It's hootenanny time -- again.
In church basements and upscale bookstores, folk-oriented coffeehouses are making a comeback with all the earmarks of their 1960s predecessors -- cozy tables, mood lighting and haunting lyrics, minus the haze of cigarette smoke.
They are reviving a musical tradition that once brought big-name performers such as John Denver, Emmylou Harris and Don McLean to the Baltimore area. And they are providing a comforting bit of nostalgia, as well as an alternative to the bustling bar scene.
"There was a need for a nice, intimate place to relax and unwind," says Regina Lacy Wilt, whose Towson Performance Place on East Chesapeake Avenue kicked off last weekend with flavored coffees, pastries and singer-guitarist Shelley Koffler.
Coffeehouses such as Patches 15 Below in Timonium, or the Blue Dog and Fog Horn in Baltimore, peaked in the 1960s. But by the end of the decade, they began to decline, some say because of the popularity of larger concert halls.
Now they have popped up again, in Columbia, Baltimore, Westminster and many other places.
"This whole thing surprises me," says Jarrett "Patches" Lickle, once a force in Baltimore's folk-music scene. He and his wife, Liz, operated Patches 15 Below on York Road from 1963 to 1971.
They've opened a new coffeehouse recently, this time at Timonium United Methodist Church on Pot Spring Road. It's a welcome return to show business.
"We missed entertaining. Once a ham, always a ham," says the jovial Mr. Lickle, a self-taught guitarist who was a radio performer and host of a local children's television show in the 1950s.
Those in their 40s may remember him as the bearded "Patches," who wore a red-plaid shirt and appeared with Valley the collie, Scratch, a poetry-recitingrooster puppet, and Hector the crow. Mrs. Lickle was the off-screen gravelly voice of Gertrude the Cripple Creek telephone operator.
Mr. Lickle and his wife, an opera singer, also performed popular music in lounges throughout the area before opening their original coffeehouse. Now, they re-create that nightspot the second and fourth Saturday of each month, with red-checked tablecloths, flickering candles in brandy snifters, and local and national talent.
They also have a new addition -- Sparky the singing dog.
On a recent weekend, the Lickles and their 7-year-old gray pooch wowed the crowd with a rousing rendition of "The Alamo." Next stop is "The Late Show with David Letterman," they hope.
Meanwhile, they are concentrating on the Patches and Liz Coffeehouse North, and the interest it has generated.
Aficionados say folk-singing never really died, despite the demise of the first generation of coffeehouses. The music has been there all along, waiting for the right ears.
"People are feeling disenfranchised," says Walt Michael, artistic director of Common Ground in Westminster, a multicultural music and arts organization.
"With cyberspace being what it is, we have fragmented lives. Folk singing is a link with the past and can be very expressive. It's music that gives people a voice," he said.
Sheridan Herd, 53, of Cockeysville met her husband at Patches 15 Below almost 30 years ago.
"There was no booze. The music wasn't loud. You met nice people," says Mrs. Herd, who was in the audience when the Lickles opened their venture last month. "It's a nice place, a nice, warm setting."
That's the charm, Sue Trainor, who operates the Folkal Point coffeehouse in Columbia, says.
"There's magic in going to a small room -- whether a church, a restaurant, a community center -- and seeing performers, and the performers can see you and you can talk to those people."