If anything affected Tim Duffy more than the glorious roots and blues sounds he grew up with in the Carolina region, it was the poverty that so many of the music's most versed but obscure practitioners lived in.
"Poverty in America ... people don't think about it," he says. "But it's very, very real."
Experiencing the deep struggles of rural blues artists — not just in getting their music heard but in maintaining a sustainable existence — prompted Duffy and wife, Denise, to form the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that has recorded the authentic roots music of more than 300 artists during its 20-year existence that would otherwise never be heard. But that's just part of the mission.
"There is poverty throughout the world, but that's not the whole gist of what we do," he says. "If you follow any popular music around the world — world music, blues, jazz — it's born from the working-class people of our nation. Go into those working-class communities today, and you will find people that kept the old traditions going.
"If someone doesn't have medicine or heat and there is no one in their community they can turn to for help, maybe we can, with a simple grant for medicine. Maybe in the wintertime, we can help so they can stay warm. That keeps the guitar out of the pawn shop. That's our sustenance program."
Music Maker also has a professional development program that helps get the music of these artists recorded and packaged, and a cultural access program that provides forums, especially at radio stations, for the resulting music to be heard.
"At the heart of it, Music Maker is really a social- justice organization, because these people are invisible," Duffy says. "Audiences don't know who these people are. They won't go into their neighborhoods, so we have to give them a voice. We do that with the music and the songs."
Duffy will further explain Music Maker's work at Monday's taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. But the fruits of his project will be perhaps best reflected by live music from three of the artists the organization has helped nurture: Ironing Board Sam, Boo Hanks and Big Ron Hunter.
"Big Ron Hunter very much has a sense of joy about life," Duffy says. "He'll talk about the red clay of North Carolina and the squirrels chasing each other above the trees. He'll talk about how he incorporates that in his music. Then there's Boo Hanks. He is a living example of a Blind Boy Fuller, who created such great music in the '30s. So Boo is a great, great Piedmont blues artist. And Ironing Board Sam ... now here is a totally eccentric artist from South Carolina that started in the Winston-Salem drink houses. He's like Sun Ra (the eccentric jazz stylist from Alabama who insisted he came to Earth from Saturn). He'll tell you how, in his first life, he was there at the Big Bang and how he visits this plain every 20,000 years or so. His music is all over the place. He can play simple down-home blues, pop music, weird jazz, anything."
The support of blues celebrities including B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal has helped spread the word on Music Maker. So has the breakout of Duffy's most visible discovery for the organization, the now-popular Carolina Chocolate Drops. But his work boils down to providing a platform for unheralded and unknown artists.
"The artists we chose to help don't really have a spit in hell's chance of making it in the music industry, so we live completely outside of that," Duffy says. "I've helped a lot of people. But to tell you the truth, all this work has helped me much more. I've gotten a lot more than I've given through all the people I've gotten to know very deeply.
"My grandfather used to tell me it's not what you get out of this life, it's what you leave behind. In other words, you never see a U-Haul behind a hearse."