Dom Flemons

The Organization That’s Saving Southern Music Turns 20

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 07.25.14 in Features

When James “Guitar Slim” Stephens was dying of cancer in 1989, he asked folklorist Tim Duffy to find his friend Guitar Gabriel to deliver the bad news. It took Duffy years to track him down, but when he finally did Gabriel greeted him by asking, “Where you been so long?”

Shortly after, Duffy began recording Gabriel, who’d given up on the music business some three decades earlier, as well as some of the guitarist’s other friends on the Winston-Salem “drink house” circuit. Then, he started helping those musicians any way he could. He got them monthly stipends of up to $200 so they could pay their basic bills. Just as importantly, he got them regional gigs so they could make some money from their music. For Gabriel, Duffy provided transportation, clothing, food and help with medical bills Thus was born, in 1994, the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Before his death in 1996, the MMRF had gotten Gabriel booked at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York; they helped him get a passport and organized European tours.

The MMRF, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has worked with 300 Southern roots musicians, released more than 150 albums, and put on shows or sent artists to gigs in 40 states and 17 nations. A few artists — Cedell Davis, Jerry McCain, Ernie K-Doe, Othar Turner, Ironing Board Sam, Pinetop Perkins — have worked in the commercial music world. Singer, guitarist and banjo player Etta Baker, who combines white mountain music with black blues and British fiddle tunes, was a heroine of the ’60s folk revival who got a second musical life in the ’90s thanks to the MMRF. The nonprofit has enjoyed success with a few young acts like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as with the solo career of founding member Dom Flemons. But the vast majority of its current 90-musician roster is community-based artists getting exposure outside their hometowns for the first time.

‘From the very beginning we’ve worked hard to establish a new model by partnering directly with artists and trying to change their lives, doing things to help them make money off their music.’

The MMRF primarily serves blues, gospel, Native American and country musicians over 55 years of age with incomes of less than $18,000 annually. The group, now based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, gives artists monthly stipends to pay for prescription medicine and heating bills in the winter, and helps with car and house repairs as well as new instruments and stage clothes. They record the musicians and produce CDs that can be sold at shows, work up press kits, shoot videos, and provide booking and management. “The whole idea was to help perpetuate traditional Southern music by supporting the musicians who play it,” says Duffy, who started MMRF with his wife Denise but now has an additional staff of seven. “Our idea was that if they didn’t have to worry so much about things like heating bills, they could concentrate on their music. So from the very beginning we’ve worked hard to establish a new model by partnering directly with artists and trying to change their lives, doing things to help them make money off their music.”

Ironing Board Sam is one recent success story. He’d been a (rather obscure) showman on the chitlin circuit since the late ’50s, but was retired and living in New Orleans when Katrina hit in 2005. He fled to his native South Carolina and began gigging there. In 2010, he became affiliated with the MMRF, which paid for his move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, bought him a new keyboard mounted on an ironing board (his trademark instrument), recorded an album, and booked him onto the Blues Cruise and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They also financed medical care and car repairs (so he could gig regionally). He now has a Sunday residency in Chapel Hill, plays elsewhere as much as health permits, and was voted Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboard) in Living Blues magazine’s 2013 poll.

The list goes on: The MMRF funded the rebuilding of the outside of the home of Georgia gospel singer Essie Mae Brooks; the reconstruction of guitarist-harmonica player-singer Bishop Dready Manning’s St. Mark Holiness Church outside Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina; a new roof for the house of South Carolina bluesman Little Pink Anderson; and the remodeling of Etta Baker’s kitchen. They bought a new trailer for Piedmont bluesman Boo Hanks and bought the headstone of Piedmont bluesman Cootie Stark (who, when he was alive, received a wardrobe including stage clothes). They financed the hip replacement of former B. B. King trombonist Lil’ Joe Burton, and bought food for the snake of former tent show performer Willie Mae Buckner. Nearly all of these recipients benefited further by receiving stipends to pay for prescription medicine and utility bills, as well as getting help with food, vehicle repairs and emergency medical treatment.

The MMRF also established a Next Generation Artists program for young up-and-comers who, because they are able to work regularly, receive assistance on the business end rather than grants or stipends. The first such recipient was the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That band formed after Dom Flemons met Rhiannon Giddens at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He’d worked his way back to traditional black music from his teenage interest in the folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s, but found few others in his native Phoenix who shared his passion. In Boone, he met scholars and musicians who were delving into the most remote nooks and crannies of traditional black music of the ’20s and ’30s, from string bands, jug bands and fife and drum groups to blues and minstrel and medicine shows. So after the conference ended, he returned to Phoenix, gathered his belongings, and moved to Durham to start a band with Giddens and fiddler Justin Robinson.

‘They’re sustaining older musicians who just need a little something to get their heads above water; when you’re making just $5000 a year, a couple hundred a month makes a big difference.’

As they started working out their songs in Durham, relying heavily on the old-time sound of the Piedmont region, they made weekly visits to the home of 86-year-old black fiddler Joe Thompson. Master of an unusual short-bowing style that had been passed down through his family, Thompson taught them his old-timey repertoire and licks, jamming with them and telling them stories. Meanwhile, the MMRF released three CCD albums, assumed some management and booking duties, and hooked the Drops up with commercial music-biz figures who could take over those roles.

“We help sustain the organization and they help sustain us,” says Flemons, who, along with Giddens, is still on the nonprofit’s board. “They’re sustaining older musicians who just need a little something to get their heads above water; when you’re making just $5000 a year, a couple hundred a month makes a big difference. Artists like me benefit because we get to play with older musicians like John Dee Holeman or Boo Hanks. As much as we’ve studied this music, we didn’t really begin to learn it until we could play with these older people.”

By the time their fourth album, Genuine Negro Jig, was released (on a major-label subsidiary, no less) in 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops had gone well past the conventions of string band music and were exploring a fresh, infectious sound that combined all of their influences. Their audience, which Flemons remembers as consisting initially of academics and elderly Southerners, had grown to include folkies and students in general and then expanded further into pop realms via performances at Bonnaroo and opening slots on Bob Dylan tours. Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Traditional Southern music, black and white, was being made whole once more, like it had been before the rise of the record industry began slicing it up into niche markets.

If anything, Flemons’s new album Prospect Hill accelerates that process. The feel is much jazzier, more percussive, than anything he’s been involved with before, and his harmonica-playing is featured heavily though he plays all manner of old-time instruments — guitars, banjos, bass and snare drums, fife, woodblocks, jug, bones, quills. The album opens with a sprightly traditional jazz band, including Brian Horton’s clarinet, on “‘Till the Seas Run Dry,” while on “Marching Up Prospect Hill” the sound comes solely from Dom’s bones, Guy Davis’s harmonica, and their tapping feet. The material is just as diverse — “Sonoran Church Two Step” is fiddle music from the O’odham tribe of Arizona, “It’s a Good Thing” and “My Money Never Runs Out” come from Memphis songsters Frank Stokes and Gus Cannon, respectively, and Flemons has seductive originals such as “Hot Chicken,” an ode to the cayenne-laced fried chicken of East Nashville. There’s even room for electric guitar and saxophones in this string band.

This is interracial hoedown music, irresistibly delivered with a wink and a strut, and it sounds unlike anything else on the market today. It’s enough to make you wonder what Giddens might have up her sleeve with her newest version of the Carolina Chocolate Drops (she’s the only original member remaining), and enough to make you keep your fingers crossed that the Music Makers Relief Fund will always be there for musicians keeping old-time sounds alive.