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Norfolk’s Ambassador of Folk


NORFOLK — Connect the dots in Bob Zentz’s life and the pattern can start to look like a fishing net, with each connection a hand-tied knot.

His concert set for tonight at Virginia Beach Central Library is yet another knot in Zentz’s career as a folk musician. He is Hampton Roads’ original folk devotee, a man who dedicated himself to homespun tunes 40 years ago, when he was a college student rambling around Norfolk.

Zentz watched in the 1960s as folk music went mainstream, then petered out. In its wake, he recognized a core of diehard enthusiasts.

He’s never stopped loving the music – playing it, hearing it, sharing it. He appreciates the noncompetitive atmosphere surrounding the folk scene. “That’s what keeps it a music of the people,” said Zentz, a hearty bear of a man with a ready smile.

In concert, Zentz, who turns 61 next month, draws from a ton of material. Often it’s a themed performance with tunes about time or trains or sailing ships.

He has a working roster of 2,000 songs. And because he plays more than 45 instruments, each song could sound distinctively different if played on banjo or autoharp versus mandolin or dulcimer.

“So join me for an evening of old songs played on new instruments, new songs played on old instruments,” he wrote in an e-mail to fans last week, “with a collection of story and chorus songs I’ve gathered along the way, presented with a sense of history, humanity and humor.”

Zentz still lives in the neighborhood where he grew up, in a music- and book-cluttered bungalow in Norfolk’s Colonial Place. From there he has taken his music worldwide, last year performing in Australia and New Zealand. The Beach gig will be his first concert presented by Tidewater Friends of Folk Music in several years. Since his longtime Norfolk shop – Ramblin’ Conrad’s Guitar Shop and Folklore Center – closed 10 years ago, he’s spent a lot of time on the road.

Zentz is the unofficial ambassador for folk music in this area, said Brenda Barkley, performing arts coordinator for the Friends. In Zentz’s concerts, “he’ll give you a taste of everything. He s going to touch on something you love,” she said. “You’re going to find something in a Bob Zentz concert that you’ll never forget.”

Zentz founded the Friends in 1971, as the Songmakers of Virginia. It was his way of reviving a dead-in-the-water folk scene he found when he came home from California.

The answer to why Zentz felt compelled to establish the Songmakers leads back to his inspiring encounter with a guitar-playing busker with a country twang named William Conrad Buhler in Norfolk and a month as a writer-songwriter on “The Smothers Brothers Show” in Los Angeles.

In the early 1960s, the fledgling folkie performed original and traditional songs in the area’s prime folk venues, including one called The Shadows. The manager of that Virginia Beach club later moved to Hollywood and became a talent manager. His clients included the Smothers Brothers comedy team, whose hit TV variety show in the late 1960s showcased top folk groups.

After a two-year stint with the Coast Guard, Zentz was hired to join that show’s large writing team, which included Steve Martin. He married a Norfolk schoolteacher and took her to Los Angeles, only to learn the show would be canceled because of its controversial liberal bent.

He stayed in California three years, eking out a living teaching music. In Santa Monica, he came upon a music store that sold only acoustic instruments and staged concerts. There he picked up an application for a songwriting contest. He won that contest, sponsored by the Songmakers of California, and was introduced to folk royalty such as songwriter Malvina Reynolds.

When he returned to Norfolk, he adapted what he’d seen. He began teaching music at what was then called Old Dominion College. To fan the folk flame, he organized Songmakers of Virginia in 1971 and put together a free folk festival that fall in Virginia Beach.

A year later, he set the festival at Old Dominion and invited musicians Sandy and Caroline Paton, owners of Folk-Legacy Records.

Soon after that festival, the Patons called Zentz and asked to make his first record. “Mirrors and Changes” was released in 1974, and it included a section of songs and stories about Buhler, who swapped songs for liquor and who Zentz came to call Ramblin’ Conrad.

He opened Ramblin’ Conrad’s, initially on Hampton Boulevard across from the school. He based it on the Santa Monica shop and began bringing in name folk acts. The shop moved several times before shutting down at a Ghent location in 1995 for lack of sufficient business.

Zentz started traveling for work but shared the music with local folk fans through a public-radio show he started in 1977. Called “In the Folk Tradition,” the Sunday night show on WHRV-FM 89.5 ended in January.

In recent years, he’s snagged jobs sailing with Elderhostel groups and performing at national folk festivals in Scotland and Australia. His own songs have been recorded by top artists ranging from his old friend guitarist Gordon Bok to the Sheringham Shanteymen of Norfolk, England. He continues to teach a little.

The Patons have remained friends. In 2003, Folk-Legacy released a CD of Zentz’s first album. “We came back to many festivals in Virginia, and he’s come up to many festivals and concerts in the Northeast,” Caroline Paton said last week. “He’s a fine singer, and he plays many instruments. But you get a real feeling for the person onstage. It’s not only a musical experience; it’s a human experience.”

An experience of connection, as large and knotted as a net.

Reach Teresa Annas at (757) 446-2485 or teresa.annas@pilotonline.com


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