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Variety of talent welcomed at Perry Hall Folk Music Night

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At the Perry Hall Folk Music Night, democracy prevails — the performers are often in the audience and audience members get to perform.

And, even those who don't take the stage at all like to sing along.

"Audience participation — people look forward to that," said Debbie Zimmerman, who, with her husband Neil Zimmerman, originated and still run the monthly concert in the church hall of Perry Hall United Methodist Church.

It's lasted 10 years and still pulls them in.

Performers range from career musicians based in Nashville who might drop in for a gig while on the road to local kids with their first guitars. Acts are often solos or duos, but a 25-voice chorus from St. Michael's Catholic Church once took the stage. Songs can be old-timey or newfangled.

"What makes it unique is the diversity of the music," said Ron Kutscher, a high school guidance counselor in Carroll County who shows up regularly with his guitar.

"People are doing it for the love of performing. Whether you are good or not so good, everyone acknowledges you and you feel appreciated," he said.

Neil Zimmerman, a guitarist who usually opens the shows to set the mood, said all musicians appreciate a venue where the only reason people have come is to hear music.

"They like to play in front of an audience that listens. They are used to coffeehouses and bars where they are just the background noise," he said.

The event has evolved over the years. In 2004, Neil and Debbie Zimmerman approached the church she attends, Perry Hall United Methodist (he's Jewish, but takes a secular role), about holding an open mic night and a deal was struck. So it began.

Two years later, a musician from Washington, D.C., heard about the event and asked to come. That was the first "featured performer" and each event now has a featured performer.

Shows are free, but a tip jar is there for donations by the audience, which typically runs 30 to 40 people. Neil Zimmerman said the most ever collected was $100 and it's usually much less than that. The money is split between the church and the featured performer. Notable featured performers have included Ellen Cherry, Chatham Street and Woody Lissauer.

Shows run from 7 to 10 p.m. with the featured performer coming on about halfway through. During the open mic period, anyone can perform up to three songs as long as, Zimmerman said, "it's not a symphony."

The PA system consists of an amp with speakers. There are no monitors or sound board. What Zimmerman calls a "rudimentary piano more or less in tune" is parked in a corner.

The website for the Perry Hall Folk Music Night lists 92 musicians who have been featured over the years. Zimmerman said there is never a shortage of performers who want the showcase slot. In fact, he noted, he has seldom had the same featured act twice.

He feels under no serious pressure to advertise or promote.

"I never really reach out to people. I put us out there and anyone who wants to find us can find us," he said.

Still, he has made at least one pitch to a big name. He said he met Pete Seeger, who is now 94, at a benefit concert at McDaniel College and chatted him up about folk music night.

"But he's never shown up," Zimmerman deadpanned.

Michigan-born Charles Loubert, a Baltimore resident for eight years and regular attendee, used to play guitar, but now prefers baritone ukulele because it's "easier to play." He displayed the uke, which he bought in Tucson, Ariz.

"This is my beauty," he said.

His touchstones are Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and, like those champions of the downtrodden, he has a political streak. He said he was even arrested at a protest demonstration in downtown Baltimore about five years ago.

Loubert said he was demonstrating against a health insurance company for denying treatment coverage to those who need it and, at the same time, calling for a single-payer Medicare-type health insurance system for all. He said he was one of four in the group of about 40 who decided to get arrested.

He said he was released quickly, but not before a doctor took a list of his medications in case he would need any while locked up. This amazed him.

"We're denied Medicare for all, but you can get your medicine free in jail," Loubert said.

From the political to the spiritual, it can all be heard on folk night.

Neil Zimmerman recalled a group called Gospel Ship from Cecil County that wowed the crowd with a rewrite of the R&B hit "Soul Man." It was called "Saved Man."

"There's a lot of variety going on," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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