Breaking sad news is like taking off a Band-Aid. There is no easy way to it. So we’re just going to grab an edge and rip — B Chord Brewing, the brewery that became a near-legendary venue in the Covid era, is no more.
Owner Marty Dougherty, whose brewing skills are exceeded only by his ability to put on great shows, confirmed the decision last week after deciding a future at the current location was untenable.
“I closed the brewery in October for the winter to try to figure out where to turn next,” Dougherty said. “I just couldn’t see a fast way to turn things around. I couldn’t see a path forward.”
A number of factors went into the decision, Dougherty said. While things took off in the fall of 2020, and stayed hot in 2021, ticket sales tailed off some last summer as more venues opened up and music fans had more options. Dougherty said not having any overnight accommodations nearby didn’t help things.
There were other challenges. Virginia law didn’t allow the brewery to operate a restaurant on site, making it tough to attract folks when there was no live music. Dougherty also worried complaints from neighbors might torpedo the concert operations.
“It’s precarious with outside music,” he said. “The county has let it go because of the pandemic but we were starting to get pressure about the noise.”
Add a divorce and a hot real estate market in Loudon County, Va., and it was sort of a perfect storm. Selling the property was a way to settle the division of marital assets and business debts. Dougherty is selling to a Chinese immigrant couple who plan to operate a winery and brewery there. Dougherty says their long term plans include hosting music, but it won’t be any time soon and it is doubtful it will be on the scale it was under Dougherty, whose personal relationships in the music community were a big reason B Chord was able to attract its post pandemic outdoor crowds.
B Chord was already on the map prior to the pandemic. Dougherty’s brewery had developed a reputation for good beer and high quality, mostly emerging or regional sorts of acts on its small stage inside the brewery.
Like everyplace, everywhere, B Chord shut down in March of 2020. But at the end of May they were able to reopen with outdoor service and seating. Dougherty’s crew built a wooden stage at the bottom of the hillside behind the brewery and assembled a bunch of picnic tables that were spread across the lower part of the hill.
It was in August that things took off. First the Travelin’ McCourys, longtime friends of Dougherty, appeared. It was their first show in public after the shutdown.
“He made that opportunity happen for us,” said Ronnie McCoury. “It was nice to have something normal again.”
Dougherty says that show, and one in October when Ronnie and the Travelins brought Del back to headline on the hillside, were among his most special memories. “Having the trust of the McCourys and having them bring Del, that was pretty incredible,” he said.
The following May, when covid forced the cancellation of DelFest in Cumberland, Md., B Chord hosted “DelFest Lite,” with appearances by Del, the Travelins, and a number of other bands that had been slated to play DelFest.
“When the word got out that this was the place to go and a heckuva place to play, and that the people will come, all kinds of bands wanted to play there,” McCoury said.
Sam Bush, Larry Keel, Railroad Earth, Lonesome River Band, Larry Keel, Cabinet, and Yonder Mountain String Band were among the acts that played B Chord in the fall of 2020. Things picked right back up the next spring with Leftover Salmon, Dan Tyminski, Della Mae, and Cris Jacobs, and Frank Solivan all joining the B Chord artists roster.
Another band that played its first post shutdown shows there was the Infamous Stringdusters, who began their reemergence with a three-night run there in April 2021. Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Cabinet, Keller Williams, and Yonder Mountain String Band all played multi-night runs that year.
“With the pandemic it became the place. They were set up perfect,” said Andy Falco, of the Infamous Stringdusters. “It was like an oasis when everything else was dry.”
Both bands and fans sang B Chord’s praises for the measures it took to keep everyone safe in those pre-vaccine days. Social distancing was required. Masks had to be worn whenever you left your seat. Reasonable precautions in the circumstances, one would think, but political dumpster fires everywhere else in the country. At B Chord there was never an issue, folks played by the rules and word spread that it was a safe place to go.
“It was not an easy thing to do. They really had to work hard to make it happen,” Falco said. “They powered through all of that and gave us a place of refuge in what was a very chaotic time.”
Doughtery said it was a matter of faith. He knew the bands and he knew their fans. He trusted there’d be no problems.
“We wanted to provide a venue for the musicians. We fans needed it, too. I knew people would respect the rules,” Dougherty said. “It was beautiful. We all could get what was desperately needed in our lives.”
It was about people reuniting with others from their tribe, friends they had not seen in person for months. It was about seeing the joy on their faces as they got a fix for that live music jones that simply cannot be matched by a digital stream, no matter how big the screen, how good the speakers.
There is a spiritual thing that happens at a live show, that feeling that everybody (except that one idiot who claps on the wrong beat) is moving to the same rhythm, almost sharing the same heartbeat. There are those who claim it is a religious experience. Dougherty agrees.
“We became the church of B Chord. That is what it was like. We were like a church,” he says. “That was why it was such a special place. It was not just a music place.”
Fans will remember the amazing starlit Shenandoah Mountains skies, the warmth of the communal fire pits, the wide open spaces, long lines at the food trucks, the “Be Kind” sign and the Jerry doll adorning the stage, and the Juicy Garcia IPA. They’ll remember the music of course. But more than all that, they will remember the joy of gathering with their friends on that grassy hillside.
“It was almost perfect. You’d always see your friends who love the same music you do and it was the ideal setup. You could put your chair anywhere and see the stage and hear good. You didn’t always have to be on the rail,” said one fan after hearing of B Chord’s demise.
While many fans traveled more than an hour to get to B Chord’s rural location in western Loudon County, it was also a favorite of the locals.
“I guess what I’d say is it was really wonderful to have a venue out here that seemed like it was just for us,” said Lisa Kay Howard-Hughes, whose farm is just a short pickup ride over the hill. Howard-Hughes and her husband play bluegrass music. Bands they are a part of have appeared at B Chord three times. They have also stopped by to see other acts and pre-pandemic used to hang out at B Chord’s open jams.
“It was a great venue. Marty has helped bluegrass in this area a great deal,” said Wally Hughes.
Hughes pointed out how Dougherty’s expertise in video production benefitted the bands playing there. Shows were usually streamed online and bands were given a DVD of their performance.
“Their video streams were also helpful and great promo for bands,” Hughes said.
That care for the musicians, and good, old fashioned hospitality were B Chord hallmarks.
“Marty and the crew there have always been so hospitable and friendly,” said Falco. “They have always made it a special place where you wanted to hang out and play music.”
“B Chord was one of the premier venues in northern Virginia. Marty and the whole staff always treated you like family,” said Charles R. Humphrey III, of Songs From the Road Band. “You could tell they did it for the love of the music. They love good acoustic music and always treated us like royalty.”
The story ends here for now. But Dougherty insists this is not an unhappy ending. Folks have not seen the end of B Chord, he says, just the end of its first chapter. He plans to take a year or so off, using that time in part to search for a new location. He has his eyes set on Western North Carolina.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s not a sad day because we know what is next — B Chord II,” Dougherty said.
It won’t be in Asheville he says, but he is not sure exactly where it will be. He plans to learn from some of the lessons of B Chord I. In particular he wants an indoor venue with a capacity of between 500 and 600 people. Indoors, he says, he will avoid weather issues and noise complaints.
“People like Marty, they don’t just close doors,” said Falco. “I am sure that we will see more from Marty down the road. And I look forward to that.”