Can One Hit Album Change a Whole Town?

Fans of Noah Kahan's "Stick Season" have turned Strafford, Vermont into a tourist destination

March 14, 2024 6:36 am
Noah Kahan
Fans of Noah Kahan are flocking to Stafford, Vermont
Danica Killelea

Last April, it was Cornelia Street. Taylor Swift fans made pilgrimages to the star’s old New York apartment after she parted ways with the actor Joe Alwyn — observing tearful and almost religious (if overplayed) moments of silence, bouquets of flowers in hand. In a song which shares the street’s name, Swift promises that if she ever “lost” Alwyn, “[she’d] never walk Cornelia Street again,” which prompted Swifties to make this visit for her.

Now, it’s Strafford, Vermont. In a similar vein (alas, without the grieving), Noah Kahan’s hit album Stick Season is inspiring devotees of his folky sound, nostalgia-laced lyricism and adorably unhinged social media presence to venture on road trips to the place Kahan calls home. The locale has a population of a thousand residents, give or take, and largely managed to elude the outsider’s gaze before October 2022, when Stick Season was first released. 

This fan-fueled phenomenon can be best described as musical “set-jetting.” The term in its original meaning implies a kind of TV tourism — travelers booking trips to destinations featured in their favorite shows or movies. In the world of music, it apparently means making purposeful excursions to a tiny, out-of-the-way town in New England for the sake of popping into the general store Noah Kahan adores, snapping photos of the Alger Brook Road sign (Kahan used to live on that road and sings about it in “The View Between Villages”) and imagining what it would feel like to grow up in a place where everyone knows your name.

Julia Olinger, a wedding photographer from Boston, took the trip out to Strafford last August with her partner. Olinger, who was visiting her friend in town, at first didn’t realize this was the Strafford which raised Noah Kahan. 

“I was a huge fan of Noah before we drove up there,” Olinger tells InsideHook. “It turns out my friend knew someone that went to high school with him.”

During her Strafford getaway, Olinger visited a quaint farmers market called Crossroads, as well as the local airport. Its owner, Olinger learned, used to offer hot air balloon rides and was a collector of old clocks, hot air balloon baskets, plane engines and other curiosities. All of these items ended up in an on-location museum, which is free to visit — a hidden gem, one might say, because it hasn’t yet been name-dropped on one of Kahan’s tracks.

Olinger capped off her trip with a swim in the Old City Falls and a hike up the local mountains. She found Strafford just as peacefully bucolic as Kahan described it: curve of the valley, lungs full of crisp air, the world “seem[ing] so simple.”

“Noah has a lot of lyrics that refer to the open land of Vermont, and you really don’t understand that until you go [there] and realize you could drive for miles and not hit anything,” Olinger says. “There’s a beauty to that. When I listen to his music, I now picture myself in Vermont.”

Jillian Cutone, a photographer from New Jersey and a trained occupational therapist, discovered Kahan a few years ago on TikTok and became instantly enchanted by his self-deprecating humor, how he spoke about real-life issues like mental health and his explorations of the concept of homesickness. Last fall, on her way back from a trip, she was driving through Vermont and decided to stop by Strafford, which was only a little bit out of the way.

“It was cool to see the album photo of the post office in person. I think it was a Sunday or a Saturday, so the town was empty,” Cutone says. “I pulled over and there was this big dog barking at me like, ‘Hey, get out of here!’ while I was taking a picture. I thought, ‘This makes sense!’ People in that town, they’re doing their own thing. They’re relaxing on the weekend.”

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Knowing her visit couldn’t be complete without a stop at Coburns’ General Store, Cutone bought coffee there and a special Noah Kahan x Two Roads Brewing Company “Northern Attitude” IPA. 

“I think the majority of the people in the store were way older. They were talking about the chili competition that happened the day before and buying their daily newspaper. It was just the cutest thing to see,” Cutone says.

Her detour to the village inspired in Cutone even more respect for Noah Kahan as an artist and a person. “He’s getting more comfortable with the fame, but you can tell he’s still his quirky self that grew up in Strafford. I don’t think that’s something that you experience often with artists who [come from] such a small-town upbringing,” she says.

She posted about the trip on Instagram, making sure to put in a disclaimer. “If you choose to visit places like this, please do so respectfully as this is not a tourist attraction but a community just moving through their day as we move through their village,” part of the caption reads.

Could the influx of Noah Kahan fans (demographically speaking anyone from tween girls who scream-cry at his concerts to flannel-clad, millennial aficionados of the genre of music sometimes called “stomp clap hey”) be precisely what ends up ruining Strafford’s pastoral bliss? Given the fact that Kahan was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy and that Stick Season (Forever) — the last iteration of his album — was recently released to much acclaim, Strafford just might need to build more parking spaces.

But Melvin Coburn, lifelong resident of Strafford and proprietor of Coburns’ General Store, isn’t worried. The man, almost 80, has known Kahan for a long time. In fact, because of their warm relationship and how important visits to the store were for Kahan over the years, a recording of Coburn’s voice is heard on the extended version of “The View Between Villages.”

“When he’s home, around the holidays or something like that, Noah usually pops in, and we get a chance to chat with him and find out how things are going,” Coburn says. “He’s still an everyday person, which impresses me. He didn’t get a ‘big head’ out of what’s going on — you wouldn’t know he was a popular music star by any means.”

Coburn thinks Kahan can be single-handedly credited with “putting Strafford on the map,” which he views in a positive light. It’s a chance for him and other longtime residents to meet new people (“The other day we had a mother and her daughters come from Washington State to see the store,” Coburn tells InsideHook), as well as to view places they’ve grown up around — as mundane as the post office — with newfound appreciation.

“It’s fun to meet these people from other parts of the country that are making special trips to our little town, just to see and marvel at something that we’ve always taken for granted. That’s something I never dreamt would happen. We’re all enjoying it so much,” Coburn says.

Kahan himself is pleasantly surprised at how ubiquitous the once-niche Strafford became — at least in the minds of his two million Instagram followers, Spotify listeners who made sure his album reached a billion streams last October and all those who keep selling out his arena concerts. 

“They’re singing about specific roads in a town that no one in New England knows about, let alone people in London,” Kahan told the New York Times, referring to his British fans an ocean away from Strafford.

In fact, Kahan seems to intentionally tap into the hype surrounding Strafford set-jetting. On Apple Music’s “Hyperlocal” series, which highlights celebrities’ go-to spots around the world in the form of easy-to-follow guides, he pinpoints his favorite hibachi restaurant, burger joint, pond and country club where he learned to play golf. Kahan also shouts out the Hanover Strings guitar shop in Hanover, New Hampshire — only a 30-minute drive from Strafford — as the place where he first got good at the instrument which now seems to be his natural extension. 

Last year, a Reddit user shared on the thread r/NoahKahan that, during their Strafford visit, they popped over to Hanover Strings per Kahan’s recommendation. 

“The one dude working at Hannover Strings [sic]… is total bros with Noah so it was cool to hear about how Noah likes to come in to hang out and [I] also got a little story about the recording of Stick Season,” the user wrote.

If there are two virtues Noah Kahan embodies, they are honesty and empathy — and this is making the mild tourist “surge” in Strafford easier on local business owners like Melvin Coburn.

“Noah told us he doesn’t want his popularity to become a nuisance to us. By all means it hasn’t been, and we certainly don’t foresee this happening. We enjoy the little bit of popularity that we have,” Coburn says.

This kind of concern, Coburn believes, “shows you the type of guy that Noah is. He’s concerned about how we feel and the reaction that we’re getting here.”

Coburn has owned his namesake store for almost 47 years and is in the process of selling it, ahead of a well-deserved retirement. “I kind of joke to some of the customers that, gee, maybe I won’t sell the store after all, since it’s getting so popular!” he adds.

While the establishment is still up and running under the Coburn name, its owner recognizes that a big driver of business is Noah-Kahan-branded paraphernalia of all sorts. Locals and tourists alike come especially for the postcards, sweatshirts (which tend to sell out in mere days) and t-shirts. Coburns’ has long been the town’s main hub for fresh meat and produce, dry goods, hardware and local artisan goods, so, though Coburn definitely sees an uptick in sales, Kahan’s arguably meteoric rise in the music world hasn’t altered profits dramatically.

“Maybe it would have if he won the Grammy!” the almost-octogenarian jokes lovingly.

Instagram reels and TikToks depicting Strafford street signs against a hilly backdrop — set to songs millions of indie enthusiasts know by heart — are flooding the online space with no end in sight. The consensus seems to be that this is a net positive, or at least neutral, development: as long as it helps fans become more intimate with Noah Kahan’s upbringing and message, while keeping the town’s natural rhythms intact. 

“Strafford’s a wonderful town. It’s not only beautiful, but it’s also a great place to live,” Coburn says. “The people are so friendly, so caring and so community-oriented.”

Noah Kahan — perhaps Strafford’s most famous resident (he shares the town’s “Notable people” Wikipedia section with a 19th century Surgeon General of the United States Army, an Olympic equestrian, a senator and a notable Beat poet, among others) — would likely agree with that assessment. After all, despite the fact that he sings that he’s “tired of dirt roads / Named after high school friends’ grandfathers,” Vermont keeps pulling him back into its gruff yet welcoming embrace. 

“I will die in the house that I grew up in,” Kahan promises in the song “Homesick” — surrounded by farms and clapboard houses that people as far away as Australia, fascinatingly, now know the look of.

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