With its five colleges and population of the progressive, cultured, and curious, the Pioneer Valley in Western MA, and Northampton in particular, was an ideal spot for a new coffeehouse and music listening room in 1979. Not that there weren’t already plenty of clubs, concert halls, and boogie bars in the area, there were. But the Iron Horse Coffeehouse, which opened Saturday, February 24, 1979, with a capacity of 60 was different, soon becoming the heart of Northampton’s cultural renaissance. A couple of expansions brought that number up to 170 a decade later, along with a new name: the Iron Horse Music Hall.
But back on that chilly February night, Jimmy Carter was President, gas was $1.30 a gallon, and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by Rod Stewart topped the pop charts. And for one day only, you could get a cup of French Roast Coffee for a nickel at the Horse’s “Grand Opening,” heralded inauspiciously by a tiny 1/32-page ad in the Valley Advocate, the area’s local newsweekly. From the beginning, the room drew caffeine-hungry musicians, Smith professors, students, locals, and colorful street people by day and music lovers of all genres by night.
The Iron Horse was the vision of entrepreneurial Hampshire College grad Jordi Herold, and the club was named for a work of sculpture his mother had created. Soon after graduating Hampshire, Herold traveled to England, and inspired by “Leaving London,” a Tom Paxton song he was particularly fond of, visited the Troubadour and a light bulb went off in his head. In his memoir, Positively Center Street, Herold recalls musing in his journal at the time: “Wouldn’t it be great if there could just be a place where, by day, people could come by and hang out and be with each other, a space that wasn’t in their living rooms, where they could just be comfortable and read and write and talk? Where there wasn’t any pressure to move along. And at night there would be camaraderie and music…” On that late-February night in 1979, in the cozy confines of 20 Center Street, that vision was born.
From the beginning, the Iron Horse was home to a vast array of evening entertainment, and Herold proved himself to be something of a Renaissance man of booking. He built his business by bringing in acts he understood, and almost from the start the musical fare was diverse enough to set the Horse apart from the competition. It wouldn’t be long before folk, blues, and jazz were regularly on the club’s calendar, as were Afro-pop, women’s music (thanks to Carol Young’s Clay Lady Productions), rock, pop, new-wave, stand-up comedy, and classical.
Award-winning journalist, music lover, and co-author of Dingers: The 101 Most Memorable Home Runs in Baseball History, Tommy Shea tells the MMONE, “The Iron Horse, less than 30 minutes from my house, books or has booked most of the people in my music collection—from Dave Alvin to Warren Zevon. To quote John Prine: ‘How lucky can one man get?’”
“I mean I’ve seen Rosanne Cash there,” Shea continues. “T-Bone Burnett. Paul Kelly, all the way from Australia. Discovered Bill Morrissey and the Saw Doctors because of the Iron Horse, a place that can be as intimate as my living room, but with a better sound system.”
Over the years, the Iron Horse has become the namesake for the Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG), which now includes other Western MA venues including the stately Calvin Theatre and Performing Arts Center in Northampton, Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton, and Mountain Park in Holyoke.
Lifelong Western MA resident and musical legend Ray Mason has played the Horse on numerous occasions, both as a headliner and an opener. His bands The Ray Mason Band and The Lonesome Brothers Band have recorded dozens of albums, Mason has served as session player on such albums as Cheri Knight’s The Knitter, and he’s been subject of the It’s Heartbreak That Sells: A Tribute to Ray Mason (Tar Hut Records) album. Mason says, “It’s mind boggling how many amazing (and inspiring) shows I’ve been to over the years at the Iron Horse! I’ve also had the honor of opening for heroes of mine like Alejandro Escovedo, James McMurtry, Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Graham Parker… the list goes on. And did I mention what a great sounding room it is? The Iron Horse is all this and more!”
Mark Sherry, executive director and founder of the New Music Alliance, an organization dedicated to bolstering the Western New England music scene, says, “The Iron Horse has been instrumental in stimulating the music scene in Western Massachusetts. It established a venue in a relatively small-population area and it’s attracted some of the best music talent in the country. By doing so it’s played a significant part in establishing Northampton, MA as one of the top arts communities in the country. Though some people would like to see the Iron Horse do more to promote local talent, it occupies an important niche in the Western MA music scene.”
In the 25 years between 1979 and 2004—give or take a couple after Herold sold the club in 1994 and before he was hired back to book it for then-new owner Eric Suher—more than 8,500 shows were brought into the region under the Iron Horse banner, the vast majority of them at the club itself.
Since 2004, the Iron Horse continues to thrive under Suher’s ownership, and in 2019, a typical month’s calendar will be packed with an eclectic array of artists such as country star Chely Wright, rockers The Flamin’ Groovies, local legends Peter Newland (Fat, RadioX) and Norman Schell (Clean Living) together, bluesman Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, The Bad Plus, Elizabeth Cook, Willie Nile, and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. Although Jordi Herold has moved on, much of his original vision for an eclectic listening room remains intact, and more than four decades after that inauspicious opening night, the club, still at its original address on one of Northampton’s sleepy side streets, continues to draw music lovers hungry for a memorable night on the town.
(By David Sokol, co-author of Positively Center Street with Iron Horse founder Jordi Herold)