Jim Pennington toyed with the idea of giving up. Crowds were decent every now and then, but many nights they were sparse. Pennington, a truck driver by day, was losing more money than he could afford — which was not a lot in the first place.
He flipped a coin in The Listening Room’s parking lot: heads, stay open a little while longer; tails, close down. It came up heads, and that very night, local blues legend Lisa Mills played to a packed house. Soon, Mobile’s Eric Erdman did the same, and a stream of national Americana artists followed.
It is, as its name implies, a listening room — a place where singer-songwriters from all over America, including some of the best in Mobile, come to ply their trade before audiences who understand that they are there to listen. This, they know, or soon learn, is not a bar. Yes, beer and wine are offered, but there is no talking allowed during songs. It’s a formula made famous by the world-renowned Bluebird Cafe in Nashville and its counterparts scattered across the country — Passim in Boston; Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia; Moonlight on the Mountain in Birmingham.
In 2004, Pennington, an affable lover of music from country to jazz, folk and blues to rock ’n’ roll, found himself in another of these rooms, the Mucky Duck in Houston. The artist that night was Junior Brown, an alt-country legend who once played in the band Asleep at the Wheel. Pennington couldn’t believe the experience.
“I don’t think I’d ever heard of a listening room,” he said, “but here was a place that featured artists I was following, and people sat there listening. It was amazing. You could really connect with the artist without the distractions of a bar. I love honky-tonks as much as the next guy, but this was different.”
Later, after also visiting Eddie’s Attic, Pennington was struck by a simple idea. Maybe this could work in Mobile. The notion marinated for a while, and after one false start in Daphne — a hybrid listening room and bar that did not work out as he had hoped — Pennington found a room at 78 St. Francis St. His new dream venue, The Listening Room, opened its doors in 2015.
The first act was a gifted Gulf Coast artist named Randy Branch, but the crowd was small. That continued to be a problem as Pennington brought in singer-songwriters such as Anne E. DeChant, a country-rocker from Nashville who once shared the stage with Stevie Nicks and had a No. 1 song on the folk music chart. But she still played to a half-empty room.
Country singer Radney Foster, who has had 13 songs on the Billboard charts, has played The Listening Room twice, selling it out both times. Jimbo Mathus, lead singer for the jazz-rock band Squirrel Nut Zippers, has also played to overflow crowds. Country rocker Amy McCarley, who has opened for the likes of Ronnie Milsap, recently played selections from her new album, “MECO.” And DeChant returned to a much bigger audience the second time around.
“Jim Pennington puts the artist first,” says DeChant. “That’s the coolest thing you can ask.”
McCarley adds, “What Jim has built is an inviting, quiet space where artists can present their work to an attentive audience. He makes meaningful connection possible.”
On a couple of occasions, Pennington says, the crowds have tried to get a little rowdy. Whenever it happens, his shushing is diplomatic and firm.
“This is a listening room,” he reminds the attendees.
He knows it may take a little getting used to. But it is, after all, the thing that sets his venue apart.
The Listening Room | 78 St. Francis St. 367-4599