David Norris sings memories.
He looks like a memory, too, straight from the waterways of St. Mary's County. Jeans-clad and soft-spoken, he strums his guitar and taps his foot on a wooden stage scattered with fishnets and miniature lighthouses. Then, he sings ballads and bluegrass in his subtle Southern Maryland drawl.
Far from Southern Maryland's woods and farms, Norris performed on the Mall in Washington on the opening day of the exhibit "Water Ways: Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities" at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He is one of two singing brothers -- his twin, Joseph Norris, will sing today on the festival's final day.
Between songs, David Norris told his Washington audience about the Southern Maryland of his mother's childhood, days when most things still revolved around working on the water or in farm fields.
"St. Mary's County was as close to paradise as you could get," he said.
At a time when St. Mary's County and the rest of Southern Maryland make up one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, the Norris brothers, both 50, are trying to keep the memory of that paradise alive through their music.
"There is a lot of Southern Maryland in [our] songs," said Joseph Norris, who now lives in California in St. Mary's County. "There is something about this place that's really special . . . and it's my biggest fear that Southern Maryland will become just like every place in America."
The Norrises sing about riverboats and watermen, about their mother's farm and their grandma's quilts, and about love in Southern Maryland. They draw on their memories of old St. Mary's County to write many of their songs.
"It's all in the memory now," David said, "what it used to be."
David Norris writes about his years growing up on his "mother's mother's" farm tucked in Chaptico, near the water in northern St. Mary's County. The name of the place, he said, meant "deep broad bay" to the Native Americans who originally lived in the area.
His mother raised her seven children to sing -- now, only the twins and their brother, Leo, who lives in Fredericksburg, continue to make music.
"She had an incredibly beautiful voice," Joseph Norris said, "and she had us singing from the time we were small."
Their mother and grandmother would tell stories about "Grandpa," who died before the twins were born. David Norris wove the stories into his song, "Grandpa Was a Gentleman," which he sang at the Folklife Festival.
Music was always a part of their lives, even before they became musicians.
"We used to wake up in the mornings and sing our dreams to each other," said David Norris. Today, he often wakes from a dream and scribbles it into song.
In their 20s, the two would play popular folk songs in pizza parlors for pocket change, which at the time seemed like a fortune. But they haven't played together in years because of a "matter of style," David Norris said.
"I drive my brother crazy," Joseph Norris said, chuckling. "He's real structured in music . . . and I'm more of a free-flow guy."
David Norris has always been the stronger musician, his brother acknowledged. Joseph Norris, who writes for the Calvert Independent newspaper, concentrates more on the lyrics and history than on the actual music.
"Since I am a writer, I've always written songs," said Joseph Norris, who went to college in the late 1980s to study history. "So many people are moving into this area, it is a good way to introduce them to the history."
David Norris's passion dwells in the music -- he often ventures into the woods of Southern Maryland to sing in the peace and silence of nature. As a child, he said, he would linger in graveyards to read the headstones for song ideas.
"Every tombstone is a story," he said.
In 1996, David Norris won Nashville's Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest, in Wilkesboro, N.C., and well-known bluegrass musicians have recorded his music.
But he didn't talk about honors or awards at the Folklife Festival -- he sang of growing up near the streams and bays of Southern Maryland.
"Live a sweet life," he sang, "down on the southern waters."