"There are an awful lot of people in this country who aren't teenagers."
-- Tom Rush, just talking the other day.
AROUND D.C., where folk music was once as healthy as it was anywhere, a faithful community -- of fans, fanatics and your everyday flatpickers -- has survived the assaults of '70s smarm and '80s electronics to see, at last, a renewed interest in meaningful, melodic, lyrical, acoustic music.
"Folk" music, right?
Yes. But more than old folk. Especially if your definition stops at the Kingston Trio.
What it is, in Washington as in many other areas of the country, is a broad renaissance of acoustic, vocal-dominated, listenable music -- incorporating elements of jazz and gospel, Pete Seeger, Hank Williams and Lennon/McCartney. It's the inevitable outcome of a lot of long-simmering notions, but chiefly this one: Modern pop, shaped these last 15 years by people with pinky rings for people with pimples, has been a bummer for a lot of us for a long time.
So we made Windham Hill what it is today. We made tiny Rounder an independent record-industry force. Around Washington, we've even bumped the Birchmere off its original instrumental, country-bluegrass axis.
Now they come to hear the words, too.
Alexandria's Birchmere -- which is fast becoming to the '80s what the Cellar Door (and Shadows, the Cellar Door's former self) were to the '60s and '70s -- now books far less of the bluegrass on which it made its name, and instead books mostly . . . well, you probably already know where Arlo Guthrie, folk legend, performed this past Tuesday.
"A lot of my old friends in bluegrass are mad at me," says Birchmere owner Gary Oelze. "But, you know, this is a business."
Speaking of business, let's consider January. Early in the month, Tom Rush -- with Emmylou Harris and a cast of lesser-known but equally sparkling singer-songwriters and crack acoustic musicians -- sold out the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Three weeks later, a Tom Paxton/Bob Gibson reminiscing-and-singing evening filled the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium. And three days after that, another large-scale acoustic concert -- with Rush, Kate Wolf, Cathy Fink, Schooner Fare, a surprise reunion of the original Chad Mitchell Trio, a host of locals and an overall feeling of warmth and mutual respect -- sold out at Lisner, unadvertised.
Maybe you've not been paying attention, and perhaps you tried just this week to get tickets to the Peter, Paul & Mary concert/benefit next Tuesday at the Kennedy Center. Right. Thanks for calling.
Things are happening.
For one, Dick Cerri, whose 25-year-old "Music Americana" folk-pop radio show in the past jumped from station to station, is now drawing respectable, consistent ratings -- especially for a Sunday night -- on a station that calls itself W-Lite. For the last two years, Cerri's also been building a surprisingly loyal audience with his once-a-month showcases of folk talent at the Birchmere. (Meanwhile, otherwise-classical public station WETA-FM keeps its hands off Mary Cliff's "Traditions," the Saturday night labor of love that is Cerri's chief, and chiefly traditional, competition. And over at WMAL, commercial station of commercial stations, a 11/2-hour folk-acoustic show was just added to the weekend roster.)
Local folk-acoustic artists, meantime, if not prospering, are at least finding work -- and visibility: Side by Side, for two years a sort of "house duo" at Cerri's showcases, plays its first paying, opening-act gig there next month; D.C.'s Smith Sisters are on the road, at colleges and clubs, about half the year; Jonathan Edwards, who's made an album with the Seldom Scene and just produced another, finds he can now both live and work here. And D.C. can find its own new-acoustic, Tony Rice-David Grisman super-musicians in folks like John Jennings and Pete Kennedy, its politically aware wit in newly active old hands like Bill Danoff and relative newcomers like Marcy Marxer.
"Yeah, the perennial folk revival," muses Rush, the Cambridge-bred veteran, still writing and recording at 45 -- but doing so now to a master marketing plan he devised himself. "If revival means platinum records, then there is no revival. If it means large audiences, then yes, there is.
"The absence of platinum doesn't mean there's nothing going on," says Rush. "It means the industry can't merchandise this stuff to teen-agers the way they do Twisted Sister.
"But there is a lot going on," he says.
Thus, Rush -- who found he could not four years ago fill a 500-seat club in his old neighborhood -- now sells out Boston's Symphony Hall and similar halls elsewhere, including here, experimenting (successfully, would you say?) with various ways of reaching this broad but fractured folk/acoustic audience. And at most of his no-more-than-40 annual concerts nowadays, he also features and introduces his cross-section of the genre's future stars -- such captivating, class acts as Christine Lavin, Bill Morrissey, Nanci Griffith, Robert Keen, and David Buskin & Robin Batteau (most of whom he also manages and books, incidentally, from his 600-acre New Hampshire farm).
Of course, there are those who would apply the dread adjective "pop" to Rush and his ilk (and to Cerri and his ilk, whatever an ilk is). This is fine; this doesn't bother Rush, nor Cerri ("Somebody's got to get their attention in the first place," Cerri says, "and you don't do that by driving them away with half an hour of celtic ballads"). They believe there's plenty of room in the new folk/acoustic house for their ilk and for others fond of more authentic folk arts.
So there is clogging at Captain White's in Silver Spring every Thursday night. There is square dancing every Sunday night at Takoma Park Junior High. There was a gospel singalong at somebody's house on Capitol Hill last weekend.
For those who take their folk with the roots still attached, in any case, there is -- and has been, for 21 years -- the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, one of the largest and most active such groups in the country.
The Folklore Society's informal base -- Takoma Park -- is likewise the center of a large and varied music community itself, much of it feminist, politically aware, tradition conscious, nationally known. Among the renowned jeans-wearers who live in Takoma Park are Sweet Honey in the Rock, the glorious gospel harmonizers; champion banjoist-singer-songwriter Cathy Fink, who's on the road eight months of the year playing her eclectic blend of feminist folk, heartfelt country, swing and old- time mountain music; and Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner, whose old-timey, ethnic, authentic-folk duo is known as Magpie. Also Mary Chapin Carpenter, who you perhaps hadn't seen as much of at Food For Thought or Gallagher's lately because she's been making an album of originals, produced by Jennings.
Well, the album is done -- and a riveting hybrid of folk sentiment and country grit it is -- and Chapin will be back at Food For Thought again next Friday, sure enough. Performing -- and collecting -- some new material.
"That's what it is about folk and acoustic music that sets it apart from rock -- it's participatory," says Cerri. "At a rock concert, you're always a spectator."
At a folk concert, as he says, you're up there with them.