spot, putting extra attention to insulation and acoustics. Though The Spot also hosts events like wedding receptions, poetry readings, birthday parties and showers, it is most consistently the primary venue for The Rooster’s Wife (there are also Rooster’s Wife shows the first Thursday of each month at Cameo Art House Theatre in Fayetteville).

It’s a place for music. It’s a place to drink a local beer and make new friends. And it’s a place to bring the kids or grandkids – children under 12 always get in free. With The Rooster’s Wife, Kenworthy has worked hard to bring a culture of live music appreciation to Aberdeen, regardless of the audience members’ ages.

“I do believe that you can tune your ear and you can definitely give [kids] a jumping off point,” she says.

“You don’t know what you don’t like if you’ve never heard it.”

Kenworthy’s own love of music dates to childhood (“I would say birth, but that seems rather disingenuous,” she offers). She grew up on the east end of Lexington, Kentucky, in a household with a big flip top stereo console. Thanks to her mother’s eclectic tastes, Kenworthy was exposed to everything from Herb Alpert to bossa nova to classical to spoken word. One early memory is of turning off the lights and listening to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. No matter how many times Kenworthy heard this record, it still scared her to death.

Kenworthy’s exposure to music only increased as she grew up. “The drinking age was 18, the driving age for a permit was 14 ½, so at a very young age you had access to going out to music,” she says. “There were always people picking and playing.” At her school, there was chapel every Friday, which was its weekly assembly. Some Fridays, juniors and seniors would play James Taylor covers. Other weeks, it was singer/songwriters from Nashville.

Kenworthy went to college in Chicago, and while living there she caught shows by influential musicians including Steve Goodman, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt and Joan Armatrading. “I saw a live symphony for the first time with Sir Georg Solti conducting,” she says. “I was hooked on that genre of live performance, because that beats football every day.”

From there, Kenworthy lived in Ireland, Miami and New York, with each stop contributing to her musical growth. Then, in 1991, Kenworthy moved to Aberdeen to be near family that had retired to Pinehurst. Soon, she was seeing music regionally.

“The first show I saw was at the Carrboro ArtsCenter and we saw the World Saxophone Quartet – with three children. And it was fabulous,” she says. “Then [I] saw the Red Clay Ramblers for the second time, because I had seen them on Broadway.”

Yet as the years passed, Kenworthy realized two things were missing. One was live music in the Sandhills: there were some opportunities, granted, but she wanted there to be more – and she wanted concerts to be inclusive for everyone, children included.

The other was live music audience etiquette. “There is a dearth of that in today’s society, and I sound like a wicked old witch when I say that,” Kenworthy says. “You always need to be a respectful audience, even if it’s not your thing.

“Common courtesy is always demanded here,” she continues. “This is a listening room.”

Yet to have a listening room, you must have musicians. And Aberdeen isn’t traditionally a music destination. Bands or artists touring through North Carolina will typically route through one of the Triangle towns – Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro – or Asheville or Charlotte, where venues and clubs range from cozy dives to dedicated music clubs, nicely appointed theaters and outdoor amphitheaters. Yet it’s not a huge stretch, Kenworthy says, to coax these artists to the Sandhills.

“We are positioned perfectly from Asheville to Wilmington,” she says matter-of-factly. Aberdeen is convenient to those traveling north to south as well. Touring folksingers or traditional bands have been receptive to Rooster’s Wife dates for these reasons, but also because an evening onstage at Kenworthy’s venue comes with lodging and a home-cooked meal at her home. Road food can be brutal – typically, touring artists subsist on chain restaurant fare – and musicians appreciate an evening eating well. Beyond that, until 2017, all Rooster’s Wife shows took place on Sundays –
a day musicians have historically had a tough time finding work.

On the business side, The Spot’s compact size and distance from other music venues works to its advantage. “It’s a rare music fan that will drive 70 miles for a show,” Kenworthy explains. “We only have 99 seats, so it’s not like we’re going to take business away from somebody generally.”

With these pieces in place – not to mention Kenworthy’s deep knowledge of and support group within the music industry – she has been able to host something like 600 shows over 13 years. Accomplished folksinger Peggy Seeger, of the musically influential Seeger family, played a 2012 date with North Carolina native and then-Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens opening. (Giddens’ star has since risen even higher. In 2017, she was honored with a prestigious Macarthur “Genius Grant”).

“Rhiannon had just written this song cycle, but never performed it publicly,” Kenworthy recalls. “She dried her banjo with a hair drier on my front porch because it was so humid.”

Artists like Chris Smither and Mollie O’Brien stick out in Kenworthy’s mind, as does tenor sax player John Ellis. Ellis, Kenworthy says, grew up in Cameron, but had not been invited back to play. So Kenworthy hosted Ellis and his band Double-Wide at The Spot, and then Ellis played Cameron Elementary. He brought the house down, Kenworthy says, and the principal allowed the program to last longer than was initially planned. And all this music has come about organically, naturally, as word of this little listening room at the intersection of Poplar and Knight Streets in Aberdeen spreads throughout the music community.

“It’s all concentric circles,” Kenworthy says. “One begets the next begets the next begets the next.”