All photos by Kari Paul
It is a picturesque July evening in small town Iowa and Kristian Matsson, the 32-year-old artist better known as Tallest Man on Earth, is running a few minutes late for his show. The thunderstorm warnings and sweltering heat that stuck to the air for the better part of the day have given way to a clear, star-filled sky above barn-turned-music-venue Codfish Hollow.
Folk-rock musician Lady Lamb just finished a commanding opening performance and the stage inside is now set for Tallest Man on Earth, with the sound check finished and around a half dozen guitars lined up for him to play. As the minutes tick by, the crowd starts shifting in their spots and chattering aimlessly until finally, Matsson bursts through the door from behind the barn onto the stage and blows a small, glowing firefly out of his hands into the crowd.
“We almost didn’t make the show because we were trying to catch fireflies––we don’t have those in Sweden,” he jokes before breaking into a cover of folk song “East Virginia.”
Moments like this would seem overdone, if not at least too fairytale-like to be true anywhere else, but they they feel natural at Codfish Hollow, a sprawling farm venue attracting increasingly major names in indie music. It sits nestled in a remote valley outside of the population-6,000 town of Makoqueta, Iowa. In the miles of gravel roads surrounding it on either side there is almost no indication of its existence, save for the occasional, hand-painted “barn show, turn here!” and “almost there!” signs along the way.
Tiffany Biehl, who owns the farm with her husband, says it has been in her family since 1871 when her great-great grandfather emigrated from Germany and built a log cabin there. The bluff where the cabin once stood now overlooks a barn that has hosted artists including Norah Jones, Counting Crows, KT Tunstall, Conor Oberst, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The small, charmingly dilapidated house at the bottom of the hill where her grandfather was born has become an gallery with rotating local artists as a side attraction at each Codfish Hollow show, and the stalls beneath the barn that once held cattle are now home to vendors that sell vintage clothing, buttons, and artwork.
Biehl says she always thought the barn could be used for more than just storing hay, and the opportunity finally came to her in 2009 when a friend forwarded her a message from Daytrotter, a recording website based in neighboring Davenport, Iowa. Its founder, Sean Moeller, had put out a call for barns to host a “barnstormer” tour across the Midwest that summer. He soon came to check out the Biehl property, and ten days later, indie band Local Natives was on the floor for Codfish Hollow’s first show.
“All we could do was get most of the hay out really quickly and try to clean it up––we pulled it together last minute and it was so awesome we just wanted to keep doing it,” Biehl says. “And we did.”
Since then, more than 160 artists have cycled through. The Biehls have set up beer tents on the lawns, brought in local food trucks, constructed an actual stage inside the barn, and beefed up the sound system which—accompanied by the acoustics of the barn that Tiffany says is “a speaker itself”—adds serious technical chops to back up the quaint appeal of the venue.
Although the shows have become more refined and the bands bigger since the first show on the bare floorboards of the 50-year-old barn, much of what goes into a Codfish Hollow experience has remained the same. There are still hay bales inside, but now they’re for concert-goers to sit on during the show. Visitors park in an open cattle field upon arrival, setting up tents if they plan to camp overnight and then Marvin, a farm hand who has been with the Biehl family for more than 60 years, ferries them to the show in a tractor-drawn hayrack ride. As passengers bob down the dirt path framed by Queen Anne’s Lace and dandelions, the barn rising into view, they enter an experience Moeller says is difficult for him to put into words.
“There have been a lot of really beautiful photos and videos taken from that barn and I still think they only show one tenth of what it actually feels like to see a show there,” he says. “It really does become kind of a religious experience––it makes you feel very human, and very insignificant, and yet there is no place you’d rather be.”
Visitors to Codfish Hollow offer similar descriptions. Moeller says there is a core crowd of about 50 regulars who come to nearly every show, and the rest of the 550 people filling the barn to capacity often come from neighboring cities after reading about it in the local paper, or are die-hard fans who drove in from around the country to see their favorite band. One attendee, Tim Farquer, had driven more than two hours from Peoria, Illinois to see Tallest Man on Earth, his second show at the venue.
“It’s all just such a good vibe: the hayrack ride, the vendors, the barn itself,” he says. “Obviously we come here to see the music, but it’s everything else that comes with it that gives you every reason to come back.”
It’s easy to write off the starry-eyed descriptions of Codfish Hollow as exaggerations, and many music fans on the coasts will find it hard to believe the hype over a stage in the middle of a cornfield. But bands seem to agree, because many keep asking to come back. Moeller says that at first he had to reach out to artists himself, but now he finds many approach him after hearing about Codfish Hollow through the music scene or seeing it on social media.
He attributes much of this to the hospitality at the venue. Musicians and their crew typically stay with the Biehls, eat home-cooked meals, and roam around the fields––a welcome respite from the endless march of hotels on most tours.
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, for example, asked to play the venue after watching a video of a show on YouTube. Both Jenny Lewis and Dinosaur, Jr., the latter of which is playing the barn this weekend, contacted Biehl directly asking to play. Moeller says that with this momentum he hopes the barn could become a bucket list item similar to destinations like Red Rock in Colorado.
“Codfish Hollow is, on a smaller scale, something of that nature,” he says. “The beauty of it is a great enhancer of the music––lots of bands sound better out there and perform better. If a band you love is playing there, you’ll leave feeling like you saw that band in the best place you could ever see that band.”
Such intimate experiences are difficult to beat, especially in the midst of the ballooning music festival scene, 25 years after Lollapalooza brought the first of its kind to the U.S. Visitors to Codfish Hollow won’t be able to cycle through a dozen bands in a day; they aren’t going to end up in a Coachella-esque slideshow on some fashion blog. There isn’t even cell phone service on most of the property; you’ll have to wait until you get home to Instagram. It seems unlikely the deliberate, slow-paced environment of Codfish Hollow could easily replicated anywhere else, and Moeller wants to keep it that way. He says that he turns down many artists who ask to play there in order to maintain a modest number of shows each year and retain the same charm that comes so easily to the venue now.
Closing out his set by playing “Dark Bird is Home,” Matsson—who had earlier in the show played “Little Nowhere Towns” and described growing up in ‘Bumfuck, Sweden”—seems to have been wrapped up in the magic of the space as well.
“This whole day has been crazy. We’ve just been laying down on the lawn and having puppies running around us and biting our ears and eating amazing food. I’ve been driving an old ‘80s suburban around the fields–-this might not even be real,” he says. “Is this real?”
Kari Paul is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.