12 Moonlight on the MountainAn acoustic act performs at Moonlight. Photo courtesy of Keith Harrelson.
From the moment you step through the unassuming storefront, it’s almost a given you’ll either fall in love with Moonlight on the Mountain or walk back out.
Although, the venue doesn’t see much of the latter.
The space isn’t so much a performance venue as it is an art gallery. It’s sophisticated yet quaint, populated by people who can be described with the same words. They go to Moonlight’s “listening room” to hear acoustic music presented by passionate songwriters in one of the few places like it in the state, and its owner would have it no other way.
“As far as night time entertainment goes, this is different. It is a very personal, intimate experience,” Moonlight’s Keith Harrelson said. “But it’s very casual at the same time, and people really seem to appreciate that. I understand it’s not for everybody; it’s for everybody else.”
In only two and a half years, Moonlight on the Mountain has become a staple of the Bluff Park neighborhood. Since opening in the small shopping plaza on Shades Crest Road, the venue has acted more as a counter-culture community center – though not in the expected sense. Any given night, young professionals rub elbows with teenagers, who have conversations with career musicians, college professors, church deacons and silver foxes. Everyone smiles, and everyone listens.
But it isn’t just the audience that finds Moonlight’s charm irresistible. Harrelson said that each of the hundreds of acoustic performers he’s hosted over the years has asked to come back no matter how much money they earned from the show.
“They loved the experience; they said this room is special,” Harrelson said.
Aside from its bi-monthly open-mic nights – those will only cost you $5 to attend – the typical concert at Moonlight is $10-12 and starts at 7:30 p.m. Moonlight starts shows early to ensure families won’t be out too late, because otherwise Harrelson sees little point in offering a family-friendly environment.
But behind the scenes, the business model that drives Moonlight is just as non-traditional as its clientele. Harrelson rarely uses the venue for anything but acoustic concerts and a few private events, and the only money he brings in comes from the door. He offers no food or beverages, but rather allows patrons to provide for themselves. And he pays those who play as much as he possibly can, he said.
In all, Harrelson said he’s seen more than 5,000 eager listeners pass through Moonlight’s doors since it opened in April 2010, and many of them have wanted to know how he keeps it going without selling anything but an experience.
It isn’t easy, he said.
“I’ve never been able to pay for the place on the music alone.”
Moonlight is Harrelson’s second Birmingham area venture, but the first had a more traditional feel. He imagined the small space he occupied in Vestavia Hills from 2003-2006 as a coffeehouse or café. He sold alcohol and snacks there, but the ends didn’t justify the means and he was forced to close for financial reasons.
“The whole thing was for the music anyway,” he said. “That was the whole reason I was doing it – to present original music. When I found this room after a break of about three years, I just decided to do it strictly for the music and let it live or die on its own merits.”
However, its merits haven’t always provided, and Harrelson has seen his crowds shrink since 2010. He said he has a core group of about 20 people who come a couple times a month, and another 70 who may come every other month. But two recent Thursday night shows drew an audience of only four people to listen to six performers, which frustrates him.
It certainly hasn’t stopped him or his supporters, though. Moonlight on the Mountain also receives financial assistance from the Moonlight Music Alliance, a non-profit that exists to preserve, present and promote original music. But aside from that, Harrelson’s only other source of income is a tip jar.
“That is our gas tank, that is how we get by,” he said.
So a short ride up the hill most nights of the week will offer an experience like none other in Birmingham, as places like Moonlight on the Mountain are few and far between – and getting ever fewer.
Dec. 3 – Open Mic Night
Dec. 6 – Sam Pointer’s Acoustic Christmas Revue (sampointer.com)
Dec. 7 – Amanda Shires with Rod Picott (amandashires.squarespace.com, rodpicott.com)
Dec. 8 – Alice Bargeron & Buck Johnson with Etta Britt & Bob Britt (ettabritt.com)
Find a full calendar for Moonlight on the Mountain’s December events on page 22.