The way to the “Church of the Morning After” in Stonington is lined with parked pickups and cars and then a brief run through a tunnel of lobster pots into a boat shed.
Inside there are no pews, no hymnals — just mounds of marine rope, buoys and trap gear and more than a dozen or so men and women — mostly men —making music.
It might be bluegrass. Then it might be blues. Someone starts playing Dylan. And in the next breath everyone might be drawn along with a soul-stirring gospel song.
The “service” starts about 7:30 a.m., many of those attending alerted with phone calls from Stephen Robbins a day or so before.
Robbins, the 71-year-old founder and fisherman from Little Deer Isle, knows the faces of those who appear to play, but not necessarily all of the names.
What Robbins does understand, and he understands it deeply, is the power of music.
“I think music is a doctor,” he said, his hand most often poised over the strings of his guitar. “I know it is. You can see it.”
Robbins’ father was a self-taught musician — violin, mandolin and guitar — and would take little Stevie to play with him when he performed around town.
When Robbins married and had two young children he worried about supporting his family with fishing.
“I told my father, ‘When I go down to the bay in the morning I get half sick to my stomach,’” Robbins said.
“He told me, ‘Sing, there’s no one around. Just sing.’”
“I started singing and I felt better.”
All of which served as the basis for the “Church of the Morning After,” which happens most Sundays in Robbins’ boat shed along the downtown waterfront.
He started playing there with a few musician friends a while back — some say it was two years, others say five — and has invited and attracted many more musicians since then.
“I just make the space available,” said Robbins, whose bald head, smoldering cigar and guitar slung across his chest are a commanding presence on Sunday mornings.
The wife of a friend of his mentioned after listening in the the cluttered space one Sunday morning that the shed reverberates with “love.”
“I don’t want to sound corny,” said Robbins, “but you can see people’s emotions come out when they get going on music. You see it.”
Stanley Joyce, 72, has been singing and making music since he was 10 — guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo.
He was entranced as a 4-year-old listening to his uncle play a terrific fiddle.
“My mother said I used to sit there on the floor and listen to him play. At 4-years-old you don’t think it would set in but maybe it did.
Owner of a trash-hauling business, Joyce spent years playing benefit events with another musician in Brooklin, Blue Hill, Sedgwick, Brooksville and Bucksport as well as in Stonington and Deer Isle.
Robbins asked Joyce to join the Sunday morning group about a year ago after hearing Joyce play at a funeral service. The piece, “A Beautiful Life,” is normally played by a quartet but Joyce and a friend did it as a duo.
“He was the lead singer and I’d answer,” said Joyce.
Joyce said he is just getting back into music after losing his wife three years ago following a long illness.
“I couldn’t get my head around it,” he said of trying to play music at that time. “I had my hands full. She was sick and I pretty much gave it up.”
About a year before she died, he heard a song on the television called “Forever and a Day.” Before her burial he dug the song out and rewrote it to fit the two of them.
“That’s what really got me going again,” he said. “She would have wanted me to continue on. I don’t know if I’m back where I was before, but I do enjoy playing.”
Renée Sewall, a Stonington native and local contractor, was invited by another musician to join in. She has been playing bass guitar for years and regularly plays in a band.
“I just love it,” she said. “I cannot think of a better way to ‘worship’ — music, laughter, stories and the togetherness of playing music.”
Sewall invited a relatively new face, Stu Kestenbaum, who is retiring as director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle.
Kestenbaum played in a Western band, but considers himself an amateur.
“I like that it’s so eclectic,” he said. “There is a wide range of music and everyone is accepting.”
One of the more enthusiastic worshippers is Lori Connor of Deer Isle, who has been toting her ukulele to the shed for about a year.
One recent Sunday she started a tune, it fell a bit flat and she quickly noted that there had to be one dud every Sunday. No one had a problem with it.
“I like the grittiness of it,” said Connor. “It’s so real. They’re so welcoming. If I get a call from Stevie, that’s all I need man. It is a good time. I love it, and I love those guys. It’s great, just great.”