Folk Explosion!

Peltoniemi adds that his own performing career makes it even harder to judge objectively. "I have to not be so critical, like, 'Boy, he sure bombed on that metaphor.' You can't be cynical, you have to be fresh, because most people who are listening will be fresh, and that's who they're really writing for: the audience, not the judges."

"For me that's what it's all about," insists Scortino, a finalist who is also a featured performer on the festival's second stage. "To play in front of people who care about what you're playing. It's the best feeling there is."

Most of the finalists, when they're not performing for audiences, will be performing for each other. "You can usually wander around the campground and find a song circle and join," Scortino points out. "Sometimes the best performances are when you get around a campfire late at night, and you're lucky enough to hear people in a casual atmosphere."

Robbie Greenberg, one of the festival's organizers, decided to pay for the finalists' camping costs as part of her effort to make the event more inviting. Broward may never approach Kerrville in importance, but Greenberg would like to see as large a turnout here as possible.

"We made some changes in the festival and pushed it up, qualitywise," she notes. "We have a hospitality table where we feed the finalists three meals a day. We'll pay for their camping. And we make them feel very welcome and supported."

This year the festival begins with a Friday evening kick-off party at Power Studios in Miami, where most of the finalists will have a chance to strut more than just two songs' worth of stuff. The finalists will compete on Saturday at Easterlin Park, and the judges will announce their decision there on Sunday. Both Saturday and Sunday will feature a main stage with several national acts (the best-known being Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, a critically acclaimed duo based in Vermont) and a second stage with various local acts. There are also workshops, a children's stage, and folk dancing.

Greenberg's summation: "It's a chance to come to Florida and get fed and be warm."

Greenberg has further sweetened the pot with a production deal from the national manufacturing company Disc Makers, which will produce 500 cassettes for the winner or allow the equivalent cost ($790) to be put toward CD production.

"We've put out three or four cassette albums -- now we have two CDs, and we're working on a third," says Joseph Brunelle, a Nashville-based singer who will bring his wife with him to Broward to sing a duet in the competition. His stock of self-produced recordings is not unusual: Many of the finalists have already put out more than one CD. "You can sell them and perhaps get something played on a smaller type of market radio station," he explains. "It gives some credibility to your art. Otherwise it's like if you're a painter and you don't paint."

The Brunelles' cost for the Broward trip already totals more than $500 for plane fare and hotel accommodations. "The money would help if I was a winner, plus it certainly doesn't hurt your ego at all," he says. "But I'm not real competitive by nature. I don't gotta win. Just being invited is enough in itself."

More than half the finalists face a long trip home whether they win or not. Scortino, who'll be making that two-hour drive back to Sebastian when the festival is over, observes, "If you're going to put yourself on the line and enter any of these things, you have to expect not to win. Maybe I've lost enough that it doesn't bother me any more! I've gotten a lot of recognition for my songwriting, and I'm proud to be able to hang out with some of these other songwriters."

The South Florida Folk Festival takes place on Saturday and Sunday in Easterlin Park, 1000 NW 38th St., Oakland Park. Performances and activities begin around 11 a.m. each day. Advance tickets for both days cost $16 for adults and $9 for ages 13-18. Tickets at the gate cost $10 per day for adults and $5 per day for ages 13-18. Children under 13 get in free. Call 954-384-2197.

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