Notes From the Underground

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The effect of MacDonald's newfound serenity is even more apparent in his most recent lyrics. His pre-Florida, premarital work reflected an earnest, politically liberal sensibility more reminiscent of Phil Ochs than Jimmy Buffett. Humor has always played a part in MacDonald's songwriting, but in the past it was a subtle undercurrent, not a prominent feature. (The beguiling song "Norman," for example, from 1992's Highway to Nowhere, is a touching tale of mother and son that just happens to be told from the perspective of Alfred Hitchcock's protagonist in Psycho.) Although Into the Blue does include several topical songs ("Deep Down in the Everglades" is a contemplation of the ValuJet disaster), the overall tone is actually whimsical. "I Have No Problem With This" provides a kind of thesis for the entire album. It is an occasionally goofy meditation on growing old, mellowing out, and coming to terms with domesticity. It presents life in Greenwich Village stripped of all romanticism:

Remember when life meant

you were living in

some little apartment

on some city street

with the chicken factory

across the courtyard

you opened your windows

in the summer heat.

South Florida, in contrast, is portrayed as a land of simple pleasures and few struggles -- not to mention very little thought. "At this point in my life, I'm not writing big, anthemic, emotional-agony-type songs," MacDonald admits. "What tends to interest me is the offbeat stuff, the stuff that doesn't sound like it's been done to death."

More people write songs than listen to them

doesn't mean you can't write a song.

More people sing than get paid for it

doesn't mean you can't sing along.

On every highway in every town

somebody's wise to the game:

give all the people a song and a dance

and be a keeper of the flame.

-- "Keeper of the Flame,"

And Then He Woke Up (1997)

MacDonald's humility serves him well. The day-to-day routine of a full-time folksinger in South Florida is decidedly unglamorous. Marie Nofsinger, a songwriter with a talent for telling detail and a style that jumps from country to jazz, has been playing area gigs for almost two decades. She recalls going to a repair garage to have a muffler replaced a few years back, only to be recognized by the guy behind the counter. "You played at my Texaco," he said.

In addition to hitting the gas-station circuit, Nofsinger used to play at a Chuck's Steak House. Earlier this year she performed at a nudist colony. "I've played about everything except a bowling alley," says Nofsinger, whose latest album is called Boots. She now performs almost every Thursday night at Web Central in Delray Beach and takes road trips -- to Austin, Texas, mostly -- for additional gigs. She supplements her income by working three days a week at the Amp Shop & Music Parlor in West Palm Beach. "And then when I'm really broke, I have yard sales," she says only half jokingly.

Other local folk musicians have had to find creative ways to make ends meet as well. Magda Hiller, a Miami-based singer-songwriter, does voice-over work for radio commercials, and Grant Livingston, whose songs are steeped in Florida history and geography, works as a computer consultant. He recently performed an afternoon show at a nursing home, which, as far as he's concerned, is nothing to sneer at. "A paid gig in the middle of a weekday is a really good thing," he says.

Livingston and others note that the fast-paced, transient lifestyle of South Florida -- particularly Miami -- does not lend itself to contemplative, quiet music. "Miami's a tough town," he says. "People don't like to listen a lot."

Despite the difficulty of competing with the buzz of electronica and Latin music in South Florida, the folk-music scene is growing -- particularly in Broward and Palm Beach counties. A handful of venues, such as Center Perk Coffeehouse and Chocolate Moose Coffeehouse, both in Davie, offer acoustic music on a regular basis. House concerts, for which people transform their humble abodes into mini concert halls, have also become popular settings for folk music. There are now three semiregular house-concert series in South Florida, ensuring at least one show a month. Headliners at the concerts are usually out-of-town performers, such as Carla Ulbrich, of South Carolina, who won the songwriter contest at this year's South Florida Folk Festival in January, or Jamie Anderson, of North Carolina, who will perform later this month at a home in Plantation.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko