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Music Shop Keeps "Folk" in Norfolk

by Scott McCaskey

It's one of those places that just looks and feels neat. A homey hangout with a welcoming personality and a hip ambiance. And yes, the cash register rings, too.

``We like to think of ourselves as a business and a folk resource center,'' said Bob Zentz, owner of Ramblin' Conrad's on W. 21st St. in Norfolk.

Resource center is an understatement. Despite its casual atmosphere, the store is serious about folk music. Whether the ordinary or the unusual, if it's of the folk vein, it's in there. From acoustic guitars, banjos, instruction books, CDs and cassettes, to Indian sitars, African drums, hammered dulcimers and even kazoos, the walls are like a gallery of instruments.

In addition to the prodigious product line are teaching rooms, a repair shop and a small stage for showcasing international, national and local folk acts. Adjacent to the stage is an old piano that looks like it would be at home in a saloon. In short, it's a one-of-a-kind, mom-and-pop music shop.

``No other music stores in the area focus only on acoustic and folk sound, or have an in-house concert hall,'' said Zentz, who runs the business along with wife, Kay.

Zentz, 49, is a living, folk resource. A Virginia Beach native who began playing the acoustic guitar in the 1950s, he moved to California in the late 1960s to write music for the Smothers Brothers TV show. While there, he won the William E. Oliver Song Writer's Award and soon found himself playing and hanging out with folk legends Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Now adept in 20 different instruments, the singer/songwriter has performed throughout the United States and Europe, and has several albums to his credit. He also makes his own instruments. Since returning from California in 1971, Zentz has been a driving force behind area folk music.

``We like to say that Bob has kept the `folk' in Norfolk,'' Kay Zentz said.

Zentz's local influence began in 1971 when he returned to Hampton Roads and began teaching acoustic guitar at Old Dominion University. The response was so encouraging that he soon organized a free folk concert and formed a club called the Song Makers of Virginia (now called the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music).

He then decided to open a shop selling acoustic instruments only, similar to stores he had seen and worked in while in California.

``I felt like the new ideas I'd gotten out there were missing here,'' he said.

The first Ramblin' Conrad's opened in 1972, across from the ODU campus. The name was in memory of a kind of wino - but endearing local minstrel - whom Zentz had met years before. The store's slogan was ``Anything That Doesn't Plug In'' - ahead of its time when you consider the current popular expression ``unplugged.''

A second Ramblin' Conrad's opened on Military Highway in 1979. Like the first, but larger, it was a retail outlet as well as a concert and open-stage venue. Renowned acts such as Tom Chapin, Riders In the Sky and John Hartford (a writer for Glen Campbell) performed there.

In 1981, Zentz closed the ODU site. During the mid-'80s he opened a smaller store in Waterside called Homemade Music. Last year, Zentz decided to close both the Military Highway and Waterside locations and move under one roof in Ghent.

``We were looking for more of a neighborhood setting,'' he explained. ``It's worked out well. I think we fit in with all the other interesting shops and the artsy kind of community Ghent has become.''

Indeed, the store meshes nicely with the eclectic surroundings and has become the hub of the area folk scene. If local performers such as Amy Ferebee, Shelly Craig and Bobby Clark aren't on the premises teaching, they're jamming, or just hanging out, talking shop.

Each month there are two or three concerts and an open-stage night. Internationally known artists, including British guitarist Martin Simpson, Irish harpist Patrick Ball, Zentz, and local bands such as the Blind Venetians and Seaaira have been popularly received.

The store is also on the Norfolk Tour. When you see a giant bus parked out front, you'll know why.

``A lot of the senior citizen tours come here. We'll do sing-alongs and play old tunes. They really seem to enjoy it,'' Zentz said.

Though the operator of an established and thriving business (folk has enjoyed a comeback in recent years), Zentz's philosophy remains indicative of the artist he is.

``I feel that music can make your life a little better,'' he said. ``Whether you're on stage, or playing in your living room, it tunes you to the world in a different key.''


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