Folk Explosion!

Toward the end of this week, more than a dozen singers-songwriters will begin making their way to Broward County to compete in the South Florida Folk Festival. Al Scortino will drive two hours from Sebastian, just north of Vero Beach, in his Mazda pickup truck. Bernice Lewis, from Williamstown, Massachusetts, will fly down with a guitar and some camping gear. Peter Lamson has already cashed in his frequent-flier miles for a roundtrip ticket from Alameda, California.

The cash prize for the winner: $200.
"It's sheer insanity," admits Lewis, speaking on the phone from her Williamstown home. "I'm coming down there to play two songs. You gotta wonder. I know I'm wondering."

Despite the fact that this area has difficulty attracting national touring acts (many bands don't want to make the costly and time-consuming trek down the peninsula and back up), the organizers of the seventh annual South Florida Folk Festival received more than 100 cassettes from little-known U.S. folksingers, all of whom hoped to be chosen as one of this year's twenty finalists. Even a few Canadians sent in tapes. The artists who made the cut -- only three of them are from South Florida -- were invited to come to Easterlin Park (in Oakland Park), at their own expense, and play two songs apiece for a panel of five judges.

Each finalist will perform the songs he or she originally submitted: one ballad and one upbeat number. The best ballad wins $100, as does the best upbeat song. The best overall performer wins the aforementioned $200, which, in Lewis' case, is $36 less than she paid Delta Airlines to bring her here.

Careerwise there are probably smarter moves. Granted, the festival offers the chance to be heard by a crowd of perhaps 1500, among them a representative from the folk-oriented label Red House Records. But unknown folksingers would be better off saving up for a ticket to Kerrville, Texas -- home to the nation's biggest folk festival -- if fame were the ultimate goal.

"I'm not sure if that's really the goal," Lewis explains. "At these kinds of events, I tend to run into people from the folk music community, which is nationwide but not that big. A lot of the other artists on the roster are friends of mine. I get a lot of contact information and artistic inspiration from that crowd."

"That's really the main reason I'm going: just to catch up with people," agrees Christopher Williams, who also lives in Massachusetts. Williams is one of the lucky few who makes a living by recording and touring. As a result he's made friends with other performers whose touring paths have crossed his, and the South Florida Folk Festival provides yet another junction.

"One of the things that happens when you do this full-time is you don't get to see people in their hometowns," says Williams, speaking two weeks before the festival on a friend's phone in Seattle. "You get to see them in Florida or the Poconos."

Though he'll be competing against them, Williams says he's particularly looking forward to seeing Chadd Ferron of Orlando ("I actually just saw him in November in Pennsylvania"), David Nachmanoff of Davis, California ("We're doing a concert in Davis on Monday"), and Darryl Purpose of Seattle ("I'll probably see him in L.A., because I'm playing there on Friday," as was Purpose).

Williams lives in Marblehead, just north of Boston. The greater Boston area boasts a dozen colleges and countless coffeehouses, making it one of the most fertile folk scenes in the U.S., yet Williams is willing to shell out $220 for a roundtrip ticket to Broward. "I think the festival is gaining more national recognition," he says, "obviously, from the [total number of] singer-songwriter entries in the competition. It doesn't pull that much weight if you win the South Florida competition, but I look at it as just a stepping stone. Anything that you can put on your bio is a good thing."

Eric Peltoniemi, a festival judge and the production manager for Red House Records, concurs. "All of these artists are doing what I like to call missionary work," says Peltoniemi, speaking from his office in Minneapolis. "They're trying to spread their names. It's very competitive. There are so many people in the folk and acoustic genre. And they're all trying to get better known and get in front of as many people as they can."

Peltoniemi admits that, economically speaking, the folk pie is a modest one. Red House Records is a relatively small label with perhaps 30 artists on its roster, but it's considered the big time by most folksingers. This means that for Peltoniemi the festival will likely present more familiar voices than new ones.

"We've probably already gotten demos from most of these artists," he notes. "If they're out there playing the game, they've probably contacted us already. But it's a chance to see them in their milieu, working for an audience. You often learn much more that way than you do from a demo."

As one of the five festival judges, Peltoniemi will quantify his critique of each artist using a complicated point system based on lyrics, creativity, and musicianship. (The other judges are Michael Stock, who has hosted WLRN's Folk and Acoustic Music show for fifteen years; the singers Steve Gillette and David Roth; and the winner of the 1995 festival, Marie Nofsinger.) But Peltoniemi admits that the judging is a far more subjective process. "I'm looking for quality," he says, "that sort of intangible kernel of something that's hard to describe."

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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