*TC ALL MUSICIANS KNOW THE RULE BY HEART, A CLASSIC CAUTION THAT RANKS WITH THE LIKES of "Don't put your hand in the piranha tank" and "Don't play cards with a guy named Doc." For even though a little applause in a smoky saloon can make a guitar player see stars, when it comes to things like health insurance or paid vacations, the rule of thumb and every other musical finger has always been, "Don't give up your day job."
In the early 1960s, fresh out of the University of Maryland, a business career beckoning, Kenn Roberts heard that warning. He and three friends who'd had their fling at musical success in those heady days when songs accompanied by unplugged guitars actually topped the charts -- we're talking folk music, folks -- heard it and actually heeded it.
After a couple of years of local success they turned their backs on an offer from a promoter to tour the country under their nom de banjo the Hard Travelers. Instead, they disbanded and went their separate ways, while people they had met in those burgeoning days of folk music in the Washington area -- unheralded nobodys like John Phillips and John Denver and Mama Cass Elliott -- stayed with the music and became stars.
And became stars.
It didn't bother the Hard Travelers. That is, the ex-Hard Travelers.
And became stars.
Not one bit. No sir. Kenn Roberts developed a nice career as a developer. Mike Ritter and Buddy Renfro went into film production. Ed Windsor became a fiscal analyst for local government.
All right, all right, it bothered them a little. Just a tad. Time went by, they found themselves suddenly in their 50s, their hair was getting gray, they remembered the good old days of folk music, their adoring fans and, well, they began to wonder.
"Wondering 'what if' might have been what kept us together all these years," says Kenn Roberts now. "There's no question we would have made it if we'd stuck. We've seen people with less talent make it big."
So when Ed Windsor tossed around the idea of a reunion a few years back, Kenn and Buddy and Mike jumped at the idea. For six months they rehearsed their old Kingston Trio-era songs and played to a packed house at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis' Maryland Inn. It was to have been a one-time-only show, but the management took one look at the enthusiastic crowd and offered the reborn Hard Travelers a weekly slot in what had been primarily a jazz nightclub.
And it wasn't too long after the applause from the smoky room had died down that Kenn Roberts did the unthinkable. He gave up his day job. Granted, he'd been pretty successful in the developing end of things, but the focus in his life was now clear: The Hard Travelers were back and they were heading for the top.
Of course, there was only one problem: Folk music was dead and there wasn't a chance in the world they'd get beyond Annapolis.
ER, ABOUT THAT DEATH NOTICE. IT turns out, five years after that reunion at the King of France Tavern, that folk music wasn't quite as dead as everyone had thought. Dressed up and repackaged as everything from acoustic to new acoustic to contemporary acoustic, folk music is still out there.
And so are the Hard Travelers.
Still packing them in at the King of France Tavern, they have recorded two albums since their reunion, they have traveled from Texas to Taiwan and have plans for producing their next recording in Nashville. While they've lost an original member -- Ed Windsor retired -- they've picked up a younger Traveler in 30-year-old Mack Bailey. They've also established an annual benefit concert for the Maryland Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and in three years have raised more than $150,000.
Not the least of their successes has been catching the ear of a very special fan, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has promoted their music on a state-produced album of songs by various folk artists touting the Chesapeake Bay.
"We find a lot of people who say they are tired of hearing rap," smiles 52-year-old Kenn Roberts, explaining the band's durability. "Or they see where rock and roll has evolved with all these videos and Madonna and the like. Many people like country music, but they aren't hard-core country fans. I think there are a lot of people out there who just don't have a home. In the '60s with folk music, those people had a home."
One who agrees is Washington's Bill Danoff, a veteran folkie who wrote John Denver's first big hit song, "Country Roads," and later formed the Starland Vocal Band, which recorded the hit song "Afternoon Delight." Noting that several '60s-era folk groups like the Kingston Trio are still performing, he says, "My impression is they've been singing the same songs for 20 years and they seem a little tired. With the Hard Travelers it's as if something had been freeze-dried or preserved between layers of cellophane. They haven't been doing music continuously for 20 years, but they have the same exuberance and joy of discovering music as the early '60s. I think that offers something very different."
"The reason we got back together was the love of the music," says 54-year-old Buddy Renfro, an independent sculptor these days who commutes to the Travelers' Annapolis gigs from his home in Shepherdstown, W.Va. "When we stopped in the '60s, " we'd worn ourselves out. We had careers. But we never lost our love for that music. Now, after 20 years, you see the music differently."
One thing that has brought new life to this version of the Travelers is the inclusion in their act of other folk performers from around the country. In fact their shows are billed nowadays as "Hard Travelers and Friends." Often they share their stage in Annapolis with some of the most popular acoustic music acts in the business, including Mr. Danoff, Fred Koller, Alan Damron and even Hobo Jim Vasros of Alaska.
"In our second year back together, we felt we needed to expand what we were doing," explains Mr. Roberts. "We didn't feel people would just sit there and listen to the same old folk songs. And what happened was that in a short period of time we got in touch with an incredible amount of new music, from a variety of sources. Also, Mack started writing new songs and Buddy started writing. Now it's to the point where we find it hard to do all of our old '60s stuff."
THAT, ACCORDING TO TOWSON RA- dio announcer Tony Sica, may be an even bigger key to their success. Mr. Sica, who hosts "Detours," a Sunday afternoon program on WCVT-FM (89.7) that specializes in progressive forms of acoustic music, says he is impressed that the Travelers have grown beyond a nostalgia act.
"A few years ago they had this reunion to re-create the sound of the '60s," he says. "But they are already moving out of that, they are already beyond just a bunch of guys doing Kingston Trio songs. Mack and Buddy are writing their own songs and that takes them into the music of the '90s. The modern folk singers are singer-songwriters who do their own stuff."
A good example, he says, is singer/guitarist David Wylcox who performs original material. Mr. Sica recently saw him in concert at an Alexandria nightclub. "There were 400 people there, and the average age was 25 to 30," he says. "And all of these young people were identifying with this kind of music. But there is no way those 400 people knew they were seeing folk music."
In fact, he said, the very word "folk" is almost anathema in the music business.
"I think sometimes people avoid the 'F' word," says Mr. Sica. "They think it might hurt their career."
Sadly, the Travelers agree.
"As soon as you say 'folk,' " says Mack Bailey, "the first thing that comes to people's minds is 'Michael, Row the Boat Ashore' and 'Kumbaya.' "
"There is still this coffee-house image of the folk singer from the '60s," adds Mr. Renfro. "In the '60s there was a little bit of a cross to bear with folk music. But all of that personal kind of pain can only go so far with an audience, today's audiences especially."
Which explains why even the Travelers prefer not to be labeled folk anymore, although Mr. Renfro, raised in North Carolina on the songs of Hank Williams, won't completely abandon the word.
"Folk music is uplifting," he says. "It makes statements, but uplifting statements."
It was one of Mr. Renfro's uplifting musical statements that caught the ear of Governor Schaefer two years ago. At a ceremony marking the start of a $70 million cleanup campaign of the chrome-contaminated Allied-Signal plant in Fells Point, the Travelers performed a song called "Chesapeake." Written by Mr. Renfro, its lively chorus had the governor tapping his toes.
From the Pocomoke to the Nanticoke
The Choptank and the Chester
Down the Susquehanna
The Severn and the James
Potomac and Patuxent
Into the spreading waters
Pray there's a Chesapeake Bay
For our sons and daughters
In fact, the governor was so inspired, says his staff, that he suggested an album of bay-related songs be produced to generate income for cleanup projects. Thus was born "Bay Folk," a collection of songs with a bay theme, including the Travelers' own "Chesapeake."
Another of Mr. Renfro's songs, "Let the Last Image Fall," about the disappearance of buffalo herds on the great plains, won him a coveted songwriting award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, one of the country's premier folk events. In fact, both Mr. Renfro and Mr. Bailey were invited to Kerrville to give special performances.
"All of our songs have some sort of meaning," says Mr. Bailey, who, like Mr. Renfro, was raised in North Carolina.
"When I listened to groups when I was little and my Dad played records, there was something about it that made it feel good," he says. "It was the harmonies and the simpleness of the music. They were not trying to put anything over on you. That's what we continue to do. We don't overproduce our songs. The music is just as powerful. The core of honesty is still there."
But that can also take some getting used to by an uninitiated audience. "People are almost afraid to listen to music and become emotionally involved with a song," he says. "But if you look at all the songs through time, the songs that don't have an emotional commitment don't stick around and stay in people's minds and hearts."
Apparently, that emotional commitment isn't limited only to their songs.
"At one point, about two years into what we were doing, we all had a sense that this was happening for a reason," says Mr. Roberts. "And we had a great sense of gratitude as to how fortunate we were. I mean, here we were, a bunch of old farts, coming out of retirement and having fun at our age. We had a deep need to give back something to society."
He arranged with then-Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer to use Downs Park to stage a benefit on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a charity the Travelers had been briefly associated with a few years earlier.
The concert brought to the stage all of the "friends" that had performed at the King of France Tavern with the group during their first year, and it raised $12,000. The second annual concert, also at Downs Park, was larger, involved more visiting entertainers, and raised $53,000. At that point Mr. Roberts moved the concert to Merriweather Post Pavilion and arranged for country singing star Emmylou Harris to headline the show, along with an ever larger cast of touring folk singers. The concert, held last fall, brought in $88,000.
During their association with Cystic Fibrosis, the Travelers got to know the family of Wanda and John Klipsch, whose daughter Debbie -- 7 at the time -- had been a Maryland poster child for cystic fibrosis. Wanda Klipsch recalls clearly that first Travelers concert at Downs Park.
"To be honest, in the beginning I thought oh, no, folk music. But when we went in and listened to the group, it was amazing. Our hearts filled with so much happiness. It was a warm family time. Every word touched your heart. They put out so much emotion."
Over the years, the Travelers, especially Mr. Roberts and Mr. Bailey, became close to Debbie, says Mrs. Klipsch. "When she was dying she spoke with Kenn," she says. "They sat and had long talks. She knew she was dying. She adored Kenn. And Mack, he was her boyfriend, her sweetheart." Debbie died of the disease two years ago and since then, the Travelers have involved her brother, Matthew -- also afflicted with cystic fibrosis, although not as severely -- in their stage shows.
Mr. Roberts, who spends much of his time in retirement lining up sponsors for the group's benefit concerts, says the Travelers have been invited by the governor's office to stage a special cystic fibrosis benefit at Oregon Ridge as the kickoff to the Preakness Week festivities this spring.
"As long as they keep on writing their own music and their own songs and saying something, people will connect to them," says Tony Sica. "I mean, that's the whole point. Their music is relevant and when I say relevant I don't mean strictly in terms of issues. I'm referring to relationships. It's people listening to words and the words make a connection. They will certainly gain success and it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of folks."
OF COURSE, THERE'S SUC- cess and there's success. For an acoustic music band, the ultimate symbol of success is Nashville, the city where the Travelers have arranged to record their next album. It has them excited, but it also has some of their fans worried that they will fall into the Nashville trap that has turned so many folk singers into rock-oriented country singers.
"They have a secret word for folk music in Nashville," says longtime folk music disc jockey Dick Cerri, whose "Musica Americana" program is heard Sunday evenings on WLTT-FM (94.7) in Rockville. "The phrase to disguise what folk is . . . are you ready? It's acoustic rock. That sells it, baby. Folk music ain't gonna sell. You've got to come up with a label that sells."
Mr. Roberts, though, says he and the Travelers are aware of the dangers.
"I doubt we could change enough to become a country band and we sure as hell can't change enough to become a rock band," he says. "When you go to a Hard Travelers show you never hear songs about sex, divorce, infidelity, violence or hatred. We don't feel we have to write about a guy jumping into bed with his wife. So if we went to Nashville and they said we'll make you stars but you have to add drums, electric guitars, get rid of this guy, pick up that guy, do this kind of song and not that kind, well, somewhere in there we'd be waving goodbye."
And yet that prospect of stardom is still there, still a real goal in their minds.
"We have a secret dream," says Mr. Roberts, "that the next folk music wave is coming. I remember 1957. There was nothing. Then in 1958 a whole new wave of music had taken over the country. I think we secretly hope that maybe a new era or whatever you call it will happen -- somewhere between country and folk -- and we hope our timing is such that we will be part of it."
It's possible, say a lot of acoustic music observers. Possible. But not likely. Even Mr. Roberts seems to appreciate the odds.
"We realize that chances of getting to the top now are not all that great. Folk is not an area where success is being made. We do think about the possibility it could happen. And I'll tell you, if we had a hit record tomorrow, I think we'd follow our dreams this time."
IT'S A SATURDAY NIGHT AT the King of France Tavern. A layer of smoke hangs over the long, low-ceilinged room, adorned at one end with a stage and the four Hard Travelers. Kenn Roberts is introducing the group's next song, a tune written by one of the friends the group has made in recent years, Hobo Jim Vasros.
"The first night we got back together," he explains to his audience, "we typed our song list and put them on the sides of our guitars. But we found out we couldn't read them. So then we went to large cue cards taped to the floor."
He pauses and squints down near his shoes.
"What's scary is that even these things are becoming hard to read."
His audience this night falls into that thirtysomething, fortysomething, even fiftysomething grouping, an age well acquainted with dimming eyesight, even in a well-lit room without smoke. As the room relaxes in a chuckle of warm laughter, Mr. Roberts leads the band into its favorite Hobo Jim song. The words are eerily on target, a metaphor for their very existence:
L After the storm had passed, and the waters were calm at last
We watched the winds of love return to our sails . . .
And now we're sailing, sailing on a second wind
And it's stronger, stronger than it's ever been
And just when, when we thought we'd reached the end
We'd go sailing, sailing on a second wind
Afterward, Buddy Renfro ponders the elements that have kept the group together.
"The secret ingredient? We are comfortable with ourselves," he says. "It's that indescribable something that is there. When we sing a song like 'Old Friends,' we look at each other and we mean it."
"The great thing about it," says Mike Ritter, the band's efficient yet unobtrusive bass player, "is that we can say that we're still growing after all these years. And this time we'll go as far as we can with it."
To which Mr. Renfro adds a postscript: "Here you are in your 50s and people are lining up to get your autograph." He smiles broadly. "It's nice."