Dan Rustad and Ray Coudret joined a music swap in Northfield back in 2006. Their friend Joel Leer gathered friends — teachers, engineers, doctors, a furniture maker — at their homes, in local pubs and around campfires. Each month, a different person would bring in copies of a new CD to listen to and discuss.
"You really get a good smattering of different musical tastes," said Coudret, a musician and assistant principal in Northfield.
The CD club is still going strong, but since then Rustad and Coudret have also launched the 411 Concert Series. The series, now in its third year, draws both notable local musicians and nationally touring acts — primarily of the folk singer-songwriter ilk — to the Northfield Arts Guild Theater.
"It's kind of a quirky old church," Coudret said of the venue. "The acoustics are great."
Both he and Rustad had long considered the former church at 411 W. Third St., which seats about 120 people, as a great place for a possible listening room.
"It was just a real warm, intimate venue," said Rustad.
They approached Ann Mosey, former executive director of the Northfield Arts Guild, who said she replied, "Yes, yes, yes and yes."
"It's not posh, I'll tell you that," she said of the space, converted into a theater in 1959 by the arts guild, which stages local drama performances. Coudret and Rustad make use of that drama, often pulling random theater set remnants to the stage before a show. Musicians, they said, have been known to appear for encores in new outfits after raiding costume racks backstage.
The selection process for 411 Concert Series musicians seems to mirror that of their CD club, Coudret said: "We just look at who we're interested in … and who we're passionate about. We think it's music people should know about."
"Some of the artists we've gotten play much larger venues," Rustad said.
Take, for example, the upcoming, sold-out Jan. 24 performance by Gary Louris of the alt-country Jayhawks. Ruth Moody of the Wailin' Jennys played last fall, bringing in fans from out of state, said Rustad.
"Fans of artists want to be close to the music," he said.
Rustad said they also like to expose people to lesser-known musicians, like Montana folk singer Martha Scanlan or Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Caroline Herring. On May 9, they'll bring in Tom Brosseau, a singer-songwriter originally from North Dakota who now lives in Los Angeles. (More information about the performances is online at http://northfieldartsguild.org/music/411-series/.)
"It's fun to bring those people in," Rustad said.
Each of the main acts opens up with a local musician. The Louris show will open with Terry VanDeWalker, of the Minnesota jam band the Big Wu. Daniel Groll, frontman of the Counterfactuals, an indie rock group composed of local professors, will open for Brosseau.
So far, every show has sold out, which Rustad and Coudret said needs to happen for them to keep it going.
Mosey, of the arts guild, said the series has brought in just enough to cover overhead with a few hundred dollars left over at the end of the season.
"It brings in enough that we're investing in a little better sound equipment," she said.
The 411 Concert Series stays afloat with reasonable ticket prices — they range from $20 to $25 — because the use of the theater is free and local businesses offer various in-kind donations. For example, the local Archer House provides lodging. Everything else is staffed by volunteers: Coudret does sound, Rustad handles the booking, and friends man the merchandise and drink tables.
Each season features three shows and while they have thought of adding more, Rustad said, they don't plan to expand it much, if at all.
They both have day jobs, and, as is, the series is "still fun for us," said Rustad.
Coudret agreed: "Part of the trick is keeping it special."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.