New Huntsville music venue aims for vintage vibes, rising touring acts –

Even though St. Stephens Music Hall hasn’t opened yet, inside it looks like this venue has existed for decades. The walls are covered with yesteryear gig flyers and band promo photos, random objects ranging tribal masks to skateboard decks — all sorts of funky miscellany. Vintage church pews have been repurposed as booth seating. The L-shaped bar’s red-sparkle surface evokes a ‘70s bicycle seat aesthetic. It all looks naturally accumulated though, not curated or set-decorated.

St. Stephens Music Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. (Matt Wake/

St. Stephens owners John Chamness and Evan Billiter aim to bring back the shaggy charms of Kaffeeklatsch Bar, original location Crossroads Music Hall and Tip-Top Café, as well as the rising roots-music touring talent that came through those three defunct Huntsville venues.

St. Stephens Music Hall owners John Chamness and Evan Billiter. (Courtesy John Chamness)

Old Crow Medicine Show just played the Orion [Amphitheater in 2022],” Chamness says, referring to the Grammy-winning Americana band known for the song “Wagon Wheel.” “The first time they played here it was at the ‘Klatsch and they were probably 10 of us there. Avett Brothers played the Crossroads. But once Crossroads closed and the ‘Klatsch closed, those bands don’t come here anymore.”

On the St. Stephens walls, longtime Huntsvillians will notice a couple tips of the hat to bygone venues, including a reproduction of the same framed Elvis Presley photo that adorned the Kaffeeklatsch Bar.

St. Stephens Music Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. (Matt Wake/

From the outside, St. Stephens currently looks like, well, nothing. An old, plain white building with a gravel parking lot at 201 Stokes St. in West Huntsville. It’s on the same block as a metal shop and other blue-collar businesses. Chamness says St. Stephens will open by the end of this year. And if every single thing goes right, a rare occurrence in readying a new venue, they’ll open around Halloween.

Co-owner Evan Billiter outside St. Stephens Music Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. (Matt Wake/

St. Stephens Music Hall is named for the Grateful Dead song “St. Stephen.” And yes, there’s no apostrophe in the venue’s name, as Chamness wanted to keep things simple for filling out all the different licenses and permits, he says.

The space is roughly 2,400-square-feet and will have a capacity of around 80. But with its high ceilings and a raised, red velvet curtain adorned stage it feels bigger than that.

The floor is outfitted with tables and an array of thrift-store-looking seating, but for some artists the owners plan removing all that for standing-room only shows. For some bigger touring acts, they also plan on doing multiple shows by that particular act in one night, old-school style.

St. Stephens Music Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. (Matt Wake/

And with features like a green room, house P.A. and a direct and easy load-in door, St. Stephens is set up to be a legit if cozy venue. Billiter says, “It’s not a bar that happens to have bands that play here. The focus is what’s on the stage.”

As founder of Lowe Mill’s long-running Concerts on the Dock series and the person who booked it for six years, Billiter has a keen ear for catching bands on the way up. Billiter, who also will be handling St. Stephens booking, brought bands like St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Shovels & Rope to Concerts on the Dock before they ascended to bigger stages. “It’s just awesome to be able to experience some of that stuff earlier on, when they’re baby bands,” Billiter says.

St. Stephens Music Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. (Matt Wake/

St. Stephens plans to focus on folks, bluegrass, singer/songwriter and roots-rock acts, but they’ll also occasionally feature hip-hop, alternative and other genres. “Venues have an identity,” Billiter says. “Just like for punk and metal shows in Huntsville, it’s Copper Top, it’s Maggie Meyers, it’s Shagnasty’s. Is that something that’s going to be a forte here? Probably not. And that’s okay.”

Local music will also be a slice of the pie at St. Stephens Music Hall, but they’re going to be selective, says Chamness, a Butler High School grad. “We’re gonna definitely feature local music, but not to the degree that everyone else is. And a lot of people cringe when I say that. Look, I appreciate local artists — I really, really do — and I’m born and raised in Huntsville. I remember, when it was very hard for a local artist to find a stage, but that’s not the case now. There are a million stages in Huntsville now, to the point where a lot of [local acts] are oversaturated.”

Local musician Alan Little, whose band Little and the Giants is one city’s best acoustic acts focusing on original music, recently was invited to check out St. Stephens Music Hall. In addition to the Kaffeeklatsch, this new venue echoes the energy he loved about Tangled String Studios, the local guitar-making shop that hosted well-received listening room style shows, by the likes of American star Amanda Shires and Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson, for a few years pre-pandemic.

Little says of St. Stephens, “It has a vibe so thick you can cut it. It’s cozy, it’s feels good – it feels like you’re in someone house.” He calls Billiter, who’s also been a key player in local festival Microwave Dave Day, “a force. I’ve never seen somebody more willing and more selfless about our local music scene.”

Co-owner Evan Billiter inside St. Stephens Music Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. (Matt Wake/

St. Stephens is looking at having shows Wednesdays through Saturdays. Cover charges/tickets will typically run $10 to $20, with some touring acts at $30, which isn’t atypical these days in many markets. “People need to start getting used to paying for shows,” Billiter says. Since this is the cashless era, St. Stephens will offer options for guests to pay for tickets/covers digitally. Most shows will start earlier than later, cribbing from a facet that’s made Concerts on the Dock appealing.

Initially, Chamness and Billiter will comprise St. Stephens staffing, down to bartending for shows, to keep overhead manageable. In addition to their own music lineup, St. Stephens Music Hall’s owners plan on making the venue available to local promoters to put on their own shows there.

Chamness and Billiter both developed a fondness for roots music decades ago. Chamness’ mom, Monica Mauk, quit her job as a brokerage banker to start a MerchMerch, a Huntsville based company that made T-shirts and other tour merch for bands including Old Crow Medicine Show.

When he was in high school, Chamness’ mom introduced him to the music of the Grateful Dead, and they eventually started to going to jam-band and roots-music festivals together. Chamness, who works as a real estate title abstractor by day, met Billiter at a Florida music festival, “and we’ve been tight ever since.”

About two years ago, Chamness called Billiter on the phone and said, “My dream is to own a venue and I want you to help me run it and book.” Because of zoning, finding a spot to do a small local venue can be a challenge. The Roker Street building was formerly a church. When Chamness was first shown the space, the interior was painted purple and white, and it was difficult for him to see it as a music venue. However, he later came around to the potential and in January this year they signed on.

Born in Australia and a longtime Huntsville resident, as a teenager Billiter was into “rebellious” music, like hip-hop and Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Later he started going to roots music festivals, and fell in love with the culture of community, kindness and sharing at those events. “And then I started to love bluegrass,” Billiter says, “because it was the soundtrack of that experience.”


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