Stone Mountain Arts Center

Making music in western Maine

We are gathered in a forest, within the wooden walls of a converted barn. Rough-hewn beams span the space above us. Soft murmurs of anticipation ripple through the hushed crowd. Strands of tiny white lights twinkle across the birch trees in the corner of the room; tall windows soar over the stage, letting in the black night. Tonight’s band, whose name means “the wolves,” makes its final preparations behind the scenes.

The Stone Mountain Arts Center has been attracting big musical acts (like tonight’s multiple Grammy Award-winning Los Lobos) to its Brownfield barn and farmhouse for more than a decade. “It’s a little frozen in time,” says Stone Mountain Arts co-owner and musician Carol Noonan. “We’re not connected socially like everybody else is. We’re just kind of up here in the middle of nowhere.”

My own journey to the Stone Mountain Arts Center began on a Friday afternoon in January. An hour into the woods of western Maine, the GPS and cellular phone reception cut out, so my traveling companion and I continue our navigation the old-fashioned way: by road signs. We drive in relative solitude until, out of the tree shadows, we see the faint beam of a flashlight. It feels as if we have happened across C.S. Lewis’s lamppost in the wardrobe. The man behind the flashlight directs us to our parking spot and gestures to a row of illuminated buildings in the clearing behind him. We have found the Stone Mountain Arts Center, and the home that Noonan shares with her business partner and husband, Jeff Flagg.

A longtime singer-songwriter, Noonan has spent her life making music. She grew up in Peabody, Massachusetts. “We really weren’t an artsy family by any means,” says Noonan of her Irish Catholic family. “We were very blue- collar. But I was always drawn to folk music.” After high school, Noonan attended the New England Conservatory in Boston. “I was kind of this normal kid, but I could sing.”

By the late 1980s, Noonan had become a vocalist and guitarist for Knots and Crosses, a New England band that would go on to produce two original albums before disbanding in 1994. Noonan has since recorded multiple albums as a solo artist, including her latest, Raven Girl, released in 2016. She first traveled to Maine when she was 19 for a summer job at the Quisisana Resort in Center Lovell, known for offering a unique musical theater experience to vacationers on the shores of Kezar Lake. Noonan worked there for ten years. “I just fell in love with that part of Maine,” says Noonan. “It’s really beautiful—the lakes and the mountains. It’s my favorite part of Maine.”

Noonan eventually migrated to Portland. While waitressing at the Dry Dock in 1992, she met Flagg, who was making commercial fishing nets in the space that is now Browne Trading Company on Commercial Street. “He would come to see me at the Dry Dock, and I still remember his order: a light beer by Miller,” says Noonan.

Noonan and Flagg moved to their 200-year- old Brownfield farmhouse, located in the foothills of the White Mountains, in 1994. “It was really important to me, when I would come off the road, that there would be nothing to do in the area unless we came to Portland or traveled,” says Noonan, who had continued to tour for her musical career. “It was so quiet in western Maine.”

Noonan used to rent a nearby church to perform a Christmas concert and found her neighbors to be very supportive of her music. “I thought, ‘You know, I can’t be so great that people are coming to see me every year. They’re coming because there’s nothing else to do. It’s Saturday night. It’s near their house,’” she says. “In rural towns, you have to make your own kind of world and your own entertainment,” continues Noonan, smiling as she tucks a strand of long dark hair behind one ear. “That’s what the grange halls have always done.”

Noonan and Flagg decided to capitalize on the appreciative audience they had found in Brownfield. Flagg, with the help of numerous volunteers and local contractors, oversaw the conversion of the barn behind their house into a performance venue. “We knew that if we built it, people would come,” says Noonan. “People love their music.”

Stone Mountain Arts Center opened in August 2006. Country music artist Mary Chapin Carpenter was the venue’s first big name. “Instead of starting small and getting little-known artists we got big artists, and people followed them here,” says Noonan. “If you ever said that Lyle Lovett and Aaron Neville would be in my backyard, I would think you were crazy, but everybody else thought that we were crazy and we did do it.” Flagg and Noonan continued to make improvements to their property, eventually moving the performances into the high- ceilinged timber frame space where Flagg had once made fishing nets. They converted the original performance space to a welcome area and lounge for the venue.

The shows routinely sell out, attracting music lovers from around New England and beyond. Noonan says that 75 percent of their guests come from outside of Maine. Part of the draw is the intimate setting. “I wanted to bring big artists to a small room so you would get to see them in that original way of seeing them perform,” says Noonan. “You get to see their hands and their face and they talk to the audience in a way they don’t do in a big room.”

The Stone Mountain Arts Center remains a community effort. Many of its 15 to 20 full- and part-time employees are friends and neighbors who have worked here since the beginning. “We’ve watched some of our younger people grow up with us,” says Noonan. After spending many years in the insurance industry in Massachusetts, Noonan’s sister, Katy, also moved up to Maine to help out. During tonight’s performance, she can be found working behind the bar.

Part of the Stone Mountain Arts Center experience is eating a delicious homemade meal before the show. Rather than sitting in rows of chairs before a stage, people are assigned to four- and eight-person tables on the main floor, or in the loft that has been built over the kitchen. Our server for the evening is Jackie Gardner, a floral designer who co-owns Moonset Farm in Porter with her husband, Mike. She offers recommendations on the menu, which features everything from macaroni and cheese and vegetarian chili to a “fruity but not snooty salad.” Across the room, full with the 200-person sellout crowd, one table celebrates a guest’s birthday with the help of a homemade brownie sundae and a “Happy Birthday” serenade.

Before long, Noonan, microphone in hand, is laying the ground rules of the performance as the lights go down. She reminds us not to use our cell phones—they don’t work here anyway—and that photography is not permitted. She gives a quick hug to one of the staff members as she returns the microphone. Then it is time for Los Lobos to take the stage. This six-man band, first formed in 1973 by guitarist/accordionist David Hidalgo and percussionist Louie Perez, has performed around the world. Native to East Los Angeles, the sunglasses-wearing lead singer jokes about our cold Maine temperatures. But they will provide their own heat, rocking the room with songs like “Made to Break Your Heart” and “Poquito Para Aqui.”

The darkness of the night breaks open with the energy of the band. For a few hours, gathered in a 200-year-old barn in a forest clearing, we let our spirits dance with the music of the wolves. It has been a journey well worth making.

“I’m still shocked when people drive up the road and when the room fills up,” says Noonan. “It is kind of that ‘Oh my God. What were we thinking and how lucky did we get that they actually did come?’”