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Steve Key: News/Blog

Read all about it! - February 23, 2006

Here's a feature story about the Feb. 24 benefit I'm playing and hosting:
The song I chose to do on the New Orleans theme is Lucinda Williams' "Crescent City". French speakers, help me out: is the lyric "tout es en son temps" pronounced too-eh-on-sahn-tom? Google says it means "All is in its own time", which sounds a lot like a line from a Grateful Dead song. And the town of Mandeville -- do you say MON-duh-vill? If I've got it wrong, please set me straight!

Dick Cheney Song Contest - February 15, 2006

I just got back from the Folk Alliance in Austin TX, where the highlight for me was judging the Dick Cheney Song Contest on Monday night. I was one of three judges -- Tim Mason of Club Passim and recording artist/music producer Wendy Waldman were the others. We all agreed on three winners from the 10 entries. It was my idea to award bronze, silver and gold in honor of the Winter Olympics, but of course there were no actual "prizes". Bronze went to Roy Zimmerman from San Francisco for "Dick Cheney, the Sexiest Man Alive", which was written a couple of years ago, but had some of the funniest lines ("He's like a barrel of oil -- crude yet refined", more at
Silver went to Carla Ulbrich, who was still writing her song, "Dick Cheney's Got Your Back", in the few hours leading up to the big contest. Also big laughs, more at Gold went to Austin's own Steve Brooks, who used to write songs for Jim Hightower's radio show. His entry, "Deadeye Dick", was perfect. One line was about how he aimed for Osama and hit Saddam. Thanks to Bob Weiser from WOMR-FM in Provincetown MA for making the contest happen, and for inviting me to be a part of it. Oh yeah, I attended the conference, went to more than 50 showcases, came home with 100 CDs, and had a blast!

Kerrville New Folk - January 23, 2006

Got this link today from Lindsey Lee, host of Rouse House Concerts in Texas: It is a list of the Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk Competition Finalists by year. Since I was a finalist in '86, won the contest in '91 and judged it in '92, I was very interested to see this list. It brought back a lot of memories. I'll start with this one, will add more later:
'86 was my first visit to Kerrville. My old San Francisco buddy Grant Baldwin loaned me camping gear, but I only lasted one night before heading into town to find a motel room. I couldn't sleep, because this punky folksinger I knew from NYC named Michelle Shocked kept singing all night right outside my tent (that was the year she sang into a tape recorder for a British guy, who released it as "The Campfire Tapes", later re-released as Michelle's major label debut in the U.S.). I didn't know then that singing all night is normal at Kerrville. That was also the year Kate Wolf was scheduled to play the festival, but had to cancel because she was battling leukemia (she lost the fight later that year). David Roth did his song about the cancer patient, "Manuel Garcia", which made everybody cry and earned David a win in the New Folk contest. Hal Ketchum was also a winner that year -- I remember his movie star looks, dramatic singing voice, and songs that made no sense whatsoever (no surprise that his later country hits would be written by others). I lost that year, but so did David Wilcox (he won the next year). So many other excellent folksingers on the losers list (Sara K., Sid Hausman, Emily Kaitz) that I am honored to be in their company. Pierce Pettis was scheduled to be in the contest, but couldn't make it.

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Me - December 6, 2005

Thanks to Dave Nuttycombe of Washington's CityPaper for the opportunity to do the Pop Quiz on the City Paper website:

Downloads - November 27, 2005

I've updated the Songs page. You should now be able to download guitar-vocal demos of newer songs DC, Golden and All These Things, as well as all the songs from the House Blend and Scatter Seeds CDs. Let me know if it works (or doesn't) and I'll be adding more soon.

Me on TV - October 8, 2005

"Metropolitan Edition" aired last night on WJLA-TV Channel 7, which included a snippet of me singing my DC song on a sidewalk in Capital Hill. I have mixed feelings -- I'm grateful for the wide exposure TV provides, but I hate the way I look. I see the first clip and I think, "Does my hair always look that bad, or was it just a bad hair day? Do I really look that fat, or is just TV adding a hundred pounds to my image?" The second clip segues into coverage of the recent anti-war rally, and the image of Cindy Sheehan appears while my song continues in the background. I am choked up, as I always am when I see images of Cindy, and suddenly I am grateful to the TV producers for using my song this way. Otherwise, this show baffles me -- I thought it would be about DC and it's just another show about Washington politics. I guess not every show has the depth and intelligence of "Frontline". Another funny thing -- when I was featured in a 30-second promo for the show, I got a lot of e-mail from friends who saw me on TV, but when the full show airs, not a single e-mail. If I could only figure out how to be in commercials on a regular basis...

Storm Damage - September 2, 2005

I'm glued to NPR (no TV here) and reading the NY Times online, all the stories coming out of New Orleans, Mississippi, etc. It reminds me a lot of the tornado that came through Nashville when I lived there in the late 90s. It was the first one in memory to come into the downtown area of a big city (as Nashville likes to think of itself), and the first reports were all about how the downtown was largely spared, just like the first reports about Katrina were about how the storm took a jog to the right and missed hitting the Big Easy. But somebody finally noticed that right across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville, east Nashville had been devastated by the tornado. I had a regular gig then at the Radio Cafe on the east side, and phone lines were down, we didn't have cell phones then. After two days of no word, I drove over there, and it looked like a war zone, all the big trees down, powerlines on the sidewalk, so dark with the power off, with police cruisers on every corner as if we were under martial law. The cafe was still there on the corner, although many houses on the block were damaged by fallen trees. I saw nobody inside, so I went around back, and there was the cafe owner, Mac Hill, grilling chicken for his neighbors, giving away all the food that would have gone bad anyway. A week or so later, I hosted a songwriters night there by candlelight. It was a beautiful and heartbreaking thing. The poor people on the east side got wiped out, but the news on the west side said that the city was OK. Sounds very familiar now. Try this piece in today's Times:

Benefits - September 1, 2005

I added my House Blend CD to the CD Baby program where artists are donating their CD sales profits to the Red Cross. For each copy of House Blend sold, the Red Cross gets $8.97. Hundreds of artists have added their CDs to this list; go to www.cdbaby/group/redcross. Two artists who have recorded my songs -- Doug Alan Wilcox and Sheri Lynn -- are on that list too. Also, songwriter Michael Troy is recovering from treatment for cancer, and his record label is donating CD sales to assist Michael and his family.,

NewSong Festival - August 29, 2005

I spent the weekend in Shepherdstown WV, attending the fourth annual NewSong Festival. The festival has changed a lot since the first three at the Claymont Mansion in CharlesTown; this year the shows were mostly indoors, which was good since it rained most of the time. And the festival's contest has changed a lot too. I was a finalist in 2003 with my song "New Hope", among the 10 performers on the mainstage, all selected from live performances at the festival. This year it was 12 finalists, only 2 selected from the festival's live rounds. It's called a songwriting contest, but songwriting is only part of the judging criteria, which is much different from Kerrville, where songwriting is the main criteria. At Kerrville, there are 32 finalists (picked from mailed-in submissions) competing for 6 winning spots; at NewSong, the contest had several levels: earlybird mail-ins (2 spots in the finals), more mail-ins (6 finalists), regional live competitions in WV and MD (2 more) and live rounds at the festival itself (2 more, for a total of 12 finalists). I watched two of the live rounds, which are open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee and buy a festival ticket. At Kerrville, the judges deliberate, but at NewSong, it's strictly a numbers game -- the judges fill out forms and others count up the numbers to declare winners. There was a delay at one round, because the judges didn't know how to score an a cappella performer, since the forms had a section for judging instrumental ability (was the voice an instrument? The a capella act did not advance). Two performers I liked did not advance beyond the live round: Kate Klim,, a 23-year-old from MA, playing electric keyboard and belting out vocals much bigger than you might expect from her waif-ish frame; and Steve Chizmadia,, NYC-based guitarist, whose conversational ballad "It's Always Texas", had me enthralled from beginning to end. Zoe Mulford had won the Susquehanna contest with her song "Our Lady of the Highways", but got nowhere at NewSong, despite entering it at all the possible levels. This year's top 12 finalists were good performers overall, but few displayed the kind of enduring songcraft of T.R. Richie's "Whitebark", which he played in the finals, but alas, did not get him into the top 5 winners. I enjoyed K. J. Denhert's performance and was glad she won the top prize of an appearance on the Mountain Stage show, but I did not walk away humming her songs. This morning, I am still thinking of "Whitebark", the allegory of the spindly pine tree that grows out of the rocks above the timberline, and manages to grow and survive despite the harsh conditions. I am wishing for more songs like that, and glad that TR survives to sing it. Heidi Muller also sings it, available on her "Matters of the Heart" CD, (I searched but could not find TR online, so go to Moab, Utah, and ask for him there). NewSong is also starting a record label, and I was impressed with the performance of their debut artist, Diana Jones, who sounds like Gillian Welch but actually has the Appalachian roots to validate her old-timey sound, Listen for her song called "Pony".

Hometown News - August 28, 2005

Just listened to the new CD by the country duo Hometown News. Actually, I've only listened to the first track, which is my song, "33, 45, 78" also known as "Record Time". This song has been covered a couple of times before, and of course I was thrilled to have other artists record my songs, but it always sounded different from how I imagined the song when I wrote it. But this recording by Hometown News is everything I wanted that song to be. It opens with the scratchy sounds of a needle on a vinyl record, and the first verse stays in that mode, as if you're listening to a 78 by the Stanley Brothers. The duo harmonies by Scott Whitehead and Ron Kingery -- who also alternate lead vocals -- are as seamless as the Stanleys or the Everlys. The tempo rocks, as the band kicks in right after the first verse with full 21st century clarity. And yet it's a folkie arrangement, highlighted with banjo and accordian. They didn't change a word of my lyric, which surprised me, since some people consider the lines about free-form radio and the war machine to be somewhat controversial. I am so grateful to Hometown News for this amazing performance of my work. I am truly honored. The CD, simply titled "Hometown News", hits stores Sept. 20, distributed by Emergent/RED. More on the band at

New Song - August 15, 2005

I wrote a song Sunday morning, called "Crawford", so perhaps you'll know what it's about before reading the lyric. I waived my 24-hour rule (usually I wait a day before playing a new song out) and performed it at the showcase at the WestSide Cafe in Frederick. Political songs run the risk of offending the Red Staters, but I got a very positive response, and nobody called me a traitor. Even featured act Tim Grimm -- sitting in the back, wearing a T-shirt saying "folk the vote" -- gave his approval, privately and in comments to the audience during his set, which by the way was fabulous. He invited the Malvinas -- Beth Cahill, Lisa Markley and Gina Forsyth -- to join him on four songs, which made it a fun, hootenany jam.

I Love My Job (Sometimes) - August 11, 2005

People sometimes ask why I host weekly showcases. Sure, I get paid by the venues, but it's a lot of work getting seven or eight acts to show up each week (twice a week now!), not to mention drawing an audience. Sometimes it doesn't work -- great music and light turnout, or strong turnout and not-so-great music. Well, last night (Aug. 10) at Stella's was one of those nights when nobody asked me why -- it was a full house and a brilliant show, featuring the harmonies and hilarities of the Malvinas, with strong supporting performances by local folkies (Lea, Zoe Mulford, Don Bridges, Bob Gramann) and acoustic rockers (Phil Rossi and his Bad Habit bandmate Ann Hudnall, Victoria Patchen and Greg Huber of the band Lucky Day). My head was spinning right from the start, so I opened the show with songs I knew well (Record Time, DC, Here for the Runnin) with Ron Goad adding percussion, harmony and wisecracks. Austin-based songwriter Greg Klyma followed with a cameo of hard-hitting broadsides, newly inspired by his day's visit to the Holocaust Museum and the memorials to Vietnam and WWII veterans. Lea and Zoe were both smooth and confident, holding the audience in their spells. The Malvinas (Gina Forsyth on fiddle and guitar, Beth Cahill on guitar and mandolin, Lisa Markley on guitar, all three alternating lead vocals and harmonies on their original songs) gathered around one big microphone (O Brother style, quipped Mr. Goad) and wove their musical tapestry. Huge applause, and Phil and Ann had to follow, so they stepped up quickly and sounded to me like an acoustic Marty Balin and Grace Slick of late 60s vintage Jefferson Airplane. Bob Gramann was an unscheduled guest, but he doesn't get up here often from Fredericksburg, so I slipped him in for a two-song set, and he kept the magic going with sparkling picking on a guitar he'd built himself over the summer. Victoria's Natalie Merchant-style singing continued the mood, and Don Bridges (with Les Hatley on lead guitar, Ron and Zoe joining in too) sent us home with his anthem to Krispy Kreme donuts. I played a new CD, "Remembering Rachel: the Songs of Rachel Bissex", and maybe I was the only one thinking how Rachel would have celebrated such a gathering a musicians and music-lovers. Thanks to all the players, the Stella's regulars (Candy, Judy, Larry, Susan), Herb & Janice, Pat & Sandy, and Stella's management for paying me to do what I love – hosting a show like that. See you next week?

Nashville Numbers - August 2, 2005

I used to host a Writers Night at a venue in East Nashville TN called the Radio Cafe. I was there on Thursday nights for four years, except the week that the tornado came through and levelled most of the East Side. I'll see some of my Radio Cafe friends later this month:
-- Steff Mahan is playing both of my showcases (Aug. 24 at Stella's, Aug. 28 at the WestSide), and she's a hoot -- think k.d. lang doing Dolly Parton songs.
--Thom Shepherd (who I once shared a gig with on the back of a flatbed truck at the RC Cola & Moonpie Festival somewhere south of Nashville) is booked at the WestSide Aug. 27. He's been riding high since his song "Riding with Private Malone" was a big hit for David Ball.
--In the Nashville/DC cultural exchange program, Gary Hays recently moved here; he ran a songwriters club called Hobo Joe's a few blocks away from the Radio Cafe. Gary is scheduled to play a guest set on the 28th.
--In the exchange, Nashville got Anna Wolfe, former Virginian now living in Guitar Town. She'll be featured at Stella's on Aug. 31.

My "Here For the Runnin'" co-writer Lanny Sherwin reports that the new version of our song sounds so good that he's sending it back to Nashville to make the rounds of record companies and publishers again. Hey David Ball, need a new hit song?

My Songs in the Smithsonian - June 9, 2005

Did you know I'm a Smithsonian recording artist? I recorded four songs for the Fast Folk Musical Magazine in New York. It includes my performance of "Record Time" in Fast Folk's 10th Anniversary Concert at the Bottom Line nightclub, where Kathy Mattea heard the song. It was a 3-night event. Josh Joffen brought my song to the show, and performed it on the night Kathy was there. I got to perform it on opening night, sharing the stage with Jack Hardy, Suzanne Vega, Pierce Pettis, Lucy Kaplansky, Dave Van Ronk, Richard Shindell and many more. Fast Folk is now distributed by Smithsonian Folkways. You can order custom CDs or cassettes, possibly downloads too. Click this link, and enter my name in the search box to find all of my Fast Folk recordings.

Another Spin for Record Time - June 8, 2005

Hometown News is the Nashville-based duo of Scott Whitehead and Ron Kingery. Their name was inspired by a lyric in my song, "Record Time (33, 45, 78)", and they've recorded the song for their next CD, due out Sept. 20. I met Scott and Ron in Nashville, when I was hosting writers nights at the Radio Cafe. They are great guys, strong performers, and I'm honored to have a song in their live set as well as new CD.

Exercise A Cappella - May 24, 2005

My song, "Exercise", has been recorded by DC-area a cappella group, Augmented 8, for release on their next CD. Group member Rob Northrup contacted me today to get the publishing info. Rob heard me at the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, where he is a member (I used to be a member too, and organized a concert series there a few years back). Augmented 8 has a 50-year history -- it is a non-profit group of men who graduated from Ivy League schools, and now perform for charity events. One recent concert benefited local homeless shelters. More at

Airplay - May 10, 2005

Perhaps you read the Guestbook entry from Carl Rubino of Utica NY, who heard an old song of mine, "Welcome to my Real Job" on the radio recently. He thought it was a syndicated NPR show airing on a station out of Binghamton. I'm still searching for it. I thought maybe Wanda Fischer up at WAMC in Albany had played it, but only found 2004 airplay for "First Guitar", "Oat Bran Muffins" and "Letters You Don't Send". WSKG in Binghamton has lots of syndicated folk shows, including "Sound & Spirit", which played "Real Job" a couple of years ago, but not recently. Same with Mike Flynn's Folk Sampler; Mike aired "Real Job" twice and my version of "Shoeless Joe Jackson" twice, but not recently. Still, it was nice to come across evidence of all that airplay over the years. Next I searched, but all I found was the reissue of "Shoeless Joe" on a Hungry for Music sampler; Larry Hoyt in Syracuse aired some of that. The mystery continues. But thanks Carl, for letting me know my songs are still out there on the airwaves!

Repairs - May 5, 2005

I'm a working musician on a limited budget, so when something breaks down and it looks like it's going to cost a lot to fix it, I panic. The Mackie 808 is the heart of my sound system, and it worked fine last Wed. but wouldn't power up for the gig Fri., which was OK since both Fri. and Sat. gigs were intimate shows. On Monday I start looking for somebody to fix it, and the first company I contact says it'll take 3-4 weeks, maybe less if I pay a $50 rush fee, in addition to the $100 diagnostic fee and whatever it costs to repair. Yikes! I surf the net frantically, and keep hearing about this company called Prototypes in Kensington MD. Turns out the tech is a singer I've heard several times named Tommy Lepson. When I tell Tommy I'm a working musician and really need my Mackie for a Wed. gig, he agrees to look at it ASAP. It was back in my grateful hands by Tuesday afternoon. Thanks Tommy! Check him out at

High Fidelity - April 27, 2005

Worked last night at the Old Town Alexandria Olsson's Books and Records store at the record desk. I like it when I play a CD in-store and somebody actually buys it. Last night it was a Putamayo sampler of African music. This took me back to last year when I was DJ-ing at community radio station KSER in Everett WA. The format of the show I hosted, “A Sunlit Room”, required some world music, in addition to the singer-songwriter stuff I preferred to play. KSER Music Director Ann McCoy suggested the Putamayo samplers as a good introduction to music of the third world, and I actually listened to her and learned something.

My work at the record desk is kind of like DJ-ing. I played the Waifs (to me they sound like Australian Indigo Girls, plus a guy), reggae versions of Bob Dylan songs, the Hassidic guy whose music is like reggae/rap, and the new Marcia Ball live CD, which was good for later in the shift when I needed something energetic. An Oscar Peterson reissue was very mellow, jazz piano quartet renditions of Latin American numbers, which reminded me of the Vince Guaraldi LPs I used to enjoy (I wonder who influenced whom).

I played the new Red House record label sampler, "These Times We're Living In", which includes a track by David Francey (I am really enjoying his Red House LP, “The Waking Hour”; he’s a Canadian writer, originally from Scotland, and his voice reminds me of Dick Gaughan’s, but softer, and the arrangements with cool Nashville cats Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin are very tasteful). I thought of playing some of the new pop acts, just to hear a bit of what they do, but as I played the Red House sampler, I was hoping that one of the customers would connect with the artists I’ve loved for years: Robin & Linda Williams, Dave Moore, Greg Brown, Bill Staines and Jimmy Lafave. Thanks, Red House. And thanks to Olsson’s for paying me to do what I love – listening to music, reading books and hanging out with people who love that, too.

What I'm Listening to - April 14, 2005

James Alan Shelton, "Half Moon Bay" (bluegrass guitarist from Ralph Stanley's band, with smooth arrangements of trad., Carter Family and Bill Monroe tunes); Keb Mo, "Peace...Back By Popular Demand" (two originals and soulful covers of '60s anthems, "For What It's Worth", "The Times They Are A-Changin'", this one gets better with repeated plays); The Warren Brothers, "Well-Deserved Obscurity" (if Nashville made more records like this, I'd be listening to country radio all the time. These guys rock!); Reckless Kelly, "Wicked Twisted Road" (they seem to be channeling Warren Zevon, with help from Steve Earle's producer Ray Kennedy).

Healing Branches - March 29, 2005

I got a couple of reminders this weekend that songs can touch hearts, and perhaps heal old hurts. During a break in the Friday concert in southern Maryland, an audience member told me that she uses my song "Broken Branches" in her work as a therapist, playing it for clients and then getting them to write letters to an estranged family member. The letters are not sent -- writing down the painful feelings is enough, and then the letters are torn up and dissolved in a bleach solution. Later I got an e-mail saying "Broken Branches" has been recorded by country singer Crystal Lynn, from Lake Orion MI. She's 12. My song will be on her third CD, due out this spring. Her mom says, "I just wanted to let you know that Crystal Lynn picked your song and everyone who has heard it has let some tears out." More on Crystal Lynn at

Songs for Vegetarians - March 23, 2005

Last night I played a few songs at Sidestreets in Ellicott City MD and traded CDs with host Bob Pyle, Fun stuff! Bob's latest, "Apples & Oranges", is a collection of wryly humorous songs about food, from spam to seaweed. Bob also books Saturday night music at Sarah and Desmond's, the vegetarian cafe on Main Street in Ellicott City. Maybe I'll see you there soon!

Good News in the Post - March 17, 2005

In a feature story about the Stella's showcases in today's Washington Post, Marianne Meyer writes: "This year, singer-songwriter and folk impresario Steve Key celebrates the 15th anniversary of his first move to the Washington area. Local folk music fans should throw this guy a party. " She called me "a tireless promoter of local musicians and thoughtful songs..." How sweet! For the full article, click here:

$5 CDs - March 16, 2005

I've decided to add the House Blend CDs to CD Baby's $5 list. The deal is if you buy 3 CDs from the list, each one is only $5. Erik Balkey and Terri Hendrix are also on the list, lots of good stuff. I sent the last 5 copies of Scatter Seeds to CD Baby, further motivation for me to finish the Golden CD soon! Shop at

One for the Kids - March 15, 2005

My song "Here for the Runnin'" will be released soon on a CD marketed to parents of children ages 4-9. The CD, entitled "Turn Up the Music", is the third release of children's music by my "Runnin'" co-writer, Lanny Sherwin, These CDs are distributed through Best Buy, Borders, and the Baby Depot section of Burlington Coat Factory stores. Thanks, Lan!
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