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MERF - Passing the Hat & the Torch

MERF Passes the Hat -- and the Torch

By Kevin Gibson

The inspiration for and the mission behind the Musicians Emergency Relief Fund back in 1981 has never altered: It was and is a "pass-the-hat" vehicle to help musicians in need.

For nearly 30 years MERF has carried on this tradition, having evolved ultimately into the Musicians Emergency Resource Foundation in recent years, with a rotating board of directors, annual fund-raisers and community partnerships.

The two key annual fundraisers are the Booty Shaking Blues Festival, a cooperative with the Kentuckiana Blues Society, and the Viva la Diva showcase, featuring Louisville-area female musicians. The second Viva la Diva is set for November 21 at Jim Porter's Good Time Emporium, while this year's blues festival was held at the New Albany Riverfront Amphitheater back in June.

In addition, MERF is reaching out to get more local musicians and music enthusiasts involved. For instance, Kim Richey's recent CD release show at the Vernon Club yielded a $1 donation per ticket for MERF. A pair of Tim Krekel singer-songwriter nights in October also raised money for MERF.

Current MERF president David Modica said, "The focus now of MERF is to expand beyond producing shows and raising money. We also want to get people on board that want to provide help with legal assistance, accounting, taxes, basic budget assistance most people we deal with are self-employed, so it's a new game (for them) trying to manage money and run a business."

MERF founder Marvin Maxwell has referred to the MERF concept one of "musicians helping musicians." MERF hears requests, and then allocates assistance based upon a juried process by the board of directors and advisory board. The new focus seeks a broader reach, with more people involved, be they musicians or not. For example, Modica himself is a photographer who doesn't play an instrument; he just wants to get involved and to help.

And helping out is really what it all goes back to.

Marvin Maxwell, Wayne Young, Dave Modica

Photo By Laura Roberts

Marvin Maxwell, Wayne Young, Dave Modica Marvin Maxwell, Wayne Young, Dave Modica

Marvin Maxwell, Wayne Young, Dave Modica

Photo By Laura Roberts

Marvin Maxwell, Wayne Young, Dave Modica Marvin Maxwell, Wayne Young, Dave Modica

Front row: Margot Maxwell, Marvin Maxwell. Rear, l to r: Wayne Young, Rick Robbins, Gary Sampson, Dave Modica

Photo By Laura Roberts

Front row: Margot Maxwell, Marvin Maxwell. Rear, l to r: Wayne Young, Rick Robbins, Gary Sampson, Dave Modica Front row: Margot Maxwell, Marvin Maxwell. Rear, l to r: Wayne Young, Rick Robbins, Gary Sampson, Dave Modica

FOR STARTERS

The Musicians Emergency Relief Fund was born after Maxwell was involved in a serious automobile accident on the way home from a gig in 1981. He was hospitalized with numerous injuries and friends of Maxwell who is a Louisville music mainstay, having been a studio musician with Allen Martin Productions, drummer for Soul, Inc. and Elysian Fields, and owner of Mom's Music threw a fundraiser downtown.

"To be honest," Maxwell said, "I had fairly decent insurance, and they [raised] a whole lot of cash for me. I had a friend who had cancer; I called and asked him if he could stop by Mom's. He did, and I just gave him a wad of cash. And it felt good, you know?"

At that point, MERF was an idea based on an accident, a fundraiser and a good deed; today it is a 501(c)3 corporation (which means, among other things, it is a tax-exempt non-profit and can receive grants and donations which are tax-exempt for the donors).

Money for that first fundraiser, Maxwell remembered, was placed into a whiskey barrel during the many shows on various stages downtown. The barrel was chained to a lamp post, ensuring the money would be safe, and the barrel had to be smashed to get the money out for deposit in the bank afterward.

"It took them two years to get the whiskey smell out of the f***ing bank," Maxwell said with a chortle.

More fundraisers followed to provide funds to help musicians, and Maxwell said acts like the Coasters and Sam Bush were among many notables to play at MERF benefits during those formative years.

According to the MERF website, between 1981 and 1992, MERF raised in excess of $100,000, which went to help local musicians. MERF was reorganized in 2003 and has helped musicians in the form of replacing stolen amps, repairing guitars, and helping pay rent and utilities during times of need.

If the website serves as evidence, MERF's benevolence over the years has saved a number of people's skins in tough times a number of local stories are posted on the site. Maxwell even recalls MERF once buying Christmas toys for a struggling local musician's children.

Not a bad ideal on which to build a charitable organization. Modica hopes things are only beginning.

THE HERE AND NOW

The success stories continue to be told, nearly 30 years after the original benefit for Maxwell. An established local musician was in a bad car accident with his wife not long ago, and Modica said MERF was able to step in right away to get money to the couple so they could make their house payment and get some groceries.

"What we could do because we had money in the bank was get a check to them right away," Modica said. "Long term, people often have certain benefits but at that moment, that's what MERF was able to do to help."

Musicians have equipment stolen, as well, another situation in which MERF wants to be able to help. "If these guys don't have equipment, they can't work. And I could name countless times when we helped get guitars repaired or someone was behind on their phone bill, because if they can't be contacted they can't work."

But Modica and the current officers and board want the ideal on which MERF was founded to broaden to help in musicians' everyday lives as well as times of need.

Truly, a number of local people have stepped forward to help carry on this tradition of charity, including Margot Maxwell, Marvin's daughter; Gary Sampson, president of the Kentuckiana Blues Society; Elaine R. Hertweck, whose father founded the Louisville Jazz Society; Mark Barnes, a local guitarist, and Marilyn Kington Rodgers, a longtime singer, among others.

While MERF has for years relied heavily on its roots, the goal of the new leadership is to make it more self-reliant; the annual events are just the start of this plan.

"Our focus right now," Modica said, "is to produce two or three branded shows per year. If we do it over and over, people will start to look forward to it, and people want to be involved with it."

This year's Booty-Shaking Blues Festival was for the first time held outdoors in New Albany as an all-day affair previously it had been held at Stevie Ray's downtown. Modica said the summer heat was a deterrent for some, but that things picked up that evening and led to a success.

"New Albany wanted to expand their riverfront summer series, so we collaborated with them," Modica said. "As far as the show went, we had the best lineup of bands that we've ever had. We had a great turnout once the sun went down."

The festival will be back in New Albany again next year.

The lineup for Viva la Diva 2010 was still not finalized as of press time, but Modica said MERF's collaboration with Jim Porter's promises that the showcase will build off last year's success. Brigid Kaelin, Tanita Gaines, Kimmet Cantwell, Amanda Lucas and Audrey Cecil, Andrea Davidson, the Blue Umbrellas and dozens of others performed at that show.

One can only surmise that the lineup and turnout will be just as strong this year.

One of MERF's long-time officers is local guitarist Wayne Young, a friend of Maxwell and of the Louisville Music Community in general. He sees the new direction and concepts like Viva la Diva as signs that MERF is on the right track, even as he plans to step back.

"We're trying to get more new people involved," he said. "I see the organization growing and solidifying. I think the Viva la Diva show is a great thing for the organization I think it's a unique idea."

Maxwell agrees, and seems to still be happy the idea has not only survived but become something Louisville as a city as well as a music community can be proud of and depend on.

"Actually just the organization becoming an organization made me feel good," he said. "It has kept going because the musicians have come together and kept it alive."

It's more than that, though, he said: "The word has spread."

Keeping that word traveling is the goal.

WHAT LIES AHEAD

It's not just about throwing fund-raisers and benefits "Benefits are great, but benefits work for those who are popular," Maxwell noted it's about continuing to build partnerships within the community and staying diligent. All of the officers and board members are volunteers with other projects and other lives to tend to. It's not always easy to stay focused.

"It's a hard thing to keep going," Young said. "It takes a lot of glue to hold it together. It takes a whole lot more work than anybody can imagine."

"Not just anyone can do it," Maxwell agreed. "Everybody will tell you they can dig a post hole, but they don't know until they try it."

Building ongoing relationships, like those that are being forged with Jim Porter's and the city of New Albany, will be a key focus as a way to help get those post holes dug more efficiently.

"We're always looking for partnering opportunities," Modica said. "It takes a lot to produce a show start to finish. We want to collaborate with people use our resources to get bands, do day-of-show assistance. That's where we can become more efficient. To do two or three shows a year, we're all volunteers and people have lives and jobs."

Building the community ties is just part of the current plan building ties within and without the music community is equally as important. He's a photographer getting a lawyer or an accountant involved on a consistent basis would be a coup for the organization.

Modica said the advisors also want to consistently include the younger generation of musicians so new generations will view MERF in the same way previous and current generations have. Therefore, getting someone on the board who is there specifically to work with the younger generation of Louisville musicians is yet another MERF goal, he said.

"First step is to get them to shows to see what MERF is all about," he said. "I think it's going to be a fairly slow process, because you almost have to experience it directly."

In other words, until a musician directly needs help or has a friend who is helped by MERF, the service the organization provides may not fully register. This would be comparable to not being familiar with a certain type of illness until experiencing it first hand or through association with someone who experiences it at which point it becomes forever on that person's radar.

"It's a snowball effect," Modica said. "The more you get out there, the more people say, ‘We're doing a benefit and we want MERF to be a beneficiary.'"

And of course, that helps more and more musicians when they need it most. Having consistent financial support, obviously, is a major component. Without money coming in regularly, there is nothing available to lend a hand.

One of the challenges, obviously, is that an independent, full-time musician has no easy, affordable means to obtain health insurance. Living without health insurance in our current economic and political climate is like playing Russian roulette. So how do musicians get insurance?

"One of three ways," Modica said. "Either there is a spouse, or they pay out of pocket, or they go without. That's the one probably happens most often.

"I would venture a guess that a large part of them go uninsured, which of course brings about other problems."

Modica indicated that possibly the most important goal is to appoint a full-time executive director at some point within the next one to two years. That ensures a consistent fund-raising and organizational effort as well as a clearer sense of leadership it would mean there is a true go-to person in place at all times.

This also would help establish a consistent point of contact for potential community partners partners Modica feels certain will be forthcoming with a lot of work and plenty of good old fashioned word of mouth. The old guard feels the new blood is moving in the right direction and that the support will be there.

"There has to be a point where it's got to fly on its own," Young said. "I'm very impressed by Dave and the other board members."

Maxwell added, "MERF has been around so long, I think you could damn near walk out in the street and ask someone to help, and I believe they would."

When it comes to hat-passing, Modica seems to agree.

"MERF exists because there is a huge need, and secondly because there is such a strong core of support in the Louisville music community," he said. "There is a great live music presence and a great core of people willing to support it. There is a huge base of support for us."