BELLOWS FALLS — Dar Williams is a fan of Bellows Falls.
When she takes center stage Saturday night at the Bellows Falls Opera House for the inaugural concert in the Ray Massucco Concert Series, it will be a homecoming of sorts, and in ways, performing in the living room of a dear friend.
Williams, the well-known singer-songwriter who has been described by the New Yorker as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters,” has several personal connections to Vermont, and to Bellows Falls.
That included her friendship with Massucco, who died unexpectedly in late September, leaving not just his family but his hometown in shock. A group of his friends, including her former manager, local artist Charlie Hunter, quickly moved to organize the annual concert series in his honor, co-presented by Bellows Falls Opera House and Next Stage Arts in Putney. It kicks off Saturday at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
“I love Ray, he was a big folkie,” Williams said.
Hunter reached out to Williams and she quickly agreed to start the series, which will also feature The Steel Wheels on April 7 and Chris Smither on Sept. 23. Williams has performed in Bellows Falls four times, all at the Opera House, and one time as a benefit for the area farmers market. The most recent was in 2018.
Early in her career, she would open for folk icon Joan Baez. She has established her reputation in small, acoustic places, rather than the Gillette Stadiums of the world.
Massucco particularly featured Americana performers and acoustic singer-songwriters just starting out, when he was the major domo and promoter of Roots on the River, a local music festival Massucco ran for 12 years, succeeding Hunter. Williams never performed as part of the Roots festival.
Williams, who lived in Northampton, Mass., for many years before moving to the Hudson River Valley, is described as “warm, witty and socially conscious,” and her music reflects that. During a recent interview, she chose to speak about community and people who build it, rather than her music. The concert, she promised, will be a combination of favorites and new work.
Williams said she interviewed Massucco in 2016 for her book to feature what local people and entrepreneurs can do to revitalize old, perhaps sad, towns. She said Hunter, and the late Gary Smith, worked together to bring a great restaurant — Popolo’s — which hasn’t reopened since it closed during the pandemic. Smith was also the founder of community radio station WOOL-FM. The revitalization of the Bellows Falls Opera House was another seminal event, she said.
“What Charlie Hunter, Gary Smith and Ray were doing in Bellows Falls was exactly the kind of urban planning and wisdom that I wanted for all the struggling downtowns,” she said.
Bellows Falls has great vitality, she said, because “you can walk to the train station, walk to the waterfall, and walk to school,” and still live in the village.
Massucco’s and the others’ philosophy was “live and let live,” she said, while offering the community a look into different cultural offerings.
She said that Massucco, who was the quintessential small town lawyer, demonstrated “great spirit, good humor and generosity.”
Williams, in a telephone interview last week, said she interviewed Massucco for her book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns, a Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding American Communities One Coffee Shop, Dog Run and Open Mike Night At A Time,” published in 2017. She is also the author of a guide, “How to Write a Song That Matters.”
Massucco was beloved for his dedication to his hometown, and his efforts to revitalize it and make it a lively, arts-oriented place.
“Having Dar return to the Opera House and be the kickoff act for the Ray Massucco series is so fitting and celebratory. Ray loved Dar’s music, and Dar loved seeing Bellows Falls reborn — building community through the arts is a major tenet of her belief,” said Hunter, who remains a close friend.
“And Crys Matthews opening the show is something else Ray would love; she’s so good, and Ray loved turning people on to music they hadn’t heard before,” said Hunter.
Williams said she grew up in what she called a small town outside of New York City, Chappaqua, which has since turned into a full-fledged bedroom community — “a pretty lousy town” in the center of Westchester County.
“My parents had a garden, instead of a pool,” she said. “They took care of bees, instead of joining the country club.”
Her mother baked bread for food sales, “loaves and loaves and loaves of bread.”
Her parents’ philosophy informed her humor and ideas, she said, and very early on, they encouraged her songwriting.
She said she finds it thrilling to see towns “bringing their life back in downtowns” and grow a sense of community simultaneously.
Williams has played in many different Vermont cities and towns, including Brattleboro, Putney, Burlington, Rutland and Randolph, not coincidentally, cities and towns that are “models for what can happen even with a small population and a lot of great ideas.”
Doors open on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., with the show starting at 7:30 p.m. For information and tickets, go to BellowsFallsOperaHouse.com.