by Barney Quick
photo by Cindy Steele
In our music-saturated society we might be tempted to forget just how sublime a level of joy music can impart. A step inside The Joybell Theater and Gift Shop reminds us quickly.
Nashville’s retail establishments are customarily visually busy, but none celebrates music quite like this space at 79 N. Van Buren Street in the Iris Garden Complex. A P.A. system plays one of owner Kristine Stout’s exuberant bell treatments of a hymn. Shelves bulge with coffee mugs, coasters, bumper stickers, license plates, stationary, bookmarks, bookends, and pillows emblazoned with music notes. There are miniature violins, guitars, and necklaces sporting music-symbol charms. In case one still misses the message of music’s uplifting power, there is Stout’s sparkly demeanor. She greets every visitor as if the encounter were a singular joy.
The crux of the store’s purpose is to acquaint visitors with her work as a solo handbell ringer. She performs concerts in a charming theater in the back. She offers 30 and 60 minute shows upon request and also gives five minute mini-show demonstrations all day long.
The market for solo handbell players isn’t crowded. “A few people learn a few songs,” says Stout. “As a professional, I know about eighty songs. There are maybe a dozen of us nationwide.”
While she has been musical all her life, she didn’t learn about this instrument until 1992. “My mother and I attended a church in Kalkaska, Michigan,” Stout explains. “We traded the jobs of organist and choir director back and forth. The church got a donation of one octave of bells. It was the first time I’d ever seen a bell. The pastor said, ‘Can you do something musical with these?’”
They discovered that one octave’s worth of bells was rather limiting, so they held a fundraiser to acquire another. They formed a bell choir, which was well-received by the congregation.
Then Stout joined the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers. “They taught us what we needed to play them properly, such as pads, tables, and music,” she says.
She began attending the guild’s conferences in various cities. These featured classes in such aspects of the art as taking apart a bell, polishing it, and reassembling it. It was a class called “Adventures in Solo Ringing” that really set Stout on her current course. She learned about weaving, the technique of making a melody line seamless, with no gaps between notes. An important part of weaving is returning a bell to the same spot where one picked it up.
She began doing local performances and then booking tours, all the while working at a bank in Kalkaska. Her schedule of dates grew tenfold in three years.
One such tour brought her to south-central Indiana in 2001. A church music director told her about Nashville. “My husband and I had been considering a shop in a tourist place. I wanted to do daily shows and you have to have a constant stream of new people if you’re going to do that. We considered some of the tourist areas in northern Michigan, but we fell in love with Nashville. We looked for rental space and a house to buy.”
“My husband was an engineer and I was a banker,” she says. “Neither of us had ever been retailers. We made mistakes, but it’s been a wonderful adventure.”
Her show consists of her standing before an array of thirty-seven bells, lined up like the rows of white and black keys on a piano. She begins with some explanatory remarks and some humor—“My choir didn’t show up.” For those who have never heard handbells, especially playing sacred music, the experience can be surprisingly moving. Few instruments have such a rich, permeating tone.
She has recorded several CDs. The first is a sampler containing various types of music. The second is a fifty-five-minute solo called “The Story of Holy Week: An Easter Cantata.” The next two are Christmas compilations. Since releasing those, she has done more, some containing hymns and some focusing on classical pieces.
Stout is excited about several current and upcoming projects. In June, she videotaped this season’s show. “It’s the first to be released on DVD,” she explains. “In past seasons, we’ve just shown me performing. This will be the entire show—all the jokes, all the fun.” A new CD of hymns is in the works. It will probably be called “Glory in Joybells.” In January, February, and early March of 2007, she will tour southern Texas, performing at churches, conventions, RV parks, and banquets.
For a unique musical experience, contact her at (800) 462-1241 or visit her website:
<www.joybelltheater.com>. Be ready for your spirit to soar.