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Musical mysticism inside an old Story City church

An angled picture of the inside of The Social - with stained glass windows and church pews in sight.
Courtesy of The Social
The Social, which is a converted church in Story City, hosts musicians for occasional live, intimate concerts, complete with pie and ice cream.

In 2020, an old Methodist church in Story City was sold to a pair of local residents. robyn anderson saw an opportunity, and moved in to the old church. In the intervening four years, she's used the second floor sanctuary as an intimate performance venue, featuring some of Iowa's best-known musicians.

Every once in a while, robyn anderson invites a few dozen of her closest friends to the former church where she lives in Story City for pie, ice cream and music.

The crowd starts on the ground floor of the church with some afternoon socializing, spending about an hour eating and chatting. At the appointed time, everyone goes upstairs to the old sanctuary, where the musicians set up and play a pair of 45-minute sets. They pass around collection plates inherited from the church, with a suggested donation of $20.

Every penny goes to the musicians

Three men sit with their arms hanging over their knees, looking into the camera with varying facial expressions.
Courtesy of The Social
Jordan Messerole, Dave Moore and Matt Woods recently performed at The Social in Story City.

anderson, who spells her name with only lowercase letters, is the first to admit these events are not a moneymaking venture. And because of that, she might be the most unconventional entrepreneur in the entire live music industry. But she’s managed to book many of Iowa’s finest songwriters, including Dave Moore, Andrew Fleming and Casey Joe Collins. The appreciative audience, unique performance space and top-notch talent all combine to create a powerful, perhaps even mystical, experience.

On Sunday, April 28, the old church, which anderson calls The Social, will host its last announced performance, featuring Bo Ramsey and Dave Zollo.

What makes a church a unique performance space

The church was built in 1868 and was an active Methodist house of worship until 2020, when the building was sold to a pair of local residents. anderson, who up until then had been hosting musical performances in a small Story City studio, saw an opportunity to expand and rented the building. She moved in to the ground floor and began hosting shows upstairs. The church holds around 200 people and offers pristine acoustics and a historic atmosphere.

I don’t know exactly what it is about the space... it could be as a former church, it’s a place where all these major life events take place – funerals and weddings. It could be that it contains that energy in the space. I believe that can be a thing.
Iowa musician Dave Zollo

Dave Zollo, the Iowa City-area Americana songwriter and pianist who will open Sunday’s show, has played at The Social once before, in 2023. Zollo said his previous performance at the church stirred his emotions and helped him connect with the audience.

“I don’t know exactly what it is about the space,” Zollo said. “It could be as a former church, it’s a place where all these major life events take place – funerals and weddings. It could be that it contains that energy in the space. I believe that can be a thing.”

It might also be that anderson makes sure the musicians feel comfortable and cared for, which helps them access the emotional vulnerability that fuels a special performance, Zollo added. Or some confluence of all those factors might be what sets the venue apart. In any case, Zollo encourages Iowa music fans to attend a show at The Social to experience its unique blend of magic.

Zollo said audience members share a single purpose when they attend a performance at The Social: to focus on the music. It’s a listening room where anything that distracts from the musicians is strictly frowned upon.

The outside of The Social, a white-painted, converted church wit ha brown corner bell tower.
Courtesy of The Social
From the outside, The Social looks like any other church in the Midwest.

anderson's idea

anderson began booking shows at her previous space in 2018. Her son, a musician who played in the Iowa band Radio Moscow and currently plays in the European band Blues Pills, told her horror stories about traveling to far-flung venues where it was difficult to get paid and musicians weren’t afforded much in the way of respect or courtesy.

A music lover herself, with a rolodex full of Iowa’s top songwriters, anderson set out to create a space where musicians wouldn’t have to put up with those indignities and they could count on an appreciative audience and a fair paycheck. anderson's 2020 move meant her shows could accommodate bigger audiences.

anderson's passion for music comes out in her rapid-fire speech and ready enthusiasm for recommending artists she admires. She’s also a prolific concert photographer and has documented the shows she’s hosted with countless photos. It’s never been about the money, she says. It’s all about the music. She wants the artists to feel comfortable enough with the audience to be themselves and transcend some of the restrictions that may be placed on them in more formal settings.

“I want it to be like, ‘this is my friend, and they came over to play a few songs for us,’” anderson said. “That’s kind of the vibe I want.”

That attitude informs how she promotes The Social as well. You won’t find a website for the venue, and there’s no email list to sign up for. Because she lives in the church, she’s hesitant to advertise the address of the venue. Instead, she encourages anyone interested in attending shows to join a private group on Facebook she manages called “The Social,” where she posts information about upcoming performances. The group currently boasts about 450 members.

anderson has not announced any additional performances at The Social after Sunday’s show, and some uncertainty surrounds the future of the venue. She doesn’t own the space and, at 70 years old, she’s not sure she would want to take ownership of a historic building along with all the responsibility of its maintenance. But she knows she’ll continue booking shows for artists she likes, one way or another. In fact, she booked the High-Jivers, a touring rock band formed in Nashville, Tenn., for a show for this summer at Lefty’s Live Music in Des Moines.

If you'd like to see Dave Zollo and Bo Ramsey at The Social this Sunday, it's at 1 p.m. You can find more information by e-mailing robyn.

Fred Love is a contributing writer covering music for Iowa Public Radio. Love is a father, husband, communications professional and passionate music fan. He lives in Ames where he participates in the local music scene and is a co-producer of the Maximum Ames Music Festival. He blogs at