Back around 1975 or so, when Led Zeppelin's head-banging rock ruled the charts, Tom Lowe of Ojai spun the radio dial one afternoon and stumbled across an Irish folk melody he would never forget.
It was ethereal and haunting, like wind whistling through the rushes off Galway Bay. And Lowe felt as though he'd just been smacked upside the head with a 17th-Century harpsichord.
"I was stunned," he recalled, speaking of his first encounter with the Celtic band, the Chieftans. "It seemed to mean more to me, to have more power, more grace, more beauty, than anything I had ever heard before."
Lowe is still struck dumb by a winsome folk chord, but two decades later, it is often in the company of 150 or more people who attend the international folk music shows at the Ojai Valley Women's Club auditorium, where he and his wife, Becky, play host. The Ojai Folk Music Concerts provide aficionados of the genre with the only ongoing concert series in either Ventura or Santa Barbara counties.
Their nine annual shows--which feature well-known folk musicians from Edinburgh to Oklahoma City--are homespun affairs with apple cider and homemade cookies. At intermission, musicians rub elbows with patrons and explain the finer points of exotic instruments and ballad-writing.
The concerts are nonprofit ventures for the Lowes, who started bringing artists to Ojai in 1981 because they tired of driving to McCabe's--a guitar shop in West Los Angeles that doubles as a folk-music venue. Ticket prices hover around the $6-dollar mark, and the money goes to pay the band, rent the hall and mail out publicity flyers. Musicians frequently camp out in the Lowe living room or get farmed out to other local residents in exchange for tickets.
For many involved in this communal effort, the intimacy with revered performers approaches folk heaven.
"We get to have dinner with them," Becky Lowe said. And even more important, "We get to see the history of folk music as it's being created."
From a turnout of 15 at the first concert in 1981, crowds have grown to 150 and more, often spilling out into the foyer of the Women's Club. Many of the Lowes' most popular concerts--Celtic bands are a sure hit--sell out.
The Lowes credit word-of-mouth and a 600-member mailing list. Members receive seasonal newsletters with hand-drawn illustrations of fiddles and leprechauns. The updates are chatty, filled with capsule reviews and admonitions like this one about singer-songwriter Claudia Schmidt, who is appearing Dec. 8: "To miss her is to miss life itself." Schmidt plays Appalachian dulcimer, 12-string guitar and deluxe pianolin, a 52-stringed instrument that is both plucked and bowed.
During busy weeks, the Lowes devote 10 hours or more to administrative tasks. Although they only play host at one concert each month and take the summer off, Becky Lowe said, she receives a spiel a week from agents anxious to book folk musicians.
With about 50 offers on tap, how do the Lowes decide?
"We're selfish. Tom and I select what we like," Becky Lowe answered with a laugh.
This year, shows have included the Celtic band Ossian, from Scotland, and Lo Jai, a band from the Limousin region in South Central France that uses obscure 19th-Century instruments and sings in a regional dialect.
Over the years, the Lowes have developed a fondness for all types of folk music, not just Celtic. They have amassed about 200 folk record albums and speak with authority about bands, instruments and industry trends, like the proliferation of small folk music labels and the growing interest in indigenous music of all kinds.
But it's all self-taught, reaching back to when Lowe first caught 20 seconds worth of the Chieftans on a local rock station and embarked on his version of the Arthurian quest.
Lowe, who doesn't play an instrument, likes to think that those Irish snippets struck some long-dormant genetic chord in him.
He immediately bought the album and listened to it "for three or four days straight," he said. Next, he became enamored of all things Irish, reading up on that country's politics and history, buying a tweed hat, touring Ireland and attending music festivals there.
He also haunted record stores from Los Angeles to San Francisco, studying the names of folk musicians and tracking down new artists by scouring the backs of albums for leads.
He even gave potential girlfriends a "litmus test" by flipping on a favorite folk album. If the girl liked it, chances are he liked her.
In short, he became obsessed.
"I had a few friends who like this music but not to the obsessive level that I did," Lowe admitted.
Becky took sitar lessons in high school and said she passed the litmus test with flying colors.