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.
Author Archive

Celebrate with a Blues Buffet!

cootiechristmasNobody loved a holiday more than Guitar Gabriel. He loved to put on his suit and go out on the town or party hopping for 4th of July, Memorial Day, or MLK Day. Gabe thought that even minor holidays should be celebrated, Columbus Day, President’s Day – he didn’t skimp on any of them, but when late November hit, the party ramped up and didn’t quit ’til the year was done and gone.

Music and spirits were central to the good times, but the only way to keep your strength up through this marathon season of celebration is with a righteous buffet.

I do like gourmet cooking, but when a big crowd is descending, it is NOT time to try that 37 ingredient, 7-page-long Julia Child recipe you have always dreamed of serving. Save that for a small dinner party of 6 in February when there is nothing else to do but cook.  For larger holiday gatherings I tend toward “comfort and joy,” and nothing makes a Bluesman’s belly happier than old-fashioned American home cooking with a heavy Southern accent.


Requiem for Cootie Stark


I just had a big birthday. When I reached 40, I was irked, because I felt the compulsion to accept certain realities about my life and where it might not go in the future.  Having not won an Olympic Gold medal to date, chances were it wasn’t going happen in my lifetime, nor would I be discovered the following month as America’s next Supermodel or win a Nobel Prize in anything.  I didn’t have regrets about the decisions that had shaped my life: I had a wonderful husband, two beautiful kids, meaningful work and more, but my life no longer felt a clean slate of possibility

At 50, I really don’t care about all that anymore. It is much easier to appreciate myself and others as creatures all the more wonderful for our imperfections. I feel much more gratitude than yearning. Although, to be entirely truthful, I can’t say that I found birthday greetings from AARP in the form of an invitation to join the legion of the aging and Blues Cross’ invitation to get my first colonoscopy cause for celebration.

More than anything else, it is my work with Music Maker artists that has shaped this optimism over the past decade.  I’ve witnessed dozens of musicians transform their careers and lives in the 60s and 70s – it ain’t over till it’s over. All it takes is a willingness to take a little risk and open your mind.

Requiem for Cootie Stark
Eulogy at funeral services
April 19, 2005, Greenville, SC

“I know he was born Johnny Miller – but to me and thousands of music lovers around the world this dear man will be remembered as Cootie Stark, the King of the Piedmont Blues.

Cootie was born 1926 in Abbeville, SC. As a child he couldn’t see well enough to spend much time in school – so instead he spent his time with his guitar and began to sing. He learned much from the music of his Uncle Chump, Baby Tate and other musicians in his community.

We met Cootie in 1995.  Tim had just started Music Maker and we had a theory: If you take a great musician who may have fallen on hard times and get them a proper instrument and a respectable stage they will rise to the occasion.

And rise Cootie did  – he took our mission to heart and worked hard, playing any sort of gig we could book, practicing guitar and rekindling old songs to broaden his repertoire.

In 1997, at the age of 71 he launched a new career for himself when he opened for Aretha Franklin at the Newport Rhythm & Blues Festival. And as the years went by, throughout his 70s, we just marveled at how he got better and better. Cootie proved our theory right.

Although blind since a young man, Cootie never let his disability limit his experience of the world and he traveled far and wide. He loved nothing more than to go to new lands and share his special gift of music – New York, LA, Cleveland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Vegas – THE BLUES was on the move with Cootie.

He was absolutely intrepid and although blind thought nothing of traveling alone to a city he had never been before- Planes, trains, cars, buses, boats – and he hated boats – but he was already ready to go. What inspired us most is that he never complained. The strange food, hotels, the long, late hours – he embraced it all and kept his companions laughing all the while.

He toured with Taj Mahal, played the Lincoln Center, the Chicago Blues Festival and dozens of other festivals and clubs; This month he was scheduled to perform at the finest festival in the land, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival.

Cootie Stark was Music Maker’s greatest ambassador introducing countless donors to our cause and in the nearly 10 years we worked with him he performed hundreds of sets all across America, Europe and Costa Rica.

Cootie issued 2 CDs in his lifetime, Sugar Man in 1999 on the Cello Recordings label and Raw Sugar on the Music Maker label in 2002. He is a featured voice on Sol: Volume Blue and also appears in the book and CD set Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America.  He completed work on a new solo CD this past December.

He and several other Music Maker artists worked with Kenny Wayne Shepherd last spring on DVD set due out this summer and Cootie also starred in the documentary Living the Blues which we hope to issue as a DVD this fall.

The South Carolina General Assembly and the Arts Commission named Cootie Stark a recipient of the 2005 SC Folk Heritage Award.

Cootie was a man of tremendous faith and terrific joy. People adored him wherever he went.  He had such an open heart and was always ready to make a new friend.  Rock stars, millionaires, mechanics or waitresses – they were all the same to Cootie. He always had time for a chat and a good story.

Cootie made you feel like you counted. One way he did this was by giving you a new name – I was Dee Dee and among our friends he christened Wanika the Wanika, Ole Tim, Jacki the Jacki, Dannyland – and 50 years from now our good buddy Christopher Uhler will still be known as Christmas.

Cootie touched the lives of thousands with his unique, acoustic blues and uplifting testimony. He leaves behind hundreds of friends, many of which came to see him in his last weeks. His legacy lives on through his own Piedmont Blues and the joyous remembrance of his warm, open smile, ready laugh and immense faith.

It is hard to say good-bye to this very dear friend. But, he was so adamant, so completely certain that he would spend eternity in the Promised Land. In his confidence, I find comfort knowing that already he is smiling down at us, saying “Dee Dee, you’re sooo right.”  We love you, Cootie – you’ll be with us always.”


Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Your Own

“You listen to my CD in your ear, wear my tee shirt on your chest, and you’ll feel good about yourself in the morning.” This was Guitar Gabriel’s mantra between tunes at every one of the hundred bar gigs and festival sets I watched him play in the last 4 years of his career. He repeated it so many times each show that it became a running joke with the audience. But it wasn’t a joke to Gabe; the merch sales doubled his take every night, making poor paying bar gigs worth playing.

What Gabe understood deeply was that while a musician and a poet, he was also a self-employed entrepreneur. Gabe has pretty much retired and only played for his community near the housing project where he lived in Winston-Salem, NC when Tim Duffy showed up on his from door in 1990. But Gabe saw an opportunity to revive his career in the energy of this young, ambitious folklorist that offered to find gigs, manage band members and do all of the promotional work (and the diving). Not believing lengthy contracts were worth the paper they were printed on, Gabe offered Tim a simple arrangement: they would work as partners and if Tim ever cheated him, Gabe would shoot Tim.

Tim thought it was an honest deal and for the scores of gigs that followed, at the end of the night Tim would chase down the elusive bar owners and squeeze then for the band’s percentage of the door. Then, he and Gabe would sit and count the cash together and divide the proceeds, pay the drummer, the gas money, etc.  They worked together for the remainder of Gabe’s life as partners and the best of friends.

With the exception of symphony players and full time teachers, most musicians do not work as salaried employees. So whether you are a singer songwriter that performs solo, a principle partner in a band, a session player or a sideman for a touring act, like it or not, you are running your own business.

At Music Maker we try and do our best to empower entrepreneurship in the artists we serve.  We also try to supply the support services in terms of promotion, radio distribution and public relations. Music Maker grants these services to partner artists at no charge. However, for most working musicians it is either DI-all-Y or collaborating with any number of players, agents, and managers to make your business function, and those folks may often stand between you and your money. Record companies and music publishers represent another set of complicated relationships that need to be carefully scrutinized and considered for their potential benefits and pitfalls.

Not all of your business arrangements will be as simple as Tim and Gabe’s, but the only way any business relationship can be successful is if the responsibilities, rights of ownership and compensation of all parties is clearly delineated from the beginning.  The deal can change over time as the business changes or grows, but everyone should always know where they stand. These conversations can be uncomfortable. I have seen bands fall apart over the split on imaginary future royalties for albums they haven’t recorded yet. But, if a band can’t come to consensus about their finances from the start, they have little chance of agreeing when there is big money coming in or big bills to pay down the line.

I find many artists are averse to spending time reviewing financial statements and coming to terms with the realities of self-employment, especially from a tax prospective.  You can hire people to help you, but I always suggest keeping an eye on your own bank balances, income and expenses. The artists we have worked with that are proactive in this regard find it very liberating and occasionally lucrative. They also never waste time playing the “I got ripped off” blues.


A Spirit That Will Never Die

David Johnson's HandsWelcome to our blog, the Music Maker Signifier, and Happy Fat Tuesday! On this day of cultural celebration, we would like to introduce you to the newest endeavor from Music Maker Relief Foundation. We are approaching our 20th anniversary—twenty years of assisting Roots music pioneers, designing our unique model of support and educating audiences worldwide. As we come to this milestone, we are more committed than ever to helping people Know The Roots. The Music Maker Signifier will be a place of music, amusement and knowledge shared with you by Music Maker staff, friends, fans and musicians.

Twenty years ago an eager and curious Tim Duffy was told it was a waste of time to search the South for authentic Mississippi Blues, Georgia Blues and North Carolina Piedmont Blues because any artist of significance had passed away in the late 1960s. But Tim explored anyway and found that while people die, the music doesn’t. There were musicians keeping these traditions going, but they were being buried alive by poverty. How could the small number of dedicated Blues researchers out there, folks like Bruce Bastin, Kip Lornell, Peter B. Lowery, George Mitchell, Axel Kustner and Bruce Lagule, find these artists, when the musicians had so many obstacles standing in the way of playing outside their home communities? Artists were still out there, living their lives and playing their music, with no thought of sharing their art with the world. Tim and I founded Music Maker to help these elderly, impoverished cultural treasures do just that.

True American Roots music still exists in rural, poor communities all over the South. Music Maker shines a light on these musicians, letting the music live on. Visit with us here at the Music Maker Signifier and see that “the Blues is a spirit that will never die.”

Check out the documentary Toot Blues, which chronicles the inception of Music Maker.


Get Connected


February 2017
« Jan