Music Maker Relief Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of the Blues gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs. Our blog is dedicated to keeping the conversation about these artists alive & thriving.
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Need something special for your holidays?

Sam at JazzfestIt’s hard to believe we’re heading into the Holiday season (wasn’t it just summer?) This is the time of year when I’m able to slow down a little and reflect on what Music Maker does for our artists, and for Roots music in general. While we’re ramping up outreach in the fall and we’re constantly hearing from members and supporters around the globe, for some of our artists it can be a lonely time. Gigs slow down as the weather turns colder; just as energy costs start to rise. Life gets harder in the winter, but it’s especially difficult if your income is sporadic. The great thing about Music Maker is that we’re here for the artists even if there isn’t a gig for them. We strive diligently to get them work, but if it just isn’t there, they won’t go cold or hungry. This year we’re helping Boo Hanks purchase heating oil, and many artists receive a monthly sustenance check to help them meet their basic needs.

Festivals may be few and far between during the winter months, but there are a lot of holiday parties going on out there. We hope you’ll consider hiring an artist for your gathering – not only will your party be unique, spectacular and guaranteed to be talked about for many years, you’ll be giving work to an artist, helping them earn an income and live in safety and comfort. Without Music Maker, and without you, these musicians and their art would be lost to the passing of time.

To book an artist for your party, contact Aaron Greenhood at or 919-643-2456. Thank you!

The Celebrity of Ironing Board Sam

photo by Tom Ciaburri

photo by Tom Ciaburri

While in the grocery store the other day, my husband and I had an encounter that wasn’t extraordinary, but to me further solidified the impact Music Maker has on our artists and on the outside world.

We had just gotten back into town from vacation, and realized we literally had no food in our house. Normally we don’t love to buy groceries on Sunday afternoons – everyone shops on Sunday afternoons here, and the stores, from the parking lot to the lines, are completely nuts. But, we braved it and fought valiantly to get a suitable number of things to get us through the week. We spent about 40 minutes in line, and we were not in great moods by the time we were greeted by the cashier. My husband was sporting some shin-bruises from those tiny shopping carts they have available for children, and he was anxious to get to the car.


Anatomy of a Diggin’


I was just having a conversation with our intern, Margot, about our weekly Diggin’. (Margot, it should be said, is so devoted to MMRF that despite having ended her internship in June, she still comes in whenever she’s got time in between her other internships and job hunting.) She was in this afternoon and we talked about writing a Diggin’ – she was concerned that she didn’t have anything much to say musically about the track because she is not as familiar with Roots music as, say, Tim or Aaron.

I pointed out that she’s probably more knowledgeable than I am, and I’ve been writing Diggins for two years. (Sorry folks!) All kidding aside – the idea behind our Diggins isn’t to get very technical or fact-heavy about each track. (Although sometimes we definitely do try to be as educational as possible.) We have an enormous amount of recordings here at Music Maker. And while we love it when people buy CDs or join our Listener’s Circle and Record Club to support the artists we serve, one of our main missions is to preserve Southern Roots music. And part of preservation is getting it out there, to you, to the public, and to people who haven’t heard it before.


Roots and Leaves

One thing that I can say I did not learn until I came to Music Maker – there is nothing like planning a concert series outdoors. Attending them, well, I’d done my fair share before joining the MMRF team in 2011. When planning our Roots and Leaves Series for 2012, I remember thinking, “Yes, weather might intervene, but it’s worth the risk! Besides, NC is always in a draught. We’ll have no problems.“ Hah.

This past June we put on the second Roots and Leaves Series, with assistance from Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Strowd Roses Foundation and Bryan Properties. I was so happy to see this program thrive for the second time – but didn’t welcome the second year of weather-related anxiety. Staying up late checking Accuweather (disclaimer: this is not a plug for Accuweather), refreshing weather radar obsessively the day of the show, choosing which local meteorologist seemed the most competent and throwing things at the TV when their report was less than ideal…

Our first show had an untimely run-in with Tropical Storm Andrea, which dumped a good deal of rain on our region in North Carolina and forced us to move our concert indoors. We had a small, dedicated crowd that ventured out despite the gloomy skies and squishy ground.  Ben Payton and Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen played an awesome show, and with the intimate setting they were able to have a lot of fun.

Our next two shows were what the series is all about – outdoors, beautiful weather, and reaching an audience that wanted to learn about music steeped in North Carolina’s history. We saw many of the same faces, week after week, who always stopped by to say hello and thank us for putting on the free series. And then, there were the new faces, equally fun to see, many of whom were walking by when the music stopped them in their tracks and guided them over. That is the beauty of taking Roots music outdoors – you can reach new people without even trying!

The week of the last show found me displaying a high level of rain-anxiety; since it was so hot the “probability” of a storm forming was high, but my trusted weather sites and meteorologists couldn’t say for sure it would impact my show. They couldn’t even be half sure. Of course, by the afternoon that day we had severe thunderstorms approaching and were unable to take refuge in our rain location. With gathering clouds, Lakota John asked to start the show twenty minutes early, so the fifty people already gathered could enjoy the music before lightening started. We got about a half hour in before we had to run for cover, but it was a GREAT half hour!

Sometimes, when you’re struggling to break down sound equipment in a sudden downpour, having music outside seems like a bad idea. But then the rain passes, and I remember the wonderful people we meet, and the new fans of Roots music we lure in, when we bring the music out into the sun and set it free. So, hope to see you there next year!

Check out some photos our intern Thomas Heisler took at the Roots and Leaves shows where the weather held:

Style with Ben Payton


Since Aaron, our Artist Services Coordinator, works directly with the artists we serve, my role means I most often don’t work with the artists as directly. I mainly work with supporters, and indirectly with artists to publicize their gigs, releases, etc. – which makes it so special when I am able to take some time and really get to know any of our artists, whom I normally only visit with at shows.

This past week, Music Maker artist Ben Payton and I were speakers at a Leadership Triangle event that introduced Leadership Triangle participants to the town of Hillsborough, where MMRF has its offices and where Ben is a new resident. Ben and I got there a bit too early (my fault) and so we had a chance to grab a cup of coffee and chat.

I asked Ben if he’d liked the movie the students at the Center for Documentary Studies had made about him (which we’ll be able to show you soon!) He said he had, and then chuckled and said, “they really liked my shoes! The whole movie is about my shoes. They were really good about making sure all performance shots highlighted my shoes. I think the whole film is about my shoes!” Ben is referring to his shoe collection, which is quite impressive. He explained in the film that, growing up, he went without proper shoes for a long time, so now they’re something he invests in.

That got us talking about style – Ben has a lot of great stories about style. He told me “Style can be dangerous. It can make a person so they’re not showing who they really are, because they’re following a style. Not being themselves. And style almost got me shot in Chicago!”

I had to ask him to repeat that last part. Style almost got him killed? Ben said, “When I was living in the Chicago, this one time, it was the 1970s, and I was dressed in style. I had a long, black leather coat, and a real nice hat a borrowed from my mother’s boyfriend. I was out walking with my friend, and I saw a man run across the street towards me, in a big hurry. He looked at me, and walked right up to me and said ‘man, I almost just shot you! You’re dressed just like the man that’s messin’ with my wife!’”

I laughed. We both said “whew!” And he told me, “After that, you know, I put my mother’s boyfriend’s hat back on the shelf. And I went to the pawn shop, and I sold that coat!”

I think Ben looks pretty stylish with his awesome shoes and his incredibly put-together outfits, but I’m glad that he’s dressing for himself. And that his clothes no longer put him in danger!

Visiting Artists


This March, Tim and our interns from France, Simon and Raphael, headed on a trip to Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Lafayette and Middlesex, NC to visit with artists. They visited with Eddie TignerDr. BurtAdolphus BellAlabama Slim,Little Freddie KingLeyla McCalla,Guitar Lightnin’ Lee, Major Handy and Algia Mae Hinton.

Raphael, Simon and Tim drove out from the MM offices on a Friday, March 22 to get to Birmingham, AL. They were not planning to stop in Atlanta, but unfortunately traffic had other plans. Deadlocked at 5pm, they got off the highway for some dinner and met up with Eddie Tigner. Eddie, a keyboardist who has toured all over the world with Music Maker, was in good spirits and doing well.

On Saturday morning, Tim and the interns paid a visit to Dr. Burt in Birmingham, AL. He was preparing for his trip to Australia to tour with the MM Revue. A trip like that is a wonderful opportunity for Dr. Burt, a bluesman and former civil rights activist who studied under Coretta Scott King. Dr. Burt is one of the warmest people you’ll ever meet, and gigs like the Australia tour provide not only much needed income, but new audiences for his music.

Adolphus Bell also lives in Birmingham, and Tim introduced Simon and Raphael to him that day. Adolphus was living out of his van when he first began a partnership with MMRF; after working with our Musical Development program he built a thriving career. However, for the past several years Adolphus has been battling lung cancer. Currently he is just beginning to walk again and get back on his feet. He is still not up to recording or performing, severely limiting his income. MMRF ensures his safety and comfort with a monthly stipend through our Musician Sustenance program.

After a stop in Jackson, Mississippi, it was off to New Orleans to visit with Alabama Slim and Little Freddie King. They met up with the two at a bar in the French Quarter, along with MM Next Generation Artist Leyla McCalla and Guitar Lightnin’ Lee.

Slim is ready to tour again, and asked for MMRF’s help in booking him more gigs. We’re going to work with him to increase his touring, as he only had a few gigs this year. One strategy would be to record him a new album, which we’re looking into. Little Freddie King and Guitar Lightin’ Lee are both booking their own gigs now; assistance from MMRF enabled them to increase their presence in New Orleans and are now representatives for Music Maker’s work.

The group continued to Lafayette, where they met Major Handy at his body shop. They listened to him play accordion, accompanied by his wife on the washboard, and talked about how MMRF can help this legendary Zydeco artist. Major Handy told them he and wife Frances had been hit hard by Katrina, and to make ends meet they had to drop their health insurance. Immediately after, Frances was diagnosed with Lymphoma, and she is still suffering from the effects of the treatment she was able to get. Tim connected them with the NOLA Musicians Clinic where she can receive quality medical care, and we granted Major Handy a new accordion and CDs to sell at performances to help increase his income.

It had been several years since Tim visited Algia Mae Hinton in person. At one time, Algia Mae was among the youngest artists MMRF worked with, now, in her advanced age, she is in a wheelchair and cannot play the instruments she once did. She still tries though, and had Tim re-string her guitar and banjo. Tim complied, and then played the guitar while she sang. Her voice, and her wits, are as strong as ever. In her retirement, Music Maker provides her with a monthly stipend to ensure her basic needs are met. Tim tried to say “goodbye” for three hours – he will come back soon. There’s nothing like hearing Algia Mae sing “Cook cornbread for your husband and biscuits for your outside man” live, after all.

Lakota John & Kin


Music Maker began working with a then-twelve year old guitar prodigy, Lakota John Locklear, in 2010. We’re committed to working with younger artists as time allows – we feel that young artists performing traditional music is essential to the preservation of the Roots. But to us, “young” is under 55 years old. When people see a teenager arrive on the stage they usually think “that’s great, they’re giving a kid a chance to learn the blues.” Then, usually shortly after the first bars of “San Francisco Bay” reach them, they nudge me and ask if he’s really a teenager, thinking that his grizzled, bluesy voice might prove that his youth was just an illusion.

Lakota John performs with his family, mother Tonya, father John, and sister Layla, as “Lakota John & Kin.” When he started working with MMRF, Lakota was a solo act, but the family had been jamming together on Sundays for as long as they could remember. According to Tonya they would just sit around and play, for fun, after listening to the PineCone radio program. Those family jam sessions never seemed like they would become professional to Tonya. In fact, when Tim Duffy heard the Locklears join forces during a recording and suggested they perform as a group, Tonya’s response was “I can’t sing in front of people, no, no, no. And I don’t play an instrument.”

But after a visit to Shakori Hills Music Festival in 2011, she saw a performance from Corn & the Colonels, MMRF-staffer Aaron’s band. Anna, the band’s drummer, gave a rousing washboard performance and that got Tonya thinking that she may have found her instrument. She said, “I was inspired. I sat, and I watched Anna, and I thought ‘I could do that.’ I got a washboard and I picked it up.”

It’s wonderful to watch Lakota John perform solo, but watching him play with his family is truly inspiring. I’ve always had a soft spot for family performers – probably stemming from my obsession with The Sound of Music as a little girl (and still.) And our family can barely coordinate a dinner out, let alone musical instruments, so I am incredibly impressed with not only the Locklears’ talent, but also their family dynamic.

I asked Tonya if she thought performing together helped with “family-togetherness” (if so, maybe I need to try that approach), and she actually said that the family’s strong bond and geographical closeness facilitated the group, not the other way around. Tonya knows they wouldn’t be able to perform together if sister Layla was not in college nearby, so they are happy to seize the moment while it’s there. That joy comes through when you watch them, and reminds us why we work so hard to preserve these musical traditions.

On The Importance Of Selling Merch

photo by Tom Ciaburri

photo by Tom Ciaburri

Nobody works as hard as a Bluesman, and if you’ve ever been at a bar where Ironing Board Sam is performing, you believe it. An energetic stage show is almost always followed by mingling with the audience, as Sam is a consummate professional, and on top of that is genuinely pleased to see everyone who shows up to hear him sing. After a set, you might find him shaking hands with every patron in the place. Last year, at the Eddy Pub, I watched as Sam spent every break chatting with fans, answering questions about his music and life, and thanking them for coming out just to see his show.

For Sam, I know it’s about loving what he does, but it’s also about the business. To supplement the pay from gigs, many artists depend on CD/merch sales – impulse purchases from people who loved the show. Making sure they connect with the audience – whether they do it from onstage or in the crowd afterwards – is essential to making the most of a gig.

One friend of mine, a younger musician, recently took the stage in a disturbingly ugly hat. He played two songs, and took it off, at the request of the audience, to continue his set. But he put it right back on as he headed out to his merch table at the end of the show. He told me “People come up to ask about the hat; they recognize me, and that helps, especially if I’m one of multiple opening acts. If they come up to talk to me, they might buy a CD.”

Most of our artists rely heavily on the income from merch sales at their gigs. Music Maker grants our artists CDs to sell at their shows, and it makes a difference for them. Instead of taking home just $200 for a bar gig, I’ve seen artists double that when you add in tips and sales. It’s so great to see musicians like Sam enjoying their audience, and it’s even better to see that he can increase his income with the albums Music Maker helped him record. So, when you’re out at a show, remember to stop by the merch table. Sure, you could listen to an artist’s music on Spotify the next day, but when you buy a CD from Ironing Board Sam, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, or any other number of performers, you’re contributing to their gas money, rent and getting them to that next gig. When you buy their music, you ensure it stays alive.

Mother Blues’s Mac and Cheese Muffins

Soul food and Roots music share a common birthplace among the poor, rural communities in the American South. As I recently read on, “…soul food was survival food in the black South. Dishes were inspired by a need to make do with what slaves could access.”

Music had a place in survival too. As John Dee Holeman told a group of elementary school children this fall when asked where the Blues came from, “When you were young, the work was hard, and the pay wasn’t good. You couldn’t get mad about it. So, you had the Blues.” That touched me—music was an outlet, a way to express feelings that you couldn’t otherwise, because they might endanger your job or your life.

Both of these traditions have held fast—for many reasons. But what I wanted to touch on is that both the deeply comforting (totally unhealthy) southern soul food and the raw, unadorned Blues, to me, evoke the sense of warmth and welcoming that I have felt so many times since transplanting myself to the South from my birthplace in Pennsylvania.

When I thought of writing about the connection between food and the Blues, there were so many things I could have covered. Denise’s stories of feeding large crowds during recording sessions in Music Maker’s early days, the time I thought our artists would enjoy eating pizza before a gig (after a stern talking-to from Aaron, I will NOT make that mistake again), to Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen’s Mac and Cheese muffins. But what came out when I sat down at the computer was: both these food and musical traditions came from places of pain, from survival. But now, to me, they symbolize love and support.

When you have something great, something you love, something that means so much to you—you want to share it. Ask Mother Blues for a recipe and she’ll give you six. She’s the same with her music—all our artists are. They want to share it, because it’s what they love. When you eat food Mother Blues worked hard on, you feel the love. When you listen to her sultry yet booming voice pleading with you to get up and dance (and burn off some of that bread pudding) at a show, you feel the love. She loves it and shares it with you. Music and food are two of the cultural treasures of the South that will not die, as long as they continue to be loved, because people will continue to share them.

Pat “Mother Blues’” Mac and Cheese Cup Cakes

1 box Large elbow macaroni
3 Eggs
1 stick Butter
Salt and Pepper to taste (1T. Suggested)
2C. Heavy Cream or Low Fat Milk or evaporated
1 C. Cream Cheese
1 Can Cream of Mushroom Soup
1 Pack Cracker Barrel New York Sharp Cheese (shredded)
1 bag cheddar cubes or cubed Velveeta
1 sleeve Ritz Crackers

In a big pot fill halfway with water and add 3 T. sea salt. When water starts to boil, add macaroni. IMPORTANT! Under-cook the macaroni (The macaroni will cook also in sauce.) When macaroni is almost done pour water off.

In a double boiler whisk eggs over double boiler until eggs are custard. Add milk, cream cheese, soup, salt, pepper, 2/3 stick of butter and shredded CB Cheese. (Save some of the cheese for toppings.) Mix in. Stir slowly until melted into a sauce.

Mix in macaroni with cheese sauce.

Make the crust: Crush Ritz Crackers with melted butter. Place about 2 T. in each tin. Put a chunk of cheese in each tin, add macaroni mixture on top, then top with shredded cheese. Bake for 25 minutes at 400* in a pre heated oven. Let rest for about ½ hr.

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