Lost in the Pines

The Saturday-night scene at Albert Music Hall transports country music fans back to a simpler time.

Musicians are welcome to jam on the front porch as well as in the Pickin’ Shed, and by golly they sure do.
Photo by Colin Archer/ANJ.

In the quiet twilight of the Pine Barrens you can hear Albert Music Hall before you see it, the music fading in and out like the struggling signal of a far-off country radio station. And when you pull into the parking lot of this most unusual music mecca and see knots of musicians with guitars, banjos, fiddles and harmonicas jamming and trading tunes amid the parked cars, you may feel as if you’ve been transported back to a time when people relied on themselves and their friends for entertainment. Perhaps you have, neighbor.

Saturday night at the Albert Music Hall—located in Waretown, an unincorporated area within Ocean Township—is a unique experience, deeply rooted in a corner of New Jersey that still feels more southern and rural than northern and suburban. The Music Hall’s pull is strong: on any given weekend, it attracts not just locals, but music fans and amateur musicians from as far away as Brooklyn, Philadelphia and upstate New York. Some come to lay down their $5 and listen to six country, bluegrass or folk acts onstage inside the 350-seat concert hall. Others travel here to make their own music—on the porch outside the hall, in the nearby Pickin’ Shed or right in the parking lot. One common thread: Whether they perform on the stage or off the back of a truck, none of the players gets paid.

The concert hall, a simple vaulted room, does double-duty as an exhibition space for some of the archives of the Pinelands Cultural Society. Its walls are covered with memorabilia and locally crafted antique instruments. Many of the photos and mementos explain the roots and evolution of Albert Music Hall, which can be traced back decades to an informal Saturday night pickin’ session at a primitive cabin known to locals as the Home Place and owned by fiddle player George Albert and his brother Joe. Kerry Sneddon, a retired Waretown policeman who is at Albert Music Hall nearly every Saturday night with his banjo-playing wife, Robbin, can remember finding one of the Alberts’ foxhounds and bringing it back to the hospitable little cabin. “There’s nothing like coffee made on a wood stove,” he says with a smile.

Tales of the Saturday-night jams spread, first through word-of-mouth and then the local media. Soon hundreds of people were showing up at the cabin, some breaking off into their own groups and playing outside. After George died in 1974, the sessions stopped for a few months, then resumed at the Waretown Auction, where they were held every Saturday night until 1992 when the auction hall burned down. But even that couldn’t stop the get-togethers: they continued in the parking lot in front of the ruins.

The sessions—known as the “Sounds of the Jersey Pines”—got a permanent home when the Pinelands Cultural Society opened the Albert Music Hall in 1997. The stage set re-creates the Alberts’ cabin, and the concession area sells homemade treats like pineapple upside-down cake. At the start of every show, the audience stands and sings “The Star Spangled Banner”; on this particular Saturday night the first performer, singer and guitarist Steve Kempf of Toms River, kicks things off with “Waiting For a Train,” a song popularized by country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. He is followed by Erin Ricca of Point Pleasant, a young singer backed by a five-piece country band that includes her father on guitar. She delivers a vibrant set of Nashville standards in a clear, classic style: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Walking After Midnight” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man).” Topping the bill is Past Times, a traditional bluegrass sextet with deep Albert Music Hall roots: bassist Randy Bailey began playing at the old Home Place when he was 17 and named his son after Joe Albert. They mix originals with fairly obscure covers, including gospel.

“It’s a fun place to play,” says New Egypt native Barb Muccie, one of the two vocalists in Past Times. Says Past Times dobroist Don Sojka of Perth Amboy: “The more it grows, the more it stays the same.”

Indeed, there’s a separate and just-as-engaging scene on the porch outside the Music Hall—where a group of musicians is trading tunes and discussing the role of the Osborne Brothers in “newgrass” music. But the most sought-out jam is in the Pickin’ Shed, a double-wide garage next door to the main hall that’s decorated with old signs and paintings of country stars. There are more than a dozen players in the Shed at any given time on this night: lots of guitarists, but also three or four mandolins, a dobro, a fiddle or two, banjo, accordion, washtub bass and one old gent toting a case of harmonicas. It’s all very casual—and very friendly. Says Sneddon: “You can walk into the Shed not even knowing how to tune your guitar and someone will show you one or two bar chord positions and say, ‘Watch this guy—move your hands when he does,’ and within 20 minutes you’re making music.”

On this Saturday night, an older man with a Martin guitar is leading everyone in the Shed through “Truck Drivin’ Man.” He sings in a clear, unadorned baritone and has the comfortable look of a regular. One of his most engaged collaborators is a middle-aged woman, a mandolinist with raven hair, decked out in pink blouse and matching pink work boots. Soon the microphone passes to Wayne Canada, a guitarist who doubles on banjo. He drives down from Sayreville most Saturday nights and is one of the regulars but says “new people come every week.” Canada calls for “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and the Shed comes to life.

Of course, you don’t have to be a musician to feel the tug of Albert Music Hall. “I just come to hear the music,” says Bob Reed, who frequently drives the 75 miles from Summit just to listen and hang out. “It’s friendly.” Says Patt Mazzeo of Fort Lee: “This is like no place else.”

When the last of the six scheduled acts has finished in the Hall, there’s time for one last tradition: every show ends with an onstage jam featuring the musicians from the Pickin’ Shed. Deadpans Wayne Canada: “It’s a way to scare everyone out.”

Albert Music Hall, located at 131 Wells Mills Road (Route 532) in Waretown, is open Saturdays beginning at 7:30 pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $1 for children.

Fred Goodman has reported on music for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the New York Times. He got his start 30 years ago writing for New Jersey’s Aquarian Weekly.

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