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A tradition of troubadors

New England's festivals and coffeehouses support local singer-songwriters

Folk music comes and goes in most places, but not here. New England has historically remained a stalwart hive for everything from urban songwriters to Celtic fiddlers, contra dance to bluegrass.

The Boston Area Coffeehouse Association, a guild of mostly suburban folk clubs, lists an incredible 38 member venues (bostoncoffeehouses.org). The largest folk label in the world, Rounder Records, is in Massachusetts, and Boston boasts the only full-time folk radio station in the country, WUMB-FM (91.9). The station sponsors next weekend's Boston Folk Festival, highlighting regional performers, including Bill Morrissey, Lori McKenna, Patty Larkin, Vance Gilbert, Ellis Paul, Chris Smither, Catie Curtis, Erin McKeown, and Red Molly, a female trio that mixes urban songwriting and old folk chestnuts with infectious verve.

Morrissey is the quintessential Yankee troubadour. On his new album, "Come Running," he returns to the stark melodicism of his best work. He has always rhapsodized the hardscrabble life of northern New England, but he sometimes wore his own hard times like a badge of honor. Now he measures his life less by its hard knocks than by how he lived it ("When this world set sail, I had my passage booked/ Now I can't say I found true love, but I can say I looked").

Speaking from his rural New Hampshire home, he described what amounts to a perfect storm of ingredients that sustain folk's popularity here.

"First, there's a lot of folk radio, going back to the '60s," he said. "Because of that, there's more places to play than anywhere else. There's also a constant influx of students, and thanks to all the radio and venues, they're exposed to this music they've never heard."

Red Molly's Abbie Gardner was one of those students. Her parents took her to bluegrass festivals as a kid, and she adored the Indigo Girls as a teenager. But in all of her native Rockland County, N.Y., there was only one folk club, and she never went there. Then she came to Boston University.

"Folk music just seemed real in Boston," she said. "Listening to Indigo Girls records is one thing, but seeing people play in coffeehouses and subways, and being able to sing at open mikes, is very different. I always played music, classical, jazz, and a garage band doing Genesis covers. But playing folk music never even occurred to me until I came to Boston."

According to an economic impact survey WUMB commissioned this year, folk music contributes more than $16 million a year to the Massachusetts economy.

"You think of folk just being church-basement coffeehouses and little cafes," said station manager Patricia Monteith. "But we have so many of those, along with record labels, artists, music-management companies, recording studios, arts centers, media, scholars, teachers, music stores. Folk music is a real way of life here."

Morrissey thinks something elemental to the New England personality is behind this. He lives a country walk from weekly contra dances that have been going on in New Hampshire since the 1600s. Yankees don't discard things just because they're not trendy or newfangled. And they don't like being told what to do.

"We don't throw anything away here," he said. "There's a strong sense of tradition, and we're slower to change when we like something. The New England personality is less fashion-conscious, generally. We like what we like."

Boston Folk Festival runs Sept. 15-16 at UMass-Boston. 617-287-6911, bostonfolkfestival.org

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