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There may not be much money in it, but Floating Folk Fest musicians are happy just to have a place to play their music. 

Quaint as Folk

Many a struggling musician will tell you that keeping a band or gig together is a labor of love that sorely tests the creative process. Playing too many dubious jobs for little pay and a thimbleful of recognition can take its toll. Members of the Floating Folk Festival know this well, but they'll take the highs with the lows as long as there's a chance to make music.

The Floating Folk concept began in the summer of 1997, when a small group of experienced songwriters decided to band together for a series of acoustic shows featuring several performers playing short sets. "Floating" from venue to venue, organizers saw no grand mission other than to provide a fresh shot in the arm to a folk-based scene. Original music ruled, and a sense of community wove a fine but loose thread throughout. Writers, new or seasoned, got a chance to try their songs and receive feedback. Longtime Folk Festival performer and tireless promoter Brooke Saunders says the group kept formalities to a minimum. There was never much of a plan, except to develop musical relationships and lend creative support to one another. Pam McCarthy, an early Floater, remembers the importance this support played in her creative life. When she hooked up with other local players such as Steve Fisher, Craig Evans, Harry Gore and Eileen Edmonds for the first shows, her world changed.

"It came along just at a point when I wanted to play and could play," she says. "It was nice for getting me through that. …It's been really special."

The musicians pitched in to help get the concept up and running. Word got out, the list of rotating players grew quickly, and the group soon had several shows a month booked. Gigs featured a variety of acoustic music that generally fell into a "folk" bag. Players made new friends and contacts. Quality could be uneven, but part of the charm of the rotating cast lay in the fact that the stronger writers set higher musical standards for less-experienced writers. Healthy competition spawned stronger performances.

In the early days, some found the new outlet appealing, while others moved on after a gig or two. William Perritt, an emerging songwriter who felt out of touch with local musicians, in the fall of 1997 heard about the new group, gave it a try and discovered it fit his needs. Maybe some viewed the Floating Folk concept as a "glorified open mic" but Perritt learned invaluable lessons that helped the creative process. He also found acceptance and friendship and his musical experiences expanded.

"It was an opportunity to get involved with other performers and other songwriters," Perritt says. "I wanted to know if these damn songs were working. I wanted feedback."

Today, feedback and creative support remain at the core of the project as it rolls through its third year. Many of the early regulars have moved on to other projects, but both longtime players and newcomers continue to perform shows. Approximately 21 songwriters take to the Folk Festival stage on a rotating basis, and if some gigs find the players outnumbering the paying customers, there are enough high-profile showcases to balance it out. When audiences are slim, the players simply take it as it rolls.

Saunders says the group exists to give a performer a stage and to offer a supportive, creative environment to a broad spectrum of acoustic musicians. The Floating Folk adventure may not suit every singer-songwriter. But because of the built-in support factor, and because it puts a diverse group of musicians together, Floating Folk serves Richmond's musical community well.

Like anyone who takes a stage, the songwriters would always like to see large, appreciative crowds. But, for some, the opportunity to play to a handful beats griping about expectations and musical disappointments. Maybe there's not much dough in it, but the chance to play your own songs in a nurturing environment remains a special and essential soul-satisfying act for many. McCarthy says she's proud she and others in the group maintain "the integrity of original music."

"Sometimes I wonder, 'Why the hell am I out here doing this?'" she asks. "But I love it. …We're all people that just want to play their
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