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Bob Zentz began performing professionally in his native Norfolk, Virginia, in 1962, in "The Troubadours," with James Lee Stanley. In his college years, Bob was a founding member of The College of William & Mary's "Minutemen" singers from 1962-64, and president of the Old Dominion College Folk Music Society from 1965-66.
In 1966, Bob began a two-year stint as a sonar man in the U.S. Coast Guard, aboard the high-endurance cutter CGC Sebago. During this time, his songwriting came to the attention of Hollywood, and upon leaving the service in 1969 he was hired as a writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. But fate had other plans for Bob -- the show was cancelled by CBS and Bob stayed on in L.A., teaching guitar at Long Beach City College and continuing to perform and write, winning the William E. Oliver Songwriting Award in Los Angeles in 1970 for his song, "Jeremy."
After the 1971 San Fernando earthquake literally shook him out of bed, Bob packed up and returned home to Norfolk, with a dream of creating a special place for people who loved traditional music and acoustic sounds as much as he did. He named it for the man who embodied his ideal of the singer, and the song -- the late Norfolk country singer William Conrad Buhler, immortalized by Bob in song as "Ramblin' Conrad ... a veteran, a wino, a handyman, an ex-con, a backstreet minstrel and a bar-room troubadour." (read his story here)
Ramblin' Conrad’s Guitar Shop & Folklore Center became the hub for all things folk in Hampton Roads for 23 magical years, from several locations around town before closing in 1995, a victim of changing times and lives. In its time, Ramblin' Conrad's offered many things to many people: acoustic instruments of any kind, from any time; traditional music in record and print; a concert venue that brought many of the world's finest folk musicians to Hampton Roads; and a special moment in time, when anyone with a song in their heart found a warm welcome, and a place to call their own.
The Ramblin' Conrad's experience also existed virtually for more than 27 years over the public radio airwaves, beginning in 1977 with the program "In The Folk Tradition," and also in the community through the Songmakers of Virginia -- now known as the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music -- which Bob founded in 1971, modeled after Songmakers of California, which he came to know and admire during his time in L.A.
Over the years, Bob participated in many folk ventures, near and far. He began teaching folk music classes in Old Dominion University’s Rainbow Program in 1971; he created and ran the "Old Dominion Folk Festival" from 1972-81; and became a fixture at the Virginia State Fair beginning in 1980, appearing for his 28th year consecutive year as resident performer in the Heritage Village in October 2009. He appeared on PBS's long-running program "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1982, and crewed and performed aboard Pete Seeger's Hudson River sloop "Clearwater," helping to repair the Hudson River and spreading the word about preserving our waterways, from 1989-91. Bob's recording of his composition, "Horizons," was selected in 2006 to be on a tribute to environmental author and pioneer Rachel Carson on the centenary of her birth, entitled "Songs for the Earth."
Bob has also represented America and its folk traditions far and wide. He represented the U.S. in Shanty Tour, Finland, in 1997, and was an instructor at the inaugural Common Ground, Scotland, in 2002. He performed at the Scottish National Folk Festival in 2002, was featured U.S. artist at the Australian National Folk Festival in Canberra in 2004, and performed that same year in Auckland and Wellington for the New Zealand Maritime Museums. A featured performer at the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Bob is also a regular member of the faculty each summer at Common Ground on the Hill, held at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.
Local accolades in the Hampton Roads area include the 1992 John Sears Award for Community Service from Festevents and the City of Norfolk. He created the program, "Life of the 19th Century Mariner" for the Mariners Museum in Newport News in 1995; composed and performed "(Ode to the) Schooner Virginia" at the keel-laying ceremony in 2002 and launching ceremony in 2004; and was music consultant and performer for the multimedia theater experience, "Chesapeake Celebration" in 2004. He was a founding member of the Outer Banks Opry in 2003; received a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 2004 to present "Music of the Chesapeake" in Virginia Schools; and was profiled by Public Television's "Virginia Currents" in 2003 for recognition of his many contributions to music and the community, at home and abroad.
As a performer, Bob is a prolific musician, playing several dozen instruments in a repertoire of more than 2,000 songs. His albums span the genres of folk, traditional, Celtic and maritime music and beyond, and his recordings also appear on other artist compilations. As a songwriter, he is celebrated by fans and peers alike; dozens of performers have covered his original compositions, three of which have been published in "Rise Up Singing," Sing Out Magazine's award-winning community songbook.
Two of the most storied songwriters of the 20th century praised Bob's work, each in his own way. Upon hearing Bob's first release, Mirrors and Changes, country legend Johnny Cash was moved to send the young artist an encouraging letter, saying, "Mirrors and Changes ... is one of the finest works I've heard by any artist." And in 2007, at a symposium at the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center honoring members of the Seeger family for their contributions to American music, music legend and humanitarian Pete Seeger asked Bob, "Are you still writing those good songs? Your songs get around!"
Today, Bob has no intention of slowing down. He continues to perform nearly every week the year, much of it on the road, and has followed up the 2007 release of his sixth album, "Closehauled on the Wind of a Dream," with the new CD "Horizons" in January 2010. He carries his "informances," rich with "edu-tainment," to audiences ranging from elementary school students with his "Homemade Music" program to senior programs including Life Long Learning and the ODU Institute of Learning in Retirement.
In 2016, Bob and partner Jeanne McDougall launched a series of activities celebrating the 50-year association of Bob's mentor, William "Ramblin' Conrad" Bulher, with all things folk in the Hampton Roads area. The Ramblin' Road Show and Homemade Hootenanny took the Virginia story across the Eastern U.S. and will bring the story to even more audiences in 2017. The video sequel to "The Ramblin' Conrad Story," "The Wind Sang Along," featured an international lineup and carried the story around the globe again.
In late 2016, Bob announced the donation of the first phase of his folklife collection to Old Dominion University as well as the founding, with Jeanne, of the Ramblin' Conrad Folklife Institute, to provide a place for all folk to explore the transmission of tradition among people, for people; to preserve documents, images, books, recordings, and other artifacts of folk production; and to unite people of all cultures by sharing and exploring our rich diversity while celebrating our commonality.
The year was capped by the announcement that Bob would be the first folk artist ever honored by a star in the Virginia "Legends of Music Walk of Fame" in his hometown of Norfolk VA. The ceremony will be marked by a concert featuring the music of the six artists being honored this year, on February 26, 2017, at Norfolk's Roper Theater.
From schools to concert halls, festivals to fairs, museums to libraries, and everywhere in between, Bob is dedicated to a life of presenting, performing and introducing traditional music and its derivatives to those who are already fans ... and those unaware of its existence.
Updated January 2017
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Copyright © 2017, Bob Zentz