The guests take their golden seats surrounded by pink plastic penguins, golden glitter, and avant-garde artwork. Those clad in tailored tuxedos, twirled mustaches, and la haute société fascinator hats fit for royalty rub elbows with others sporting thrift store threadsrainbow slit dresses, bolero ties, silver oxfords.

Inside the 21c Museum Hotel ballroom, a hush falls over the audience as they await the newlyweds, who are set to take the stage for the first time.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the DJ bellows beneath neon lights. “Introducing the Elvises.”

With a flash, two caped crusaders emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight, dressed in white, rhinestone-spangle jumpsuits fit for Graceland, the Ed Sullivan stage, a motorcycle stunt, or, it’s now clear, their nascent act as a married couple. The gathered guests use one hand to cover their awestruck mouths and the other to reach for their phones to film this first dancea choreographed medley of The King’s greatest hits.

The room is all abuzz, and not because of surprise but because the couple has crystalized all of themselves in this moment. Everyone they love is assembled, there to celebrate the shared idiosyncrasies that make them a perfect match.

With apologies to Tevye, at weddings across the Triangle, there’s a new take on tradition.

As we cycle from song to song with levity, a moment for reflection arrives. I recall an hour earlier the formality of the kilted bagpiper serenading the bride down the aisle. I remember our heads bowed in prayer, both Christian and Apache.

I squeeze my bride’s hand tightly, and we’re transported to six months ago and our own celebration. Like today’s honored couple, we developed a script from scratch.

Within thirty minutes of our engagement atop a hill at a Tuscan vineyard, the questions began to flow along with the the wine: Have you picked a date? Where will the wedding be? How many will you invite?

Soon we decided that, since we were brought together by a love of music, food, and the creativity of Durham, our wedding would honor and share those very things with everyone gracious enough to join us. Six years earlier, Sara Waters and I met while I was on assignment for the INDY. Well, “assignment” is a charitable term.

Actually, I wanted a free pass to see Roman Candle play the Meadow Stage at the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival. I convinced the paper’s music editor that he could use a few words on the event, and with one phone call I was on the press list.

As the band played on in a bath of stage lights and a subtle shower from the skies, I scribbled in my reporter’s pad. Sara, the festival cocoordinator, spotted me and introduced herself.

Six years later, just a few yards from that same field, poet laureate, naturalist, activist, and western-shift aficionado Gary Phillips would introduce us to our family and friends as husband and wife. Shakori Hillswith its seventy-three acres of trees and rolling beauty and its blessings of music and culturewas the only wedding venue we ever considered. We likened it to eating strawberries from the garden; they are at their peak of sweetness when they are natural and directly from the source.

Every choice we made took on that theme. For Schwatersfestthe three-day celebration that surrounded our vowsnothing was picked from the shelf or bound by outside expectation.

No Vistaprint. We called on friend Gabe Eng-Goetz, founder of Runaway, to design our invite, complete with Sara’s cowgirl boots, my Air Jordans, Mason jars, peacocks, lanterns, and the lush plant life of North Carolina. He also created the JS wedding logo that we used to stamp invitations and hands on Thursday night at The Pinhook.

There, at the venue where we’d taken in so many special shows, in a polka-dotted vintage dress and a crushed velvet smoking jacket, we presented two artists whose music fills our home: Sarah Potenza and Jim Lauderdale.

No Jack Daniels. The cocktails came from Fair Game Beverage Co. in Pittsboro, where distiller and pal Chris Jude created a signature drink for each eventFriday’s Dirty Schwaters Martini and Saturday’s spiked apple cider made with brandy born from orchards of Sara’s hometown of Hendersonville.

No set menu. We called on our favorite food trucks. Chirba Chirba showed they are more than just Juicy Buns by serving up black-tea-smoked duck and curried goat at The Cookery for our Friday rehearsal dinner.


On Saturday, a “Farm to Schwatersfest” stand with salads of local produce shared space with Pie Pushers and KoKyu, which added salt-crusted, lemongrass-stuffed grilled fish that I’d cherished during my time in Thailand to its menu of duck-fat tots, short rib tacos, and scrumptious sliders.

No stuffy procession. Our guests got the full Paperhand Puppet Intervention experience with masks, flags, drums, and larger-than-life creatures on parade. Later, kids continued in costumes and carved pumpkins. No fondant. Monuts made us a pumpkin and apple (again from Hendersonville) sheet cake, more delicious than decorated. No 1-800-FLOWERS. Ours came in buckets from Bluebird Meadows and the Durham Farmers Market.

No premade playlists. Our music was live with Chatham County Line playing in the ceremony and at the reception, even covering “Hava Nagila” and “Friends in Low Places.” Only at Shakori Hills, Diali Cissokho and Kairaba brought the Kora and Senegalese vibes to the after-party. No prepackaged wedding planner. We chose a folk/rock musician, Juliana Finch of Tomboy Events, who fosters weddings for “nontraditional gals and tomboys of all genders.”

No regrets. As guests told us throughout Schwatersfest, they’d never been to a wonderfully wonky wedding like ours, one that saw beyond norms and became something truly special, truly us.

Alongside some of our guests’ compliments, though, you could see a misplaced ting of misgiving about their own ceremonies. But in this new world of weddings, there is no reason to compare festivities. As an officiant put it, the goal is not to be perfect, but rather to be authentic.

Our weekend was as us as it could be, and that’s what all couples should celebrate.

In the 21c ballroom, where Sullivan’s cameras would have cut the couple at their gyrating waists, we turn to “Blue Hawaii.”

This is the moment

I’ve waited for

I can hear my heart singing

Soon bells will be ringing

This is the moment

Of sweet Aloha

I will love you longer than forever

The wedding piñata is readied to be sliced by a sword. Traditional boxes remain unticked, but oh, how the bells do ring.

Joe Schwartz is a former INDY staff writer who lives in Durham.

Weird is wonderful. Do Normal Weddings Venues Bore You? Try These.

Maybe you didn’t grow up in a religious family, the formality of a banquet hall isn’t your thing, or (since you’re getting wedding tips from a free newspaper) you’re just too broke for a traditional wedding venue. No problem. The Triangle offers plenty of unique places to get hitched. If you have a favorite bar, restaurant, movie theaterwhateversee if it’s available for private rentals. Just make sure you inquire about any special-event, alcohol, or photography permits you may need.


Multiple locations

With its locations in Raleigh and Durham (also Charlotte), you can rent out this entire indoor trampoline gymincluding the foam pit and trampoline dodgeball courtfor private parties. All you need to do is bring the playlist, the food, and up to eighty of your closest, most energetic friends.

Durant Nature Preserve

8305 Camp Durant Road, Raleigh

Lots of city and state parks in the Triangle offer site rentals. This 237-acre nature preserve in north Raleigh happens to have a butterfly garden, a bird garden, and an interpretive tree trail, whatever that is.

Mad Dash Pop-Up Weddings

With a Mad Dash wedding, all you have to do is pick a day and show up. The company will plan the restincluding flowers and photographybased on a predetermined theme. All Mad Dash weddings take place at the historic Leslie-Alford-Mims House (100 Avent Ferry Road, Holly Springs), which kind of looks like the house from American Horror Story: Coven, but in the prettiest, least haunted way.

Mystic Farm & Distilling Company

1212 North Mineral Springs Road, Durham

Committing to one person for the rest of your life is scary. Take the edge off by hosting your wedding at this twenty-two-acre farm and bourbon distillery. As a bonus, try Mystic Farm’s “Single Barrel Experience” and spend two days making your own batch of bourbon. Let time work its magic and pop the first bottle for an anniversary.


N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

11 West Jones Street, Raleigh

Several North Carolina museums can be rented out for weddings: the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Museum of Life and Science, 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, among them. But we like the idea of saying “I do” surrounded by Venus flytraps, dinosaurs, and venomous spiders the best.

The Pinhook

117 West Main Street, Durham

Did you and the love of your life first feel sparks in the throes of a sweaty punk-rock show? If so, downtown Durham institution The Pinhook may be the perfect place to tie the knot. The club, which hosts live music, open mics, and karaoke, is available for private party rentals.


1004 Morning Glory Avenue, Durham

This east Durham gallery and performance arts space guarantees your wedding photos will look like no one else’s. SPECTRE Arts boasts six hundred square feet of gallery space and a twenty-four-hundred-square-foot outdoor area available for event rentals.

Sarah Willets

These articles appeared in print with the headlines “Scratch Wedding” and “Weird is Wonderful”