Music Maker maestro keeps artists singing the blues

Music Maker maestro keeps artists singing the blues
May 17, 2009
The News & Observer

HILLSBOROUGH -- Keeping a charitable organization going is tough even in the best of times. But it's even harder when times are tight, and things are incredibly tight right now for Music Maker Relief Foundation.

"The recession's been huge," Music Maker president Tim Duffy says, sitting at his computer in the foundation's Hillsborough offices. "If we didn't have some working capital from what a big donor gave us a few years ago, it would be ugly. We've scrimped, dropped staff, taken pay cuts -- anything to save. But what I just can't bring myself to cut down on is this."

On his computer, Duffy calls up a ledger that shows a series of checks made out to Music Maker Relief Foundation recipients. Most of the checks aren't large -- $25 for groceries here, $50 for prescriptions there, a few hundred bucks for rent -- but for the people getting the money, it's huge.

BORN: March 14, 1963, in New Haven, Conn.

AGE: 46

EDUCATION: B.A. in ethnomusicology, Friends World College, 1987; M.A. in folklore, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1989

FAMILY: Wife of 16 years, Denise; son, Lucas; daughter, Lilla

HOBBY: Photography

CURRENT JOB: President of Music Maker Relief Foundation (, a 501(c)(3) charity that supports elderly impoverished musicians

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Performing at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; recording with Eric Clapton
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Duffy started Music Maker 15 years ago with a unique mission, to support the artists who have created traditional Southern music. Music Maker pays about $50,000 a year in grants to older, impoverished musicians, most of whom are struggling to survive on Social Security. Past and present Music Maker artists include Durham patriarch John Dee Holeman, buck-dancing legend Algia Mae Hinton and the late Etta Baker, one of the most renowned Piedmont blues guitarists in the world.

In addition to direct financial assistance, Duffy helps musicians find gigs, and he records their music for compact discs they can sell at the shows. Last year, Music Maker acts performed in 22 states across America and in 14 countries.

"He's helped me a whole lot," says Music Maker regular Captain Luke (Luther Mayer), a blues singer from Winston-Salem. "I can't get around too good anymore, and he's kept me in cars, food, anything I need. I get plenty of work through him, too, all over and across the water -- France, Switzerland, Germany, Argentina, all those places. I've been halfway around the world with him. He's one of the best, just like a son to me."

It's a full-time job and then some. As the public face of Music Maker, Duffy serves as champion and supporter of his artists, and he can come on a little strong. But Duffy is not afraid to ruffle feathers, if he thinks it's called for.

"I've seen Tim work, and everything he says he's doing, he actually is doing," says Dom Flemons of the old-time group Carolina Chocolate Drops. "I've spent a lot of time with Tim at his house and seen how he works. He'll go the extra mile where other people either don't want to, or just can't."

As Music Maker's president, Duffy serves as unofficial manager to Music Maker acts. He'll often step in and be a sideman when they perform, too. This past week, he accompanied Holeman on a performance at New York City's Apollo Theatre.

But managing cash flow -- enticing money from donors and then passing it out -- takes up most of Duffy's time. The need is relentless, and growing. Duffy is in constant touch with his people, helping them out when they need money to replace a rotten floor, or put down a deposit on a new apartment, or pay for prescription medication.

Donations are vital

Duffy's wife, Denise, is Music Maker's treasurer ("because they can't con anyone else into doing it," she cracks). She notes that the work puts them in touch with the richest of the rich as well as the poorest of the poor, but also plenty in between.

"Our biggest single source of income is still donations," she says. "People who send anywhere from $20 up to $5,000. The top-end wealthy took a big hit in this recession, and what saved us is the middle-class fans who stayed committed. Maybe they used to send $250 and that's down to $100, but they're still there. It's moving, the way people have stuck with us."
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