Tim Duffy Swampland Interview
Music Maker Relief Foundation
A Treasure Trove of American Music
by James Calemine
Music Maker Relief foundation, a non-profit organization, assists neglected southern musicians with daily expenses, instrument acquisition, recording, tour support, and medical needs.
Tim Duffy started Music Maker in 1994. Duffy, a trained folklorist, exists as—arguably—the most distinguished field recorder in the last four or five decades.
Taj Mahal, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Pete Townshend and Pink Floyd are some of Music Maker’s past contributors. No other musical organization like Music Maker exists. Duffy has recorded over 200 artists, and released over 70 Music Maker CDs. The Music Maker archive exists as a treasure trove for timeless American music.
In this extensive Swampland interview, the Music Maker president tells of his musical background that most never achieve in a lifetime, before he even originated Music Maker. Duffy elaborates on the organization’s early days up through Music Maker’s most recent developments, and a glimpse into the future for this singular American musical cause.
So, let’s go back a ways…talk about how you first got into music.
Well I grew up around New Haven, Connecticut. Woodbridge.
What year were you born?
You have a couple of brothers, right?
Yeah, three brothers—two older, one younger.
What was your first instrument?
Saxophone. I got that around five. But I picked up the guitar when I was 15. I grew up listening to Robert Johnson. When I was a kid I knew 10 Robert Johnson songs—but Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Rambling Jack Elliot, Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Brahms, Vivaldi, Merle Travis, and the Grateful Dead were early influences.
When did you move south?
Did you see that movie Fame? One of those art schools? I went to one of those places for art and played guitar and then I went to a college in North Carolina where you could take banjo lessons and study. I got a job. I got invited by a fellow named David Holt—who plays a lot of Doc Watson. He was an entertainer, and he was running the program. You had to work 15 hours a week. They hired me to be on the Appalachian music crew. So I went around for a year and a half recording all those old mountain musicians that made records in the 20s and 30s—Doc Boggs kind of guys. I became aware of the elderly great southern artists. I started learning to really play from them. Then they wanted me to take Biology or something in school so I quit. Then we moved up into the hills—into the mountains above Asheville with this old hillbilly family called the Stewarts. Their people had been there for 200 years. I hung out with them. I was digging fence post holes, learning how to play music from them. Old Granny was a ballad singer. Then I got a chance to go to Indonesia to study Balinese music. I ended up going to Kenya and stayed there for close to five years from 83-87 studying Swahili music. From when I was 19 to 23 years old. I’m still in touch with those guys. Now Taj (Mahal) recorded with some of those musicians and now the music is gaining some popularity, but back then no one knew anything about it.
So, you covered some ground before you returned to the south…
I came back because my father was sick and then he died. Then my wife and I moved—we didn’t know where to go and we moved back to Asheville to another musician’s house—Samuel turner Stevens, an old mountain man, and we were dead broke and had nowhere to go. So we lived with him in an un-heated cabin up in the mountains—that was rough. We stayed there for a while and then Denise (Duffy) got a job in Winston—in her field at the time—in the apparel industry and I got invited by Dan Patterson to go to the UNC Chapel Hill Folklore program. I worked there at the southern Folk Life collection. Glenn Hinson—one of the great blues collectors introduced me to a guy named Guitar Slim Stephens. I spent a year working with him. At that time in the late 80s and early 90s—I guess Paul Oliver wrote in 1967 that the blues were dead. That it was an extinct tradition. Not much field work had been done in the 70s and 80s, or the 90s—very little. I soon found out from this guy that there were a dozen guys in Greensboro that can play the hell out of the country blues. On Guitar Slim’s deathbed he told me I needed to find a guy named guitar Gabriel. I couldn’t find anyone to take me to that section of town…you know this story…I met Guitar Gabriel and that’s how it started. I was helping him and then we’d play gigs. Then he introduced me to his old Carney friends like Willa Mae Buckner, Mr. Q, Captain Luke, Macavine Hayes, Guitar Red, Preston Fulp, and all these different people. From 1991 to say 1994, I made a living as a working blues guy traveling around with these guys. I learned quickly the record companies had no use for these kinds of people—or dealing with them in a correct manner. So we started Music Maker Relief Foundation with our programs. For example, Musician’s Sustenance—you know people who live at an average income of $18,000 a year can’t afford heat, electric, food, medical, or whatever and the last thing on their mind is music. So we try to help with that situation—monthly grants to help a lot of musicians who can’t play anymore and you don’t even hear about because they’re crippled or living in nursing homes. A lot of people like that we help on a monthly basis. Others ones that move into our next program—Professional Development—where, say someone like Cootie Stark or Adolphus Bell as a recent case who spent 35 years traveling around in his van the last 15 years, homeless, and help him make a record—help them get passports. Last year he traveled ten times overseas. Now he owns his own car and his van, he has a nice apartment, and a career in front of him. We’ve produced over 70 CDs. The CDs were grant free to the artists. We put them out there to help them make money. We have Cultural Accesses where we do programs like our congressional Blues Festival where we lobby our nation’s legislators and tie in big corporate people to let folks know about the importance of our American musical traditions or we set up these touring programs over in France, South America, Australia, and some in the States where we introduce people or do things like talk to the press—to people like you—about it. Then we have Emergency Relief—like the New Orleans musicians fund. After Katrina we set up a fund to help 3,000 displaced musicians from the storm.
Music Maker’s New Orleans musicians like Slewfoot…
…Yeah…Slewfoot, Carey B, and the great guy Alabama Slim, I sent you that, right?
The one with Little Freddie King—The Mighty Flood? Yeah, I got that one…
That’s a great record. He just toured France and did 18 shows. He’s going back in March and he’s got a career going. We helped him move out of New Orleans and back into New Orleans.
I’m a big fan of Dave McGrew’s Tramp Ballads…
Yeah, that’s a great one. Phil Minger is another guy we did like that. Larry short is another one.
You’ve had some very influential musicians lend a hand to the Music Maker cause. Talk about how you were able to reach musicians like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones.
Well, B.B. King and Taj Mahal were really the first one’s to step up and help us out. I went out to L.A. to meet B.B King and he was recording Deuces Wild and I became friends with his producer. Taj Mahal was there and he heard about me because I was with a record company called N2K—they were trying to get his help. N2K was what Larry Rosen did after GRP Records. It was short lived, but it was a cool label. They gave me a budget. Rosen just loved the mission of the foundation and they had money and they gave me a budget and a deposit for a new van. I drove around for a year just recording everybody while they were figuring something out, but it was fun. At then end of that I got bought by another record company called Cello Recordings. They gave me a budget. I flew out to L.A. and met B.B. and he just loved the mission. He had a recording session going on. I went to Los Angeles, New York, and London and he introduced me to everybody—the Rolling Stones, Dionne Warwick, Tracy Chapman, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Lou Reed, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Heavy D, D’Angelo, the Roots, and Taj Mahal. That’s where I met all those folks.
Talk about Taj Mahal, he’s played a vital role in the organization.
Taj is the biggest one…everyone like Clapton and Bonnie, they always reach across, lend their name and write a check to help us—they are wonderful people, but Taj has taken things to another level. He’s been hands on—staying on the phone with me on a weekly basis since 1996 when I met him. He’s helped me figure things out. He’s recorded with dozens of these musicians—like Cool John Ferguson, Pure Fe, Etta Baker, John D. Holeman, Beverly ‘Guitar’ Watkins, Cootie Stark, Mudcat, John Lee Zeigler, the Carolina Chocolate Drops owe Taj a huge thank you. He’s like our press agent. He’ll fall in love with an artist and people come to talk about his career, and all he’ll talk about is Music Maker artists.
Taj played with Dave McGrew…
Yeah, this is a fruit tramp who sleeps under railroad bridges—who I think is one of the great Woody Guthrie type figures around. Taj thought so too when he met him, and he produced the first two songs on Dave’s record in one day. Taj also hosts the Fishin’ Blues tournament that helps us raise money.
You just got back from Costa Rica for that tournament, right?
Yeah, it turned out great. Little Freddie King came down. Adolphus Bell, Mudcat, and Taj’s trio played. I forget the fellow who won the tournament, but we all had a great time. We caught a lot of fish and raised a lot of money. We plan to do it again next year.
Was Mr. Bill Lucado there?
Lucado was there. He showed up at the concert and we hung out with him. He’s doing fine. We had a good time with him. It’s a great event. Y’know Taj put out that record with Etta Baker that did really well. We met Etta when she was 80 years old and no one would give her a record deal. We ended up putting out four records for her. We’ve made her golden years not a time of struggle—the finances were taken care of and she earned it. We chased down money that was owed to her. We did a lot for Etta and Taj surely did a lot too.
Another favorite Music Maker artist of mine was Atlanta’s own Frank Edwards…
That’s a great one…
His Chicken Raid CD stands as a fine recording. And I find it amazing that just as he finished recording the last song on his record at your place, he got into a car to go home and he died in the backseat…
What a guy. Yeah, I mean we’re the only one who are really taking care and dealing with these musicians in a correct manner. The only other guys that did it in a big way—a lot bigger than me—was Fat Possum folks with R.L. Burnside.
Maybe, but the Music Maker roster is quite formidable.
Well, Matthew wasn’t trained as a folklorist or field collector. He didn’t find anybody—those people were already around. We go out…I spent five years in Africa with a top Columbia PHD Linguistic Field Researcher. Glenn Hinson and Bill Farris trained me. At this point I don’t think there’s anyone—it’s amazing the work was done to find all these artists in the 90s. It just goes to show white people were wrong in the 60s. They thought when the people died, the music died, but the music lives on. Younger generations pick it up. Tradition changes but its still tradition—guys like Pink Anderson’s son, Little Pink, he’s one of the most bad-assed country blues guys around. People like Cootie Stark…
Well, blues great Curly Weaver’s daughter is another Music Maker artists. She used to watch her dad and Blind Willie McTell play parties and fish fries…
Yeah, Curly Weaver’s daughter, Cora Mae Bryant. Hey, I just found another guy—Boo Hanks--whose father played with Blind Boy Fuller, and he plays just like Blind Boy Fuller. Met him towards the end of last year—he’s great. The music’s out there. See, everyone wants to say that it’s over, but culture doesn’t let things die that quickly and there’s so many great artists out there. I just happened to meet some wonderful people on the way. Y’know I have state of the art acoustic recording equipment made. Some of the finest stuff ever made to record these guys with…
…The quality is always great on Music Maker recordings…
There’s only three companies in the world…see, they’re audio file recordings most of ‘em, like Waterlily is a special microphone and pre-amp built by Marc Levinson.
He was involved with Cello Recordings, right?
Yeah, he helped get that going. He’s designed sound for Lexus cars. He’s an inside the industry guy. So, this stuff we have sounds great. Most old blues recordings sound muffled or harsh—these are beautiful recordings. I have so much music now—in December I put 30 records together with a friend. I probably have hundreds of these recordings. The unreleased vault is huge with thousands of hours.
How many artists have you recorded?
I don’t know, over three hundred.
That’s quite a bit.
Yeah, and it’s in depth. Not just in passing—it’s their whole repertoire.
There’s nothing out there like Music Maker. That’s why I’ve been writing about and trying to expose people to it for nine years...it’s a musical reservoir…it’s the only place…
…Where you can find it…now, everyone’s tapped into all the old great guys. Everyone knows what’s been recorded in the past. All the re-issues…I love Big Bill Broonzy…every time another CD comes out I love it…and it’s great, but how many times can you re-package a Robert Johnson record? But these Music Maker musicians no one knows about. I listen to Cootie Stark, and to me he’s just as powerful as a Son House character. I love Son House, but I love Cootie Stark just as much. Frank Edwards is another one.
Since I went to the University of Georgia, the musician I loved to see around town--that is now a music Maker artist-- was Neal Pattman. I got to see him 18-20 years ago around Athens.
Yeah! Look at Neal Pattman—those records are kicking! If you see the new Kenny Wayne Sheppard DVD, Cootie Stark and Neal Pattman steal the show. They absolutely steal the show.
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins is another fine example for me since she’s from Atlanta.
She’s killing it. Who else does that? Nobody?
She played with Piano Red and if people don’t the significance of these people’s musical lineage and associations, then they should know.
Beverly Watkins had a record produced by Chet Atkins in 1959 on RCA, The RCA Sessions. She’s the real fucking deal. John Lennon was listening to those recordings. “Mr. Moonlight” is taken from that in a Beatles song. She’s a heavy cat.
There’s over one hundred musicians on the roster at Music Maker that you’ve helped, right?
About two hundred. We’ve issued over 70 records.
You’ve generated several millions of dollars for a significant American cause.
Millions, yeah, but it’s not as much, its pitiful how little because I’m not a real business guy. I wish I had a real business CEO—we’d be hundreds of millions of dollars say if I had a real business guy running this thing. Still in America no one knows who I am. Music Maker is more of a world brand because we’re known more in Europe, South America, and Australia than in the States.
What are some of the upcoming MMRF-related events or developments?
The Congressional Blues Festival on May 16. We’re gonna have Derek Trucks headlining. Mudcat, Sweet Betty, Adolphus Bell, Captain Luke, and Macavine Haynes will be there. It’s right at the Capitol at the Melon Auditorium right across from the Monument on the plaza. You do a lottery. It’s sponsored by Volkswagen, and it’s gonna be a killer event.
Any new releases?
Well, you know about the Carolina Chocolate Drops. We have this great John D. Holeman with this Australian folk-rock group. They’ve toured with bob Dylan and the sell lots of records. I’m friends with the band and they came to my studio a couple years ago to rehearse for their next tour, and on the last day I brought in John D. Holeman and they cut a record with him. They gave their rights to the foundation. It’s a beautiful record.
That hits the streets in June?
Yeah, those are our two releases for June. I’ll have to get you the new artwork in a digital pack. But, I’m still a sucker in the music business, but we got picked up by this label called Dixie Frog. They’re selling Pure Fe and Drink House. They sell quite well and they pay very well. They sell thousands of these things and I couldn’t believe anyone was selling this stuff. They’re selling 7,000 pieces in France. Here that’s not much, but in France it is. It made me think, because I’ve never sold any records yet per se, except for Etta and Taj. So, I’m gonna try and big push, and sell some more.
You certainly have a treasure trove of thousands of songs and hundreds of recordings. Sooner or later you’ll have the world at your door.
We need some business help. We’re a small Ma and Pa shop trying to grow. But still, a Ma and Pa shop in the blues world…we’re probably the most successful, non-profit organization that’s around-period. The jazz foundation is wonderful, Wendy Oxenhorn is great.
Hey, when’s that Mo Roots & Blues Barbecue show? I’d like to include that in my Swampland Soul Food Tour.
In Columbia, Missouri. That’s gonna be great. It’s in August.
Soon I’m coming up to review a couple food places around in your area.
I got one two miles from here. It’s great place. Cool John Ferguson plays there.
Cool John still lives in your area doesn’t he? He’s also a great piano player…
Yeah. We did a great show with Cool John, Captain Luke, John D. Holeman, and Macavine Hayes Friday night. It was just incredible. Y’know, Essie Mae Brooks has a new record coming out; the second one Cool John’s done with her. We have a new release by James Davis which is like hypnotic trance music—fife and rum music with a slide guitar. He’s from Macon, Georgia. He’s an awesome guy. Then we’re trying to help another guy that’s from Georgia—Eddie Kirkland—he’s 83 years old, and his career parallels B.B. King’s. He’s played with John Lee Hooker for years in the late 50s-early 60s. He’s living in Macon and still trying to get by. He’s one of the last, great innovators of the blues and never had a huge success.
I’m sure you feel a real sense of urgency with helping and recording these elderly musicians.
Real urgency. When they record and die leaving your studio like Frank Edwards it gets pretty real. You have to get it now because you just don’t know what’s gonna happen. Yeah, so to capture it is of the essence. If I find somebody real, no matter how busy I am, I’m always ready to roll tape. I’ll drop anything to roll tape. I always have been like that. I never stop. I roll tape every month somewhere. Meeting all these old tobacco farmers in their 70s around my area here, and I found an old guy that plays bottleneck slide, and I just recorded him. Anyone that’s important and of interest, I’ll do it. I never charge them. I don’t play any of that artist’s recording costs, or the music industry game to put these guys in debt. It’s all debt free and it’s just about music. The main thing now is to find more resources to get the music out there so it’s just not sitting in some archive. We have all of our stuff up on tunes, and CD Baby. We try to make it accessible. The pressure of being famous is ridiculous—it’s not about that. Doing the work and having people you know you’re doing the work is heavy enough.
But the real people always recognize the real people whether you’re famous or not. If you’re a great guitar player and haven’t sold a million records, the real guitar who has sold a million records knows there’s a very fine line between fame and poverty.
Yeah, Cool John Ferguson is one of those guys. He’s gotta be one of the world’s greatest guitar players.
Mudcat just sent me his new record. I’ve known him for years. We both grew up in the same area. Talk about him a little bit because he’s been around from the beginning of Music Maker.
Mud is one of the great underground heroes. He’s a total regionalist. He’s famous in Atlanta. He’s made a living in Atlanta. He’s toured America with Music Maker throughout the States. He’s done shows with Taj throughout the States. He has a great following in Europe. He’s a great traditionalist. He reaches back. I think he’s one of the world’s great slide wizards. He’s my favorite slide guitarist. He has a unique, raw sound. He’s developed his own style and sound. He’s such a personable guy that when he performs people just relate to him. I knew him when he was 19, and I’ve always thought of him as a young guy. He’s a wonderful player with a wonderful band. He’s been a full supporter of Music Maker since day one. He’s an incredible guy that makes great records—its good time party music. That Northside Tavern in Atlanta is a great place…
It used to be really dangerous down there. It’s not so bad now, but it has become a classic blues dive.
We just got a grant from the Experience Project. And we just put out those Drink House To Church House CDs and DVDs.
Yeah, the Volume 1 & 2 sounds great.
This grant will allow us to finish our documentary. We’re also trying to do that. There’s always something going on. I’m here until the end of March. The last week of March I go out until the end of April. Then May 31st to June 18th I’m on the road. Then the month of July and the first week of August I’m on the road. I’m developing our tour base. We’re doing really well in South America, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, and places like that. We’re doing well in France, so Captain Luke and Macavine Hayes are getting on these package tours. I’m going out with them to have some fun and make sure they’re treated properly to solidify this worldwide tour. I need to figure out how to tour the United States. I figured how to do Europe, South America, and Australia, but I gotta figure out the States.
It’d be nice to see a 40 city Music Maker tour.
Yeah, I need some sponsors to help me because it’s hard and there’s a lot of competition.
We’ll check in on you towards the end of the summer. Thanks for going on the record.
If you need anything call me.
I’ll see you soon for the Swampland Soul Food tour…