In the early 2000s, the Rev. Ross Varney, pastor of Belleville Congregational Church received a telephone call.
The von Trapp great-grandchildren were going to be performing at the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts and wanted to get in some extra practice before their concert.
The church's neighbor, and the von Trapps' host, Ken Irwin inquired if it would be possible for the children to use the stage in the Newburyport church's historic 1867 Meeting House.
During the visit and subsequent conversations, Varney learned of Irwin and his wife's deep love of music — as well as his experience in the field. Irwin is a co-founder of Rounder Records.
Meanwhile, he continued to hear praise for the church's Meeting House. The space has traditionally been used by the Newburyport Choral Society for its performances.
"They always said we have the best acoustics of any venue in the region," Varney said.
He began to mull the idea of using the hall more for concerts and other performances. He reached out to Irwin for help with the plan. The church began hosting more performances.
Slowly, plans began to gain steam.
"It's a beautiful space for music," Varney said.
The Meeting House and adjacent Fiske Chapel complex have also been used for church dances, including a successful Mardi Gras celebration in March that officially kicked off the new Roots Music Concert Series at the church.
"People never left the dance floor for the full hour and a half," Varney said.
The program began last winter after Varney, Irwin and other church and community members formed an organizing committee. The all-volunteer group meets weekly and spends hours in their free time planning for the series. This year, the concert series included six concerts.
The group has two goals, Varney said. The first is to utilize the church's venues and its acoustics, while bringing "a variety of good-quality music" to Newburyport, he said.
The series aims to provide the audience with an opportunity to hear quality music performed locally, without having to drive to Boston, Irwin said.
By bringing in a diverse mix, organizers hope the community will be educated about new genres and the series will draw an audience of all ages, Irwin said.
The lineup for the series includes bluegrass, jazz, a capella, folk, Celtic, country and blues. As the series' name suggests, the program focuses on music rooted in various cultures.
"That's part of the learning experience, bringing music developed in other parts of the country and world to Newburyport," Varney said.
Prior to each concert, organizers will host a question-and-answer period with the performer and ask him or her to discuss the music and their influences.
The challenge with the format — and a new music type with each concert — is to draw fans of that genre to the show, Irwin said.
"It's a challenge; we're reinventing the wheel each time," he said.
Another goal of the Roots Music Series is to raise funds for maintenance and restoration of the historical Belleville church complex. The 19th century buildings have suffered water damage, committee member Diane Crofts said.
Irwin uses his contacts in the music world to bring talent to the city as he reaches out to musicians and agents. Typically, the series will strive to book a performer when he or she is already scheduled to be in the area, he said.
Irwin has a knack for finding "great talent at a reasonable price," Varney said, particularly rising talent, which was evident by the recent performance by Della Mae, an all-female bluegrass band rising in popularity.
The next performer in the series will take the stage tomorrow night. Grammy-nominated guitarist, singer and songwriter Bill Kirchen and his band, Too Much Fun, will host a Honky Tonk Holiday Concert and Dance.
According to the committee, Kirchen "celebrates an American musical tradition where rock 'n' roll and country music draws upon its origins in blues and bluegrass, Western swing from Texas and California Honky Tonk."
In addition to the concert, Kirchen will offer a guitar workshop on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. at Whole Music, 21 Water St., in Amesbury. While the workshop is open to all guitar players, it will appeal to roots-oriented guitarists. Tickets to the workshop are $30, with a special combination concert and workshop package available for $40.
As the series goes forward, organizers hope to offer more concerts with an extra element, such as the workshop or the recent community dinner with the von Trapp family singers, who recently returned to Newburyport — this time to perform for the Roots Music Series.
"We're trying wherever we can to build community," Varney said.
Kirchen's latest CD, "Word to the Wise," includes duets with many artists he has worked with during his career, including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Maria Muldaur and Dan Hicks.
IF YOU GO
What: A Honky Tonk Holiday Concert and Dance with Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun
When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m.
Where: Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport
Tickets: $25 at door ($20 in advance). $10 for children ages 12 and under. Advance tickets are available at church office today and tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Dyno Records, 1 Middle St., Newburyport; and online at www.bellevillechurch.org/concerts.
COMING UP NEXT
The upcoming performers in the Belleville Roots Music Series are:
Friday, Feb. 17: Mardi Gras celebration with Steve Riley and the Mamou Players
Thursday, March 15: St. Patrick's Day celebration and Celtic music by Teada
Saturday, April 21: Singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer