Clark County is home to a thriving folk music scene. Misty River, led by Vancouver’s Carol Harley, commands a regional fan base and routinely packs houses for its local concerts. Vancouver guitarist Doug Smith has a Grammy award to his credit and regularly performs in the area. Battle Ground folk singer Tom May hosts a national radio show and puts on a benefit concert each winter that attracts top-flight folk artists from around the country
But the glue that holds the scene together is Amboy’s Wayne Hoffman.
Hoffman’s contributions to the local folk scene are numerous. He performs with the Clark County Benign Band. He advertises upcoming concerts through a mailing list that he routinely sends to more than 200 musicians and fans. He hosts the North Clark Folk Festival every August.
“He’s just the soul of what this music is all about,” said May, longtime host of the radio program “River City Folk.”
Hoffman’s lasting and perhaps most well-known contribution to the local folk scene is a monthly open microphone session at the North Clark Historical Museum in Amboy. The event, which gives local musicians the chance to perform a few tunes for fans the first Friday of each month, celebrated its eighth anniversary at that location January.
The open microphone sessions date back to the early 1980s, shortly after Hoffman moved to Clark County. He attended sessions in the now-defunct Columbia Arts Center before starting his own session in the Academy in downtown Vancouver.
The sessions really took off in about 1998, when Hoffman moved them to the Old Liberty Theater in Ridgefield. The event drew 25 or more musicians to play each month, forcing Hoffman to extend it from three to four hours. “It was a great place,” he said, recalling that musicians and fans alike would line up before the theater doors ever opened.
Hoffman moved the open microphone sessions to the North Clark Historical Museum in January 2003. About 18 musicians performed that first night, with another 90 fans in the audience. The following week drew 110 fans and musicians.
The turnout isn’t usually that high. These days, Hoffman says that about 13 or 14 musicians show up each month, with another 35 to 40 fans of all ages in the audience.
“People are always looking for a place to go play and to showcase their talent” and test new material, Hoffman said. “That’s where open mics come in.”
Location is likewise important, Hoffman said. In some bars musicians must compete with pool tables and dart boards. Without those distractions at the North Clark Historical Museum, “They know they’re getting listened to,” Hoffman said. “You’re going to get that attention span. It’s not going to fade. People know they can come here, play a song, and people are going to actually listen to what they’ve written.”
Hoffman, who performs a mix of original and cover tunes himself, gets a front-row seat to what he feels are the best musicians the county has to offer. “There are some jaw-droppers. You get people who come in on a whim or whatever, and they’ll just knock your socks off because they’re amazingly talented,” he said.
One of those musicians is guitarist Smith, who met Hoffman at one of the early open microphone sessions after moving to Clark County in the ’90s. “There was a ton of energy,” he said. “I still suffered from stage fright back then. Just getting onstage and being a part of this community was wonderful, and it really helped me become a better performer.”
The monthly sessions in Amboy give performers such as Smith a place to become comfortable onstage, perfect their craft, and even develop a following.
“People get to see them and go ‘Hey where are you playing?’” Hoffman said. “I think that opens up a lot.”
To that end, Hoffman is a champion for the Clark County folk scene and its acclaimed musicians. “Their talent is as good or better than anybody that’s in the spotlight,” he said.
The scene is about more than just the music. Musicians and fans alike routinely come together after each session at someone’s house — often Hoffman’s — where they talk, eat and play music until the early morning.
May, the national radio show host, is among those that Hoffman counts as a close friend. May appreciates Hoffman’s devotion to the sessions and agrees that there is untapped talent in Clark County. “It’s very affirming to me to see the enthusiasm of the amateur musicians who get up and play,” May said. “It reminds somebody like me why I started doing this in the first place.”
The scene, close as it is, isn’t without challenges. “I’d like to get an influx of new people to come and play, and younger people to come and get into the folk scene,” Hoffman said.
He’s been encouraged by some of the young musicians he’s talked to. “They’re actually interested in folk music and contemporary folk, and they want to get into that genre, which is nice,” he said.
Stereotypes aren’t helping in the effort to attract new fans. “Folk music is pigeonholed,” Hoffman said. “It’s not a mainstream thing anymore like it was in the ’60s.”
Hoffman hopes the genre’s history will allow it to succeed in the future. “Folk music endures. It’s always going to be there and gets handed down generation to generation. I think it’s always going to be around,” he said.
As long as there’s a scene, Hoffman figures to be a part of it. “I never really thought about ‘Is it going to end?’ But even if it did, I would just go look somewhere else for another one.”