*TC ALL MUSICIANS KNOW THE RULE BY HEART, A CLASSIC CAUTION THAT RANKS WITH THE LIKES of "Don't put your hand in the piranha tank" and "Don't play cards with a guy named Doc." For even though a little applause in a smoky saloon can make a guitar player see stars, when it comes to things like health insurance or paid vacations, the rule of thumb and every other musical finger has always been, "Don't give up your day job."
In the early 1960s, fresh out of the University of Maryland, a business career beckoning, Kenn Roberts heard that warning. He and three friends who'd had their fling at musical success in those heady days when songs accompanied by unplugged guitars actually topped the charts -- we're talking folk music, folks -- heard it and actually heeded it.
After a couple of years of local success they turned their backs on an offer from a promoter to tour the country under their nom de banjo the Hard Travelers. Instead, they disbanded and went their separate ways, while people they had met in those burgeoning days of folk music in the Washington area -- unheralded nobodys like John Phillips and John Denver and Mama Cass Elliott -- stayed with the music and became stars.
And became stars.
It didn't bother the Hard Travelers. That is, the ex-Hard Travelers.
And became stars.
Not one bit. No sir. Kenn Roberts developed a nice career as a developer. Mike Ritter and Buddy Renfro went into film production. Ed Windsor became a fiscal analyst for local government.
All right, all right, it bothered them a little. Just a tad. Time went by, they found themselves suddenly in their 50s, their hair was getting gray, they remembered the good old days of folk music, their adoring fans and, well, they began to wonder.
"Wondering 'what if' might have been what kept us together all these years," says Kenn Roberts now. "There's no question we would have made it if we'd stuck. We've seen people with less talent make it big."
So when Ed Windsor tossed around the idea of a reunion a few years back, Kenn and Buddy and Mike jumped at the idea. For six months they rehearsed their old Kingston Trio-era songs and played to a packed house at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis' Maryland Inn. It was to have been a one-time-only show, but the management took one look at the enthusiastic crowd and offered the reborn Hard Travelers a weekly slot in what had been primarily a jazz nightclub.
And it wasn't too long after the applause from the smoky room had died down that Kenn Roberts did the unthinkable. He gave up his day job. Granted, he'd been pretty successful in the developing end of things, but the focus in his life was now clear: The Hard Travelers were back and they were heading for the top.
Of course, there was only one problem: Folk music was dead and there wasn't a chance in the world they'd get beyond Annapolis.
ER, ABOUT THAT DEATH NOTICE. IT turns out, five years after that reunion at the King of France Tavern, that folk music wasn't quite as dead as everyone had thought. Dressed up and repackaged as everything from acoustic to new acoustic to contemporary acoustic, folk music is still out there.
And so are the Hard Travelers.
Still packing them in at the King of France Tavern, they have recorded two albums since their reunion, they have traveled from Texas to Taiwan and have plans for producing their next recording in Nashville. While they've lost an original member -- Ed Windsor retired -- they've picked up a younger Traveler in 30-year-old Mack Bailey. They've also established an annual benefit concert for the Maryland Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and in three years have raised more than $150,000.
Not the least of their successes has been catching the ear of a very special fan, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has promoted their music on a state-produced album of songs by various folk artists touting the Chesapeake Bay.
"We find a lot of people who say they are tired of hearing rap," smiles 52-year-old Kenn Roberts, explaining the band's durability. "Or they see where rock and roll has evolved with all these videos and Madonna and the like. Many people like country music, but they aren't hard-core country fans. I think there are a lot of people out there who just don't have a home. In the '60s with folk music, those people had a home."