On April 7th at Dance Exchange, the room was filled Saturday night when Georgia storyteller Andy Offutt Irwin was in Takoma Park for a show sponsored by the Institute of Musical Traditions.
Cathy Fink, a nationally known, Grammy Award-winning local musician, was also on the bill to tell a story.
Andy Offut Irwin, a lanky tall “Southern” guy with a guitar comfortably around his neck stepped up to a microphone and took over the space. Soon the audience was with him back in the Covington, Georgia of Irwin’s 1960s childhood when children were “feral” and where they could roll on their “range free” bikes as soon as the training wheels were off. But don’t be fooled, Irwin’s stories gently remind listeners that childhood was not all sugar plums and that friends could turn in a moment into “fren-e-mies.”
Irwin’s stories have heart while they keep you laughing. This is part of his gift and makes them memorable. Irwin is also a master at drawing characters by his skilled use of his voice and slight gestures.
I thoroughly enjoyed the imagined cast members of his Georgia stories, particularly classic southern belle and snob “Sally Linnet” and his marvelous 85 year-old Aunt Marguerite. He deftly creates them with a gesture, a change in voice, a grimace, or with the slight hand-tremor when 85 year-old Aunt Marguerite speaks. Seeing the nuances up close was a benefit of seeing the performance him in a smaller space rather in a festival tent set for 1,500. Storytelling is a personal art form and in my opinion large settings often swallow up the intimacy.
It took a little time for Irwin to connect with the local, more northern, funny-bone of the audience. I was impressed at how he patiently tweaked his gambits until he truly connected with his audience, and soon the laughs turned belly-laugh real. Personally, I am very impressed by a storyteller responding to the audience and working to make the performance satisfy them.
Cathy Fink was billed for storytelling last night and I am very glad I was there for what she calls her first really “public” storytelling. She says, “I usually talk stories about my songs before I sing, but I have not told them just as stories.” Let’s hope that her telling of the story of Patsy Montana, the legendary woman country music singer and yodeler, signals that she will be telling more stories.
The Patsy Montana Story is a complex, charming bio story of Ruby Blevins, a girl from Hope, Arkansas, who became the famous, now legendary, Patsy Montana. Fink’s confident telling style is engaging and held the audience through the story.
Fink’s skilled yodeling which was Montana’s “secret weapon” added a nostalgic toucht as did Fink’s fine rendition of Patsy Montana’s signature song, “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”
Andy Offutt Irwin and Cathy Fink were a terrific combo as they closed the evening with Fink on banjo and Irwin on guitar along with stellar additions of Irwin’s virtuoso whistling.
It was a great evening of storytelling and music. The smiling members of the audience left slowly, stopping to comment to one another or thank Andy and Cathy.
In closing: I had a chance to talk with David Eisner, who founded the Institute of Musical Traditions thirty years ago. Eisner told me that one of the most important things the Institute has brought to him is “the chance to meet and work with my idols of folk music and to know that we are doing something real to preserve this fragile music-form which could disappear.”
What gives him real personal satisfaction is “supporting the artists, especially when you spot talent early and give emerging artists a chance to find an audience. ”
The Institute of Musical Traditions is known for their annual schedule of fine programs. It’s exciting news that they may be including more storytelling into the mix.
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
Andy Offutt Irwin & Cathy Fink in an Evening of Storytelling played at Dance Exhange – 7117 Maple Avenue, in Takoma Park, MD. For future events at Institute of Musical Traditions, check their calendar.