Lou Curtiss and his wife Virginia own Folk Arts, and they’re not interested in expanding the store.
Well, the Heritage in Mission Beach has turned into a cigar store, and Bird Rock’s White Whale is a men’s Turkish bath, but the folk scene has not entirely vanished from San Diego County, There may not be much in the way of intimate clubs catering to the audience these days, but there are still some stores that open their doors in the evening to give the acoustic performer an audience and a place to play.
At Blue Ridge Music in Encinitas, the musicians are local, and they all know each other; Folk Arts in Hillcrest likes to showcase the esoteric blues singers from Southeast San Diego to balance the banjo pickers and home-grown yodelers. The quarters are cramped, but as I was told repeatedly everywhere I went, “If you’re not electric there’s just no place else to play.”
Folk Arts looks kind of like a record store; that’s what it is, on the most basic level. There are rows of obscure and aged records on labels only a fanatic could recognize. Rolk, blues, bluegrass and early jazz are mixed with some comedy albums and old classical recordings; the clutter is compounded by the pieces of pottery and crocheting on consignment, the folk music publications, and the underground or antique comicbooks. In the back is Lou Curtiss’ nest; an easy chair, a coffee urn, recording equipment, rows of science fiction paperbacks and a huge tape library. He's a collector, of songs, singers, and 1930’s radio shows. The walls are covered with publicity stills, autographed portraits of the “stars” of folk and blues, from Joan Baez to U. Utah Phillips to dozens I couldn't recognize even by name. The glass of the front door is papered with business cards of local performers, interspersed with incredible song titles (“They can throw me in jail for lovin’ you, but they can’t keep my face from breaking out,” “I kissed her lips so sweetly, but I left her behind for you,” and “She criticized my apartment, so I knocked her flat”). They block the little light that is available from the outside.
But that’s the way Lou Curtiss likes it. He and his wife Virginia own Folk Arts, and they’re not interested in expanding the store. Lou would like a little more room for his week-end concerts or the Tuesday night hoots, but the store does well enough the way it is. What he'd really like is to get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, so he could concentrate on the music.
Lou Curtiss comes of a generation when scholarship was a major credential in folk music, when one made studies and went out collecting “old timey” songs and fragments. He looks older than his 35 years, pale and a little unhealthy, as soft as a sedentary walrus. It’s as if his life is spent in that dark little store, even though you know he was outside all the previous week at the San Diego Folk Festival. Lou has co-ordinated the festival for the last 8 years, helping to make it what the Library of Congress calls “the most important traditional music event west of the Mississippi." He's a musician himself, a fine autoharp player, and Virginia plays banjo, fiddle and guitar, well enough to win prizes. Their dedication to the music is obvious.
On Friday night it's easier to pick out the store front, well-lit in the dark block. Virginia Curtiss collects $2 at the door as the crowd wanders in by twos and threes. There is only one short bench against the wall, so most of us crowd together on the braided rag rug and others slide in under the record counters. We're constantly being asked to move forward as someone else comes in, and Virginia teases that their performers don’t bite.
Finally Lou comes out in a red flannel shirt and introduces Jack Tempchin. Tempchin is something of a local celebrity, and it doesn’t hurt that a couple of his songs have been recorded by the Eagles. He wears the same jeans and flannel shirt that most of the crowd is sporting, and as he folds himself and his guitar into the tiny space provided, the atmosphere, already relaxed, loosens up even more. (By now we are leaning elbows in each other’s laps.) He played a few nights before up at Blue Ridge Music, and his voice is a little husky; the cigarette smoke doesn’t help, but he is engaging and eager to please, with some rowdy and silly songs. “A Vitamin’s Mailman Song" is a favorite, and his ballads are really pretty. When he's tired, Tom Waits replaces him, even thinner in the ubiquitous flannel shirt. His music is LA urban blues, with the tonal quality of a 1930’s ’78 recording, and it’s amazing to hear it from a young white singer. He’s very good. He’s more distanced from his audience though, and you're very aware of technique throughout his performance. He plays a little piano after a while, and it's clear the crowd knows and likes his work too.
By the second set, everybody’s forgotten if his knees can bend, and the guy in the sweatpants behind me who’s been telling every girl within range about his marital problems has given up on Folk Arts as a badminton substitute. But the room is fuller than before, and Tempchin and Waits do a song together that appears to be a favorite. The second set is shorter but repetitive. By now both voices are rough from the smoke and straining for the back corners, but the music is good and tempts you to make another visit soon.
Blue Ridge Music is a guitar shop in Encinitas. It’s only four months old. and appears austere after the dusty clutter of Folk Arts. It’s no bigger, but the walls only display instruments, and the only furnishings are a couple of stools and the glass topped counter that is moved out of the room when the musicians come to play. The price of admission is lower (50c) and the floor is carpeted wall to wall. When Honk played there last week, they brought in such a crowd that many regulars had to be turned away, and Bob, the owner, swears never again. He recently changed the night of weekly performance from Friday to Wednesday, since so many of the performers had other jobs on the week-ends. He says he just wanted to give his friends a place to play, and they do take advantage of it, to the greater benefit of North County.
During the day, people wander in and out with some frequency; some stay to talk or pick a little on one of the guitars, others just do a little business. Bob says most of the business he does is on strings, capos and the like. You don't sell too many guitars every day.
Up here, tradition gives way for the most part to musicianship and technique. The feeling here about the Folk Festival is that it was a little too much; as one guy says, "Lou Curtiss seems to be going in for quantity rather than quality. But." he adds, not appearing to notice that he's being quoted, “you've gotta give him credit. He holds the festival together. Nobody else will do it. And it’s a good thing.”
Both Folk Arts and Blue Ridge serve as clearinghouses for information. At Blue Ridge there was a lot of talk about relative merits of instruments, possible jobs, who is playing where; a concert promoter came in with posters. Folk Arts serves the same kind of function. For instance, the afternoon I was there, a woman came in from the California State Old Time Fiddlers Association with information about the meetings for the rest of the year and stories of a recent fiddle concert up north.
Everybody seems to know everybody else. It’s like a small town, the way the same names keep cropping up. There’s a good deal of gossip about the Folk Festival: The stores have different views on the matter. If the two aren’t specially fond of each other, well there’s no discernible malice either. It’s a matter of disagreement over priorities rather than rivalry. To Lou, the important thing is to get these old time musicians an audience so their music won’t be lost. Up north at Blue Ridge, the emphasis is on the quality of the music rather than the historical or cultural background. Both views are eminently defensible: the music is fine. Both places are worth going out of your way to see.