Now in its 12th season, the Shitty Barn in Spring Green keeps creating magic

It’s precisely the Shitty Barn’s ramshackle, homespun quality that keeps concertgoers and artists coming back.
Jesse Dayton performing in the Shitty Barn
Photo by Connie Ward Photography | Artist: Kevin Morby

There’s no shortage of explanations for how the Shitty Barn earned its name. The seasonal music venue, which was once a hog barn, sits in an industrial park adjacent to a self-storage facility in Spring Green. Its dark red siding is full of woodpecker holes. There’s no permanent seating — guests are asked to bring their own camping chairs — and the only public restrooms are a line of dimly lit port-a-potties out back.

The May-to-October concert schedule is short by necessity; there’s no HVAC system, so the venue closes when the temperature dips and the bats and squirrels move in. The slogan that graces promotional materials, penned by one of the previous owners, reads, “Intimate. Integrated. Shitty.”

Yet for all the venue’s alleged flaws, it’s precisely the Shitty Barn’s ramshackle, homespun quality that keeps concertgoers and artists coming back.

“There’s a certain magic to it,” says singer-songwriter Mason Jennings, who has played the barn four times. “Moments before going onstage, standing in a field and looking through the windows of a little barn full of happy folks beneath a summer moon makes me feel connected to an earlier era of live music. It’s a reminder of what is essential about music and community.”

The Shitty Barn has worked hard to cultivate that sense of community since Chris Staples and Martha McCamy opened the place in 2010. The current owners cap attendance at 110 to preserve the intimate feel. Local designers create posters for each show. To attract artists who might not otherwise make the trip to Spring Green — about 40 miles west of Madison — the venue books many concerts for Wednesdays, which are traditionally nights off in artists’ touring schedules. As a result, the barn has hosted an impressive list of talent over the years, including Jennings, Black Pumas, Lilly Hiatt, Damien Jurado, Margaret Glasby, PHOX, Heartless Bastards, Low and Field Report.

lights inside The Shitty Barn

Photo by Connie Ward Photography | Artist: Jesse Dayton

In some years, the opportunity to see major acts in such a small setting has created overwhelming demand: It’s not uncommon for entire runs of shows to sell out in as little as six minutes, and twice they’ve sold out within one minute. “The biggest downside of the Shitty Barn for a lot of people is that they’re unable to get tickets,” says Owen Brush, who manages the bar.

Guests come to the Shitty Barn largely for its welcoming vibe and eclectic offerings. This year’s lineup ranges from blues rock (The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band) to honky-tonk (Logan Ledger) to Latin folk rock (Radio Free Honduras) to steel drum (Panchromatic Steel) to psychobilly (The Yawpers) to jazz (Cerqua Rivera Orchestra and Frank Catalano). But they also come for the moments of magic, which occur frequently.

Mike Lashua, a co-owner who runs sound, remembers a show in 2013 when the evening’s host approached singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston between songs and casually suggested they finish his set outside around the campfire. “And that’s what we did,” Lashua says. “I turned off the sound system and we all walked outside and gathered around the fire while he finished his last few songs beside the warm glow. You really can’t do that in many places.”

Here’s the late-summer show lineup.

Cerqua Rivera Orchestra, July 27
American Players Theatre sound designer Joe Cerqua and his fellow talented musicians return with a mix of original songs and covers. The orchestra comprises half of the Chicago-based Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, which for more than two decades has taken a fresh approach to concert dance by placing its jazz ensemble onstage next to the dancers.

Radio Free Honduras, Aug. 3
The four-piece ensemble is fronted by Honduran folk musician Charlie Baran, a former Catholic school custodian who had all but given up on his dream of recording and performing his original music before Radio Free Honduras was formed. While heavily influenced by the Punta-rock genre that Baran helped pioneer, the band performs a wide variety of styles they generally refer to as Latin Americana.

Kiss the Tiger and Joshua Powell, Aug. 17
This double bill promises to be among the most spirited — and loudest — offerings of the summer schedule. Twin Cities rockers Kiss the Tiger draw influence from The Rolling Stones and Patti Smith, while psychedelic rockers Joshua Powell bill themselves as “Indiana’s most haunted astral rock band.”

The Deslondes, Sept. 28
Following a July solo show from band member Riley Downing, acclaimed New Orleans quintet The Deslondes returns to the Shitty Barn in September for a set that mixes folk, rock, bluegrass, American roots music, blues, country and zydeco.

Jeff Oloizia is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

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