Boo Hanks has agreed to see us today. The skies are cloudy on this Friday morning, and the chance of rain is high. That means the 86-year-old bluesman won't spend his afternoon on the tractor. Instead, he'll meet with Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation—the organization that changed Hanks' life by launching his music career about a decade ago, or just before his 80th birthday.
So early in the morning, Duffy leaves from Music Maker's headquarters outside of Hillsborough, due northeast. On the way, he shares stories of the 300-plus musicians the group has supported during the last two decades. And then we pull just past the North Carolina border into Buffalo Junction, Virginia. Hanks is waiting.
"Back then, we had some big old records that you'd play on a wind-up Victrola to reproduce the sound," explains Hanks. "Blind Boy Fuller was playing at that time. I liked the music and the style. I started playing the style what Blind Boy was playing. That was back in about the late '30s, early '40s."
For decades, though, Hanks was mostly a town secret, as very few record label representatives venture to places like Buffalo Junction, an unincorporated community of just more than 1,000 people. But Music Maker isn't most labels. Founded in 1994 in Winston-Salem, the nonprofit has rescued legions of nearly forgotten blues, gospel, soul and country greats from the blink of permanent obscurity. They've turned anonymous examples of regional music strains into international emissaries.
This weekend, in a grand homecoming spread between Carrboro and Durham, the label will not only discuss the work they've done but demonstrate it. It begins with a panel discussion with scholar Bill Ferris and concludes with a concert that gathers the most Music Maker alumni ever assembled. Duffy's dream will turn 20 and turn its focus toward the future.
Hanks represents the essence of Music Maker's mission and accomplishments. He's emblematic of surviving musicians who have the closest connection to the earliest forms of the blues. He would have loved to tour decades ago, he says, but no one ever asked. But in the last seven years, he's played Paris, New Orleans and the Lincoln Center in New York.
"I could've been on the road years ago, but I didn't have nobody to help me get established, you know what I mean?" he says. "Didn't nobody know I could play like what I could years ago, either, and I didn't have anybody getting me hooked up with no firm, like they've got me hooked up with Music Maker."
These days, Music Maker's Hillsborough headquarters and the work that comes out of it suggest a compound, no matter how modest it may appear from the outside. In the lobby, colorful chairs and whimsical metal sculptures of frogs playing brass instruments loiter. Several panels from a photography exhibit linked to the organization's new book, We Are the Music Makers!, lord over the walls. The basement serves as a small warehouse for the 160 or so CDs and LPs they've issued. Next door, Music Maker maintains a small multipurpose studio, beneath a heating and cooling business that's busy during the day. Artists who want to record there have to do so at night.
But that's a comparatively small problem for Music Maker, which, two decades ago, was a scrappy upstart that had to earn its artists' trust. One of the biggest hurdles Duffy initially faced was the suspicion artists had for outside visitors, especially white men such as himself. During the field-recording frenzy of the '60s, academics flooded black and rural communities. They would press records or otherwise profit off the music they found without so much as a thank-you note.
"You'd visit the artists, and they all thought they were ripped off because a guy like me had been around as an academic. He had spent that time with them and got his paper and moved on, and they didn't see the guy again," Duffy says. "So they were like, 'Well, he got his paper, what did I get?'"
Duffy worked to repair those relationships through empathy and communication. If a decision needed to be made, he says, the artist was always included. This started with the late Robert Lewis "Guitar Gabriel" Jones, one of Music Maker's earliest acts.
"With Gabe, I couldn't just make a decision," Duffy remembers. "We had one agreement: If I did anything wrong to him, he would shoot me."
These arrangements have gotten more formal and less drastic over the years, but Guitar Gabriel helped connect Duffy with scores of other musicians across the Southeast. As he spent more time with Guitar Gabriel, Duffy saw the difficult lives that many of the musicians he admired led.
"The last bill would be paid, and there would be just barely enough money for food, and they started to borrow money for food," he says. "If there's medicine, or they're sick, they're broke. They're living on $4,000 a year to $7,000 a year."
Too often, he explains, he saw musicians pawn their only instruments out of desperation, leaving them unable to play gigs to help pay the bills. Behind the wheel, Duffy offers examples of how different artists have taken advantage of Music Maker's payments. Willa Mae Buckner used the sustenance program to buy frozen rats to feed a pair of beloved pet pythons. Captain Luke, on the other hand, was a good driver, so Music Maker set him up with a car that he used to drive himself and his friends to doctor appointments and the grocery store.
But Music Maker's reach extends beyond lending a day-to-day hand. For some, like Ironing Board Sam, the organization gives artists a serious turnaround. In his heyday, Sam, now 75, was part of the house band on the TV program Night Train, a Nashville predecessor to Soul Train. His backing guitarist was Jimi Hendrix. He performed off and on for years before Hurricane Katrina seemingly wiped him off the map. Duffy discovered Sam in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The situation was grim.
"He had given up on his life. He's very spiritual—it's like meeting Sun Ra or something," he says. "He believes in reincarnation, and he was waiting to pass on through."
But Duffy convinced Sam to partner with Music Maker, which bought him new glasses, a van and consistent healthcare and relocated him to North Carolina. Sam started playing shows again, and Music Maker helped him reclaim lost royalties, something the organization has done for dozens of other artists, too.
"I have peace of mind and happiness, complete peace of mind and happiness. My three wives are gone and all my children are gone," he says. "Now, it's just me and my keyboard."
In 2013, Sam won a Most Outstanding Musician award in a Living Blues magazine poll—an extra-gratifying victory for Sam, who was denied piano lessons when he wanted them as a teenager.
"For me, to make it back again at 75, I'm grateful to Music Maker and to everybody else for me to be back. I feel like I'm on top again," he says.
In recent years, Music Maker has expanded its mission to do more than rebuild careers or introduce the aging. In 2006, Music Maker issued the debut of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dom Flemons, one of the band's co-founders, first became familiar with Music Maker as a fan; he found their records at the library in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. Duffy met the group at Shakori Hills and became their manager. Flemons has since left the Drops, but he and fellow founders Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson now serve on the organization's board.
Flemons also helps artists like Hanks tour, making sure they focus on staying well and performing rather than the labyrinthine details of the road. He's also accustomed to the fickle nature of the music industry.
"Everybody needs some help sometimes," he says. "And in the music business, it's a very hard business to make a living at. You can even make a living at that for a little while, and then you can lose everything. It's such a wildly fluctuating business."
As a nonprofit institution, Music Maker is familiar with those fluctuations. One of its most consistent struggles is fundraising.
"With a nonprofit, most of them are always working from a place where your dreams are bigger than your budget," says Denise Duffy, Music Maker's managing director. In fact, as the econonomy slipped five years ago, both Tim and Denise Duffy took pay cuts in order to keep Music Maker afloat. They each made just more than $44,000 in 2010. But the organization recovered, and during the last two years, the Duffys made more than $70,000 each. Music Maker now has two full-time employees, some part-time work and a board of directors.
"So you have to be very aware and pretty darn thrifty," Denise explains, "always working to keep the fundraising going and keeping things solvent."
The other looming issue is a much more philosophical question, one that makes everyone ponder how many more decades Music Maker will last: How can the mission of Music Maker continue as so many of its beneficiaries age and pass away? Duffy says he's been dealing with this quandary since the start.
"People would tell you, when I first started, 'This is the end, when Gabe dies, this music is gone,'" Duffy recalls. "No, I heard that when I was in school. That argument doesn't make any sense. Culture does not die. It always goes."
Duffy and Flemons agree that the preserved legacy—not necessarily their immediate ability to tour or record—is what matters most for the artists who partner with Music Maker.
"Think of a person like Mississippi John Hurt or Fred McDowell, guys who only toured for two or three years before they died," Flemons says. "Their story and their legend and their music have gone on for years."
Flemons wants to see more Music Maker programming in schools and at music festivals. But Duffy has a bigger aim—to use artistic uplift to promote social justice.
"The main thing is making sure we make an opportunity for everyone's voices to be heard. Music Maker is a social justice organization, because we're crossing lines of poverty, education, age, lifting veils to hidden communities and making it accessible," he says.
That will never end, he reckons: "There's so much more work to do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Spwning the blues."