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Besides providing a superior cuppa joe, local community coffeehouses provide an important outlet for singer-songwriters

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Whether it's a national chain like Starbucks or a locally owned coffee shop, there's no doubt that America's love affair with Juan Valdez is still going strong. But one thing these chains lack is a sense of community, the kind of community that spawned coffeehouses back in the beat days when folks like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were breaking the poetry mold, or when Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Dylan, buddied up to Joan Baez and knocked the Greenwich Village folk scene on its well-tuned ear.

In the Triangle, coffee shops are hatching like Mayflies on a balmy day. But one part of coffee culture that has been slower to take off is the emergence (or re-emergence, rather) of coffeehouses as a place where musicians, artists, authors and poets interact with their community and bring the arts to the people in a non-nightclub, non-alcohol-fueled atmosphere. A community gathering place where the walls are papered with flyers for local events, the tables (usually '50s Formica) don't match, and there's an armchair or two. A place to cozy up with a book while you sip a double latte and hear original music in a setting so intimate that the audience and the players can chat freely if they're so inclined. Smoke free, to boot.

In just the past four years, coffee shops like The Hyphen (Fuquay-Varina), The Coffee Mill (Clayton) and the Open Eye Cafe (Carrboro) have added original music to the menu, along with fresh-roasted coffees, frothed-milk concoctions and light coffeehouse fare. For singer-songwriters, especially locals, these venues are sometimes the only forum to perform in front of an audience not made up of relatives or friends: a chance to try out material, hone their chops, and get comfortable trading banter with a live audience.

Unlike Boston, which has long been considered the hub of the urban folk scene (think Mary Lou Lord, Dar Williams and others), the Triangle is still developing its rep as a place for touring artists on the singer-songwriter circuit. Coffeehouses, while they don't usually offer guarantees or huge crowds, offer a way for artists to network and gain exposure (some artists, after becoming more established, move over to Raleigh's Six String Café, a larger, music-hall-style venue). And with several places to play in the area, national artists know they can pick a show or two if they have holes in their touring schedule. So here's what's brewing on the local front.

Wide awake at The Open Eye Cafe

It's a Tuesday in mid-January, and NYC artists Jenny Bruce and Amy Speace are joined by an artist identified as "Eric." They're taking turns playing three songs each in a round robin approach. Both women (late 20s early 30s) are dressed casually (sweatshirts and overalls); Bruce sprawls comfortably in an overstuffed chair, eyes closed, adding harmonies over Spease's tune. Their performance style is very open and non-precious--not only are they good but you can imagine either of their distinctive voices blaring over the radio. (I mean--they're way better than Jewel.) Some people are listening attentively, others are glued to their laptops, some are doing their course work, another is reading. Mid-song, the coffee machines grind away, reminding you that this is, after all, a coffeeshop.

Both women are part of Urbanmuse, an NYC eight-member folk collective where the women pool resources and often play shows together. Speace and Bruce have full bands back in the city, but for these musical forays down the East Coast, the women are not only traveling light, they're traveling together to save costs and have company. They have their CDs (self-released) set up for sale on a table. They have agents to get them college shows--the bread and butter, rent-paying gigs. Bruce has been a Lilith Fair songwriting finalist; they both dream of carving a niche for themselves among the multitudes of hopefuls who hit the road armed with their songs and a guitar (they've got full bands at home).

For musicians like these, the coffeehouse circuit does have its advantages.

"So you don't always pack the place," Conary says, "but everybody's attentive; they're listening. And that's what's really important to someone who's just written something that's really important to them."

Offering live music from Wednesday through Saturday with occasional Sunday brunch shows, the Open Eye provides a place for original artists, such as members of N.C.'s Songwriters' Co-op, to find an audience.

"The whole idea behind this place was, 'It's Carrboro's living room,'" Conary says. "It's a place where people connect on all levels."

The Hyphen Coffeehouse: It's the "dash" between Fuquay and Varina

My friend and I walk in to the strains of alt-country's Jay Farrar over the sound system; the disc changer switches to Moby. It's Saturday night and there's no band, although owner Kurt Fortmeyer is still recovering from the night before, when a group of esteemed bluegrass vets packed the place to the gills. Fortmeyer, a longtime area musician you may have heard either at the Eno fest or countless other venues, worked for years at the Irregardless Café in Raleigh along with his artist wife, Nina. They took the plunge and opened The Hyphen in late '97.

Housed in a long, narrow 1920s brick building in downtown Fuquay-Varina, the space's high ceilings and casually hip decor are a welcome surprise. Musicians' photos fill the wall to the left as you walk in; straight ahead is the bakery case. The space is like any urban coffeehouse except it's smack dab in a small commuter town. As such, it's a meeting place where musicians rub elbows with parents and their young children. Fortmeyer mentions an upcoming act, Heritage (a couple of older fellers who do bluegrass and down-home entertainment), set to play March 1, as an example of the wide appeal of the acts he brings to the coffeehouse.

"They do all the old skits from Hee Haw. They'll put on cowboy hats and bandanas and do a Western set, or put on engineer hats and do a railroad set. We get all these retired farmers, standing right in with everybody else, and everybody's cool. Kids walk in with spiked hair and leather jackets, that kind of stuff, and people move over and give 'em a seat."

And Fortmeyer sets high standards for his acts: no covers (unless they're pretty damn obscure). In other words, you're not going to hear "Brown-eyed Girl," he says, laughing. He books original music, from lesbian folksingers Kid Sister to "bluegrass, pre-World War II blues and folk."

"There's no point in hiring somebody to come in and be the radio. If I wanted that I'd turn the radio on, which I'm not going to do," he says.

In return, Fortmeyer respects the musicians who play at The Hyphen. He teaches his staff how to foam milk quietly. ("On TV when the guy goes into the kitchen and pretends to make a cappuccino, whoooosh, that's bullshit. That noise means you're not doing it right.") In addition to feeding groups and providing a small guarantee along with the tip jar, Fortmeyer has put musicians up at his five-acre spread outside town. Some camp out, some grab the sofa or guest room. It's a hoppin' place for a small town.

"There's some people [locals] who've never set foot in here. I wish they'd at least try it out before they decide."

Big beans a-grindin' at The Coffee Mill

After years in the health care business, husband-and-wife team Cliff Morgan and Jodi Sanger decided to do something "fun" with their lives, and bought a coffeehouse that had just closed in Clayton, a place most folks know only from driving through on the way to the beach. As North Carolina locals, they knew that Clayton was becoming a boomtown; people who couldn't afford to live in Wake and Orange counties were moving over to Johnson County.

Within two months of opening in 2000, they were offering live music. "We started getting requests from folks who wanted to come in and play and it took off," says Morgan. "I get four or five contacts a week from musicians wanting to play the Coffee Mill, not only from N.C. and the Triangle area but New York, Atlanta, Nashville ...

"We've got a good Web site developed," Morgan says, "and a lot of independent musicians out there, that's probably the way they book their tours, doing searches for coffeehouses."

These days, besides offering yoga classes and a children's puppet and storytelling hour Friday mornings, The Coffee Mill has live music Saturdays and Sundays, with open mic on Tuesdays and a new offering, open-mic poetry, on Wednesdays.

The room is small and the stage tiny--the musicians literally set up against the large front window. And the building, a 19th-century storefront with its high pressed-tin ceilings, wood wainscoting and high shelves, is like stepping into another time. But the Mill, offering everything from local favorites like Jonathon Byrd to touring acts, draws music fans from Cary and Raleigh as well as a local crowd. Morgan explains that Paul Barton, the guy who hosts his Tuesday open mic night, used to play in Twisted Sister ("he'll kill me for saying that"). He mentions that Barton has started a studio where he's recorded several area groups. Upcoming events include a tribute to former Beatle George Harrison and, in June, a reprise of last year's "Millstock" fest: Twelve hours of music along with food and booths with works by local artisans. Morgan plans to expand into the large back end of the old store--maybe even have electric bands, add a small kitchen and a few micro-brews and wines, while maintaining a "smoke-free atmosphere to hear music." If he does that, the Mill might expand its hours.

"We close at 10. The way I look at it, if you want to go honky-tonkin' afterwards, you've still got time to do it."

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If you're interested in the coffeehouse experience, you might also check out The Vineyard Café, Raleigh's Christian- oriented coffeehouse and Chapel Hill's Caffe Driade, which has live music in the temperate months.

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