Tim Duffy, founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation. (Tintype self-portrait)
It seems like a glamorous life from the outside. Stand under a spotlight playing music to crowds of people who are there just to see and hear what you have to give. Travel around getting paid to do what you love and would probably do for free. But the reality of life as a professional musician is something else. Those few hours in the spotlight are earned by a lot of hard, solitary, relentless work. And even if you do everything right, behave yourself, and work at your craft, as time and trends spool by, your star starts to dim, to fade away. The public has found a newer talent, or is just chasing something different.
But your obligations don’t stop — there are bills to pay and health concerns that eat up the dwindling profits. The roadside is strewn with talented musicians who had to give up their dream to face the reality of making a living another way, struggling just to stay alive.
Twenty-five years ago, the Music Maker Relief Foundation was founded by guitarist and fledgling folklorist Tim Duffy to help ease the problems faced by aging and often forgotten African-American and Appalachian musicians. The North Carolina-based nonprofit provides financial help for indigent musicians and helps resurrect their former careers with hands-on help in recording, promoting, and touring. Early on, Duffy located performers through word of mouth, with musicians passing along info to others in need. He and his staff still go looking for future Music Makers to help, but the job has been made easier with high-profile assistance from artists like Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Eric Clapton, who have lent financial as well as hands-on support touring and recording with Music Maker artists. To date, the organization has helped 435 artists, reaching out with more than 12,000 grants.