PINNACLE, N.C. — Far from Memphis and New Orleans, in sight of Pilot Mountain in the hills of rural Stokes County, sits a tiny white farmhouse that's a refuge for those forgotten by the blues.
Down-on-their-luck musicians can turn to the Music Maker Relief Foundation for help getting food, heat for their homes and, sometimes, a break to get back in the business.
Since they started the foundation five years ago, Tim and Denise Duffy have given out about $800,000 to help older, struggling musicians.
"He kept the dream alive," said blues artist John "Cool John" Ferguson, who credits Tim Duffy with helping him get back on his feet and work on a new CD. "He's looking out for the people who have been shortchanged."
Duffy found Ferguson two years ago in Atlanta, where he was down and out after a recording deal collapsed, and persuaded him to move to North Carolina. Ferguson now presides over the mobile home called the foundation "guest house."
The foundation has raised about $1.25 million since the Duffys started it while living in nearby Winston-Salem. It grew out of the couple's friendship with Robert "Guitar Gabriel" Jones.
"He took me into the world of the bluesman," Tim Duffy said. "He lived in abject poverty" before he died in 1996.
The Duffys sought outside help to buy liquid nutritional supplement for Jones and heating oil for another artist. They expanded their work gradually, driving artists to get welfare or disability checks cashed or to pick up necessities.
Today, the foundation helps more than 100 artists around the country, including many the Duffys haven't met. There are exceptions, but the couple generally seeks to help those older than 55, who make less than $18,000 a year and play music that's "rooted in the Southern musical tradition."
Most of the artists being helped were found by the Duffys, but some were referred by friends who heard about the foundation.
"We will stick with them over time," Denise Duffy said. "It's not always that the gifts are large. There are a few people who are on our $100- to $200-a-month list and it's almost all for prescription medicine."
The foundation also has organized trips for musicians to places such as New York, California, Germany and Switzerland. For two years, Duffy helped artists get gigs with a touring blues festival sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Another bluesman helped by the Duffys is "Captain" Luke Mayer, 72, who was a part-time singer and full-time bakery worker. Now Mayer has a CD, thanks to that "sweet guy."
"He's been great to us all," Mayer said of Tim. "He'd support with food, cars and stuff like that. I've got a bad leg and couldn't do too much walking. They helped with heat and air--I've never had air conditioning."
The atmosphere at the foundation's five-room farmhouse is like a hip welfare agency, fund-raising campaign and jam session wrapped together. Walls are crowded with pictures of artists.
Donors include Pete Townshend, jazz-blues musician Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt and actress Kim Cattrall, co-star of HBO's "Sex and the City."
"No one has done what Tim has done, which is return real quality of life to a lot of people who have spent their lives developing their music," Taj Mahal said from his home in Pasadena. "Once you get to hear this music, you realize that this is the real deal."
Denise Duffy said the foundation can't provide an easy life for musicians. "Even with the help we give them, they still suffer," she said. "I don't want them to have to choose between heart medicine or food or rent."
Even musicians who get a record deal aren't assured of making a living, Tim Duffy said, because if an artist doesn't sell well at first, they're dropped.
"If an artist is worried about food and heating oil, they don't think about their music," he said.
David Evans, head of the ethnomusicology program at the University of Memphis, said the blues is the foundation of a great deal of 20th century popular music, and that there are musicians "still living who represent the early phases of this music and often represent it quite well."
"In order for them to be heard, it's important for them to live moderately comfortably. Duffy is doing a lot of good work in helping those who are having hard times."