The Music Man

Grace Allen
Issue Date: 
September, 2018
Article Body: 

Ken Graves might just be the Don Law of Wrentham. As the founder of the popular OCC Coffeehouse, Graves has certainly done his part to promote the live music scene in the area. A new season of performances starts this month.
The OCC Coffeehouse, a non-profit, all-volunteer-run music venue, is held in the Original Congregational Church in downtown Wrentham. Established in 2013, the coffeehouse has grown from an occasional gospel concert to an organized, musically-diverse series that draws music aficionados from near and far.
Past performers have included Livingston Taylor, the Narragansett Bay Chorus, Donna Lee (Patsy Cline tribute band), and Erin Og. The music has ranged from folk and bluegrass to jazz and Cajun, with a sprinkling of classical thrown in.
“I like all kinds of music,” said Graves. “I try to have a variety of shows here, not just folk music. One of the things I was told early on was you really have to concentrate on one kind of music because then you build an audience in that area. I haven’t done that and it doesn’t seem to have hurt.”
Anyone else might find it daunting to start a coffeehouse from scratch, but Graves, an engineer by training, was confident he could figure it out. By visiting other coffeehouses, talking to organizers, and spending some time online, Graves has slowly built an expertise in finding performers and running the venue.
“Anybody who is willing to put in an effort and research things can learn how to do pretty much anything,” said Graves, who is 82. “I never had any concern that I couldn’t do something I didn’t already know, but it does take a lot of effort.”
Graves has found coffeehouse folks a congenial group, willing to share information and help each other out. The OCC Coffeehouse belongs to the Boston Area Coffeehouse Association, an organization that promotes communication and cooperation between coffeehouses to help spread awareness of the local live music scene.
The OCC concerts are held either in the church’s Fellowship Hall or sanctuary. The Fellowship Hall seats about 150 people, while the sanctuary can hold more than 350.
Ticket prices are reasonable, with most shows costing $20 for tickets purchased in advance.
“That’s much less than you’d pay for live music almost anywhere else,” noted Graves. “To be able to be up close to the performers, no parking fees, no hidden fees…that’s one of the draws for people.”
All proceeds from the concerts go to the Original Congregational Church. Graves believes the concerts help shine a positive light on the church by introducing newcomers to the historic building and by creating a community feel for members and visitors.
As the OCC concert series has grown, feedback has been extremely positive.
“I’ve had people come up to me after the concerts saying that was the best concert we’ve had yet. And then they’ll say it again the following week,” said Graves.
Graves advertises the concerts in local papers and online, and also the old-fashioned way: by driving around and putting up flyers. And the word is getting out. Last season, a couple drove down from Montreal just to see Livingston Taylor perform.
In fact, the coffeehouse’s success has come so quickly that a few concerts this season will have to be held at other locations because of scheduling difficulties.
On September 22, the Grammy Award-winning Kingston Trio will perform at the OCC Coffeehouse. The legendary folk icons’ songs include Sloop John B, The M.T.A., and Tom Dooley. Graves expects the concert to sell out.
Graves, who is retired, admits he likes to start things. He founded two software companies during his career. He helped start the Wrentham Tennis Club in the 1970s, when tennis was in its heyday. Later, Graves and State Senator Richard Ross established the Boston to Providence Genealogical Society. Genealogy is one of Graves’ hobbies, along with tennis, biking, running (he is a former marathoner), and of course music.
“I don’t like to just sit around and let things happen to me,” said Graves. “I’d rather try to figure out how to do things and make them happen.”
Graves, who has lived in Wrentham since 1972 along with his wife Sarah, says organizing and promoting the coffeehouse has been a labor of love. He plays no instruments, and most of his singing is done in the shower these days. But the coffeehouse has been a way to bring music to Wrentham, and introduce audiences to performers they may or may not have heard of.
“Where else can you see performers up close and just appreciate the music? You go over to Gillette Stadium and it’s a spectacle with a huge crowd,” said Graves. “I don’t enjoy that, looking at a screen because you can’t see the performer. Here you can see people who are musically as good as big star performers, and sometimes better. The music business is strange because you can have two groups who are of equal quality and one of them makes it and other one doesn’t. It depends on being at the right place at the right time.”
Whether the performers are household names or not, local music fans would likely agree that Graves has dedicated himself to bringing some really good talent to Wrentham.
For more information on the OCC Coffeehouse, visit www.muiscatocc.org. Contact Graves at [email protected] or call 508-384-3110 to get on the coffeehouse’s mailing list.