Alex Champagne is the kind of guy you'll see picking up random jobs wherever he can. He's always busy-you can find proof in the five W-9s he filed last year. Between his record label, setting up stages at events, working sound at venues, and playing in bands, he's found himself near the center of Baltimore's folk scene-though Champagne would argue "scene" isn't the exact word.
"There's not necessarily a folk music scene here," he says, "but there are a number of folk artists that group together in a community."
Champagne, who also heads up Scenic Route Recordings, hopes to bolster Baltimore's budding folk community with the first-ever Baltimore Folk Fest, which he likes to refer to as BFF.
"There are a lot of cool festivals in Baltimore," Champagne says. "But you don't see these great folk artists" playing those festivals. After noticing the lack of exposure for folk acts, he thought he might address the issue by organizing a dedicated folk festival in Charm City.
What started as an idea to host a gathering of such artists became a reality when Flying Dog Brewery agreed to support the nascent event and suggested timing the event for the second Friday of Baltimore Beer Week, when 12 local and regional folk acts will take over two venues in the Station North Arts District.
Sandy Robson, local singer-songwriter who performs under the name Letitia VanSant, has helped Champagne with promotion of the festival.
"I admire Alex because he has the higher goals of music in mind," says Robson, who will be playing at the Joe Squared stage.
Robson sees the event as a chance for local musicians to connect, meet each other, and collaborate.
"I'm drawn to folk music because it's inclusive," she says. "It can accommodate the widest range of musicians, from someone who only knows a few chords to the most excellent players."
"In Baltimore, it seems so effortless to meet people," Champagne says. "Once we got the word out about the festival, 20-25 percent of the bands actually approached me.
Robson feels there's a need for more good folk venues in the city and hopes BFF is a step toward changing that. "People are psyched to have their own version of a folk fest," she says. "Instead of saying, 'Why doesn't Baltimore have it?' hopefully this will spur similar events and pull more folk musicians out of the woodwork."
BFF is made more distinctive by its setting in the city: Live folk isn't normally associated with urban locations. "With folk music, people want to be out in the country," she says. Robson sees the festival as an opportunity to show off some of the talented artists here.
"Alex has hit upon something unique," says Jason Reed of Her Fantastic Cats, a foot-stomping one-man banjo act. (Disclosure: Reed also plays in the Barnyard Sharks with CP senior editor Baynard Woods.)
"This is a similar festival structure to others in Baltimore, but usually folk festivals are geared around a different type of structure-they all happen outside the city on a farm." He notes that, when we see live folk, it's usually about escaping our hectic, everyday lives. We drive far from the city, pitch our tents, and drink around a fire. "I really respect that [Champagne] put it right on North Avenue," says Reed. "It's city folk."
Reed hasn't heard of anything like the festival in Baltimore and feels it's necessary to expose the folk community to a wider audience. "The benefit that it will have for the Baltimore scene is that it gives it at least some sort of critical mass. Even if some people disagree with it being [called] folk, it's there," he says, noting the sometimes divergent definitions of "folk" and the various bands that fall into the genre.
The Alternate Routes, for instance, is an alt-rock group that cites folk as an influence. Tim Warren, the band's lead vocalist and guitar player, says the band has played dozens of festivals, but especially likes "the local, late-night, start-up feel this one has."
"I think folk music is a cool combination of personal and historical," Warren says. "Nowadays it seems like folk musicians are trying to bring their own story into the fray so that they can leave a mark and attempt to be a part of the history themselves."
Champagne's own connection to folk music stems from his history. It began in childhood, at massive family reunions in the North Carolina countryside, when his mom's cousins would pull out guitars around a campfire and his great grandmother would play along on harmonica. "That was my first exposure to folk music," says Champagne.
Now, drinking beer at a bar in Federal Hill, where it took him about 20 minutes to find a parking spot, it seems as though he's as far away from that rural childhood as possible. Through BFF, though, Champagne has devised a way to recreate that folky feeling. "Music's really been the only thing I ever cared about."
Baltimore Folk Festival takes place Friday, Oct. 26, 6 p.m. - 1 a.m., at Joe Squared and the Windup Space. For more information visit baltimorefolkfest.com