Etta Baker
Railroad Bill
Cello 91006-2

John Dee Holeman
Bull Durham Blues
Cello 91004-2

Algia Mae Hinton
Honey Babe
Cello 91005-2

The goal of the Music Maker Relief Foundation is pretty simple: provide indigenous artists with what they need to make music ó and to survive doing it. Since 1994, Tim Duffy has been doing exactly that for several musicians in North Carolina, where Duffy and the MMRF are based. Cello Records got into the act when Duffy, then a folklorist and musician from Connecticut, was headed out on a recording trip and called audio equipment svengali Mark Levinson for advice on what to use when recording.

Levinson, founder of Cello Music and Film Systems, was so moved by what Duffy played for him that he offered to outfit Duffy with $50,000 worth of high-end equipment and remaster his extensive and impressive back catalog.

So was born the partnership of Cello Records and the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Six years later, Duffy and Levinson have helped raise close to half a million dollars for the various artists Duffy has recorded. That financial assistance isnít fed into your typical promotion and tour budget coffers: It goes to more important things ó like food, instruments, and medical bills to help the artists get by.

The foundation has succeeded in keeping its operational costs under 25% of the total income. Theyíve also suceeded in releasing a handful of titles that have allowed contemporary listeners to hear some great musicians. Three of those players, Etta Baker, Algia Mae Hinton and John Dee Holeman, have helped Cello and MMRF boost its catalog and move from its underground status to a better-known ó and appreciated ó position.

Etta Baker is known as the premiere female Piedmont blues guitar player whose only true contemporary was the great Elizabeth Cotten. Played daily for over 80 years, Bakerís music is a purely authentic representation of the indigenous style of her region. Celloís two-microphone recording system captures Bakerís full-bodied, finger-picked, acoustic guitar playing in amazing textural detail.

Part of the charm of Bakerís music develops from her love of the outdoors. Sheís an avid gardener and keeps a beautiful yard at her Morganton, North Carolina, home where these recordings were made. That connection with her surroundings, and nature, comes through in the dynamics of her playing. Thereís a peaceful wholeness that drapes over the listener and relaxes the soul. And she does it all without singing a word.

The opening track ó "Carolina Breakdown" ó has bass notes that roll along uninterrupted by her various flourishes and patterns so cleanly picked on the high strings. Itís bright, beautiful music that conveys a lazy Sunday afternoon on a porch swing, appropriately augmented by the sound of a passing finch. The birdís unscheduled visit results in a natural-sounding, beautifully impromptu accompaniment.

The mood might dip slightly on standards like "Railroad Bill" and an almost dirge-like "Careless Love," but the wholesome feel never leaves Bakerís playing. "John Henry" is a duet with Tim Duffy, who adds a slicing, jangly slide guitar.

Bakerís original material returns the set to a more up-tempo mood. "Sunny Tennessee" certainly rouses the brightness of its title, and "Miss a Little Miss" has the polite, romantic edge of a courting song. Bakerís finale is "Cripple Creek," where she dazzles with some truly excellent banjo playing.

Algia Mae Hinton is not quite the smooth instrumentalist as Etta Baker, but her edgy playing (on mostly acoustic guitar) and no-frills vocals make her music especially characteristic. Her songs on Honey Babe also depict the true oral folk tradition in action.

Algia Mae learned many of her songs from family members ó aunts, brothers, her mother ó and even from an old boyfriend. A lot of them were written by the person who taught her how play it. Within each one lies a story of life experiences, hardships and lessons.

"What You Gonna Do When Your Good Girl Turns You Down?" isnít just a melodramatic tale: Thereís a tone in it that suggests the lyricís answer (throwing yourself in the river) was a very real option. "Out of Jail" spares nothing in its plea either ó itís a harsh, honest song of hope for a change in oneís fortune. "My Babyís Gone" and "Cook Cornbread for Your Husband" follow similarly. Hinton didnít pick all this up from relatives and observance alone either: Sheís lived a few of these stories herself.

Algia Mae Hinton worked her familyís tobacco, cotton and cucumber fields in Johnson County, North Carolina, from an early age. She was widowed at 36 with seven children to raise and a farm to work. "Going Down This Road" was inspired by the 1984 fire that burned Algia Maeís house to the ground, taking all of her property ó including her guitars ó with it. "Thatís a sad song. I lost everything I had that night" is Hintonís footnote at the end of the song. "Didnít have no shoes," she adds with a chuckle ó signifying her spirit of perseverance.

That hopeful spirit (honed also by her strong religious faith and lifelong regard for gospel music) is summed up in the poetry featured in the liner notes. Langston Hughesí words are Algia Mae Hintonís blues: "They done tried to make me stop laughiní, stop loviní, stop liviní ó but I donít care! Iím still here!"

John Dee Holeman is not only an accomplished blues guitar player; he runs a damn fine soul-food restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, as well. Both occupations have made him a locally-recognized celebrity. On Bull Durham Blues, Holeman offers 13 tracks of his blues stylings that are nicely embellished by his home-cured, soulful voice.

Holemanís vocals give his stories a different feel: More of a songster, he evinces less of the intimacy and confessional tone of Hintonís work. Holeman leans more toward entertaining than commiserating. Heís particularly comfortable when taking on "Big Boss Man" ó slipping into a Jimmy Reed-style delivery, dragging his lyric over a gentle shuffling boogie and using a steel-bodied acoustic to accent the tuneís country tinge. No matter what style heís stirring up ó and there are plenty in his repertoire ó Holemanís expert at capturing the common feel and adding that extra spice of homegrown seasoning.

On Otis Spannís "Little Country Gal," the smoothed-out swing of the urban blues is roughed up by Holemanís acoustic guitar and down-home vocal. "Early Morning Blues" is a Muddy Waters number thatís more like Watersí early recordings than his later Chess work. "Chapel Hill Boogie" is a Holeman original in the classic Carolina style: its true boogie-woogie guitar matches the bounce of standards like "Step It Up and Go" and "Crow Jane," where Holeman leaves little doubt that he learned to play from associates of Blind Boy Fuller.

The lazy Texas loll on Lightniní Hopkinsí "Give Me Back My Wig" and "Hello Central" is just as easy for Holeman. Digging for deeper roots, he does a hambone duet with Taj Mahal on "Hambone" and benefits from Tajís beefy bass part on "Sweet Home Chicago" and his rollicking barrelhouse piano on the fine "Mistreated Blues."

As a creative consultant and sometimes sessionman for the Music Maker releases, Mahal has lent quite a bit to the foundationís cause. His presence provides these musicians the needed bridge from their regional followings to a wider commercial audience. With Mahalís diverse career and commitment to authentic folk music styles, he displays an honest appreciation for the musicians. His contributions shine as authentic and sympathetic gestures towards not only preserving the music and helping its makers, but also as a genuine desire to spread this musicís power to enrich other peopleís lives.

Teamed with Tim Duffyís guidance and ability to find these wonderful musicians, and Mark Levinsonís truly magical recording techniques (the immediacy of these recordings can not be overstressed), the Music Maker Relief Foundation appears to have a solid bedrock of support, publicity and near-audiophile fidelity to propel it towards greater success and greater heights of assistance for its widening roster of talent.

ó Jon Marko

©2000 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA