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A beloved open mic event returns after a pandemic hiatus


A beloved event has returned to a mountain town in upstate New York. January Jams is an open mic night that's been taking place every Sunday this month. B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music, wasn't there. But North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell was.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Upper Jay, N.Y., is basically a bend in the road in the Adirondack Mountains. It's a tiny town. On this Sunday night, it's snowing and there's a deep chill in the air. But step inside the local arts center, and it's warm and cozy and buzzing with music.




RUSSELL: Ricky Fitts is sitting front and center. His fingers are flying across the electric bass.


RUSSELL: Fitts is performing here at January Jams. It's a four-hour, open-mic event every Sunday this month.


RICKY FITTS: That's all I got. Thank you.


FITTS: I don't know. I had a few beers. It sounded good to me. I'm not really sure what it was (laughter). It just, you know - kind of improvised, I guess - had some fun.

RUSSELL: Fitts grew up in the Adirondacks. He's one of about 20 musicians on the lineup tonight. That may sound like a lot, but this event is also a kind of potluck, with two guarantees - free local beer and a plate of sliced ham. Fitts is a big fan of January Jams.

FITTS: It was warm and friendly and inviting, and there's really good ham, so (laughter) yeah.

RUSSELL: Gabrielle Schutz is the one who cooks the ham every Sunday. Schutz is the artistic director here at the Upper Jay Arts Center.

GABRIELLE SCHUTZ: When I took this position, it was, like - one of the stipulations was like, the jams must go on. The jam must go on.


RUSSELL: That's Nate Curtis on the trumpet. His performance fills the room with even more warmth. Folks are curled up in armchairs, cozied up in couches. It feels like we're all just in someone's living room. Curtis says the vibe in here is one of his favorite things about the event.

NATE CURTIS: It's just a beautiful place to be and listen to music, as well as to play. And as I explained when I played, I suffer from terrible stage fright, so the hominess helps me quite a bit.

RUSSELL: One of the last people to play tonight is Caitlin Kelly. Like Curtis, she's honest with the crowd, says it's not easy getting up on stage like this.

CAITLIN KELLY: Normally, I play with a band, so - I don't know if I already said this, but being alone is a little scary for me. But it's fun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You were fantastic.

KELLY: Thank you. I have one more.


KELLY: Yeah. Thank you. And I just learned this yesterday.

RUSSELL: Kelly plays a song called "Little Big Girl." It's by the Vermont singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell.

KELLY: (Singing) You grow up by mistake, grow up by surprise, grow up underneath the gaze of many grown men's eyes.

RUSSELL: At the end of the night, Gabrielle Schutz leads us all in a slow, synchronized applause.


RUSSELL: It's a kind of celebration of the performers, but also of the magic of live music, particularly in the middle of winter in a place as tiny as Upper Jay, N.Y.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID HOLMES' "YEN ON A CAROUSEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell