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Chatting with Susie Weiss from The Folkus Project

Volunteering is love. Susie Weiss has been a volunteer with The Folkus Project for 12 years. She’s currently president of The Folkus Board, membership coordinator for the membership program she started in September 2013, and is also part of the Booking Committee. Season after season, show after show, her involvement – along with the other volunteers who enthusiastically help the show experience along – are nothing short of devoted when it comes to the mission of The Folkus Project. The success of The Folkus Project attributes much of its success to the devotion of it’s volunteers. Susie’s connection to Folkus, in particular, goes back to the early days when Folkus shows were held at Happy Endings in downtown Syracuse. These days The Folkus Project hold it’s concerts at the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in the Dewitt area of Syracuse.

They have a great story making great music happen in Syracuse. The musical performances are all gems with artists traveling through from all over the country and outside the US, as well. I was having a blast at a recent show this past spring when I caught up with Susie – which led to this interview.

Chuck Schiele: Hello Susie. Thank you for taking some time with us here at Sounds of Syracuse. How are things going for The Folkus Project?

Susie Weiss: We were so happy to be able to start our shows back up last season, after suspending them for 18 months once Covid arrived. It was so good to be able to listen to live music together again, in as safe an environment as possible. And it was great for touring musicians to be able to get back on the road, performing with actual people in the room – the first time since March 2020 for many of the artists performing at Folkus last season. 

We started back in the fall with area musicians, to both test the waters in having live events again, and to support some of those in our own community. In the spring, we resumed our usual roster of nationally touring artists, many whose shows we had to cancel previously when Covid hit. Though attendance was lower than in pre-Covid times, we continually heard how appreciative folks were that we were doing our live acoustic shows again. We even were able to finally celebrate our 20th anniversary a year late, with a special anniversary show and an exhibit of much memorabilia from over our 20 year history. 

CS: For how long has the Folkus Project been in action?

SW: The Folkus Project was officially created in the fall of 2000 as a nonprofit, community arts organization presenting folk and acoustic music in Syracuse. However, the roots of Folkus go back further, operating from 1993 until 2003 at Happy Endings Cake & Coffeehouse in downtown Syracuse.

In the mid-1990s, local folk enthusiast, Joe Cleveland was retained by Happy Endings part-time to operate the music series. Cleveland further developed the caliber of music at Happy Endings and solidified the folk/acoustic emphasis. The entire Folkus Project series moved to May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse in 2003, in a format very similar to the present day, and it’s continued there ever since.

CS: What do you personally enjoy most about being part of The Folkus Project?

SW: I love being part of bringing great acoustic music to our Central New York community, and introducing folks to many wonderful artists who they might not otherwise ever come to know. I also enjoy the sense of community that we help foster through our series. It’s a welcoming place for all who attend, whether as a regular attendee or one’s first time, and we’re a place where people feel comfortable coming on their own. I’ve met so many great people from being involved with Folkus – patrons and fellow volunteers alike!

CS: In general how does The Folkus Project work in terms of its mission?

SW: Folkus is a not-for-profit organization, run entirely by volunteers committed to bringing a wide variety of live music to our area. This includes old favorites, up and coming artists, and seasoned performers new to our area – all at affordable prices. We have a core management team comprised of 8 lead volunteers, plus committees to handle booking, membership, tech, hospitality and finance, and a roster of additional volunteers who help staff shows and perform other tasks.

CS: I think the organization is a gem of our city’s culture. I know you do, too. 

SW: As Chris Baker of Syracuse.com said of Folkus, we do feel like “…one of Central New York’s hidden treasures.” Even in our 22nd year, we hear from delighted first timers that they had no idea we existed. We’re constantly being asked, where did you find that great group or that amazing artist? We follow this music, go to festivals and conferences, connect with other venues and have our patrons share suggestions with us to know about some of the best acoustic music most will never hear. And we love introducing some of these gems to our community. People don’t realize just how broad “folk” and “acoustic” music can be – from singer songwriter to Americana, blues to bluegrass, traditional to indie folk and more.

And there’s something about being in such a relatively small and intimate concert space, warm acoustics, and getting to meet the artists personally after the show which is a very different experience from a mega concert in a huge concert hall. For us, it’s about the music as well as the sense of community that goes along with it that makes a series like ours something very special.

CS: Please share a couple of the most memorable moments while involved with the ‘Project.’

SW: There have been so many memorable moments over the years, both small and big. One special one was being able to bring Tom Rush to perform at Folkus in the winter of 2016. For those unfamiliar with Rush, he helped shape the folk revival in the 60’s and the renaissance of the ‘80s and ‘90s, introducing the world to the work of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor, to name just a few. He has long championed emerging artists, in addition to being a great songwriter and showman himself. [James Taylor told Rolling Stone, “Tom was not only one of my early heroes, but also one of my main influences.” Country music star Garth Brooks has credited Rush with being one of his top five musical influences.]

As I stood in the back of our concert hall to a sellout crowd of others equally excited to see this folk icon live, I could only feel pride for the work we at Folkus do. Besides all our volunteers on show nights, there’s a core group of us that put in many hours to make this all happen. It’s a labor of love for sure, but it’s all worth it on nights like this and equally so on nights when we introduce a talented artist or group that most no one has heard of, and we all know there’s something really special about them. Some go on, like singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, to write a Broadway musical called Hadestown that won 8 Tony awards, including Best Musical in 2019, or like Molly Tuttle who became the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Award for Guitar Player of the Year in 2017 and the following year, be named Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year, but I digress.

Tom Rush comes on stage, accompanied by the amazing Matt Nakoa, a Sherburne, NY native (who’s also played his own solo show at Folkus), and magic happens. You can feel the energy from the audience, see them moving to the music, laughing and at times singing along, and I’m loving the concert along with them. It’s hard to believe that Tom Rush is here performing in our small intimate Folkus series, out meeting the crowd after the show and seeming like an old friend. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Another really memorable night was last fall, when we were able to celebrate our 20th anniversary a year late, and come back together after Covid had arrived. It was particularly special to feature our Folkus founder, Joe Cleveland who moved out of the Syracuse area in 2009, and our former long-term lead volunteer Dana Cooke, who took over the reins after Joe moved away and everyone wondered if Folkus would be able to continue. As you can see, it has, and grown through the years in those involved in making Folkus happen and the stature and variety of artists that come to perform with us, while still remaining true to our founding values and mission. 

Back to the show itself…

Dana “Short Order” Cooke with a side of The Stantons, and Joe Cleveland gave us a wonderful evening of music and sense of history. We were so happy to be able to honor and thank them for all that they had done, and all enjoy a fun evening. Our display of memorabilia from those 20 years – show posters, newspaper articles, CDs and more filled the Social Hall at May Memorial. It was a treat to take a walk down memory lane and hear stories from those who had been a part of that history. I still remember going to shows at Happy Endings, and was delighted in seeing the poster boards of all the artists who played at Folkus each season. An impressive slice of history indeed!

CS: What are some of the challenges you face?

SW: Like other similar concert series’, we’ve seen a drop in attendance and our show night volunteers since Covid and are not sure whether we’ll return to our previous levels any time soon. Fortunately we have an extremely dedicated Folkus membership who have generously provided us additional financial support through this time to allow us to continue our programming at the level that we always have. 

While we strive to have a more racially diverse audience as well as a greater number of younger people involved with Folkus, we have a way to go to make that happen, even as our programming increasingly reflects these populations.

One other challenge that we share with many other acoustic concert series’ like ours is succession planning and sustainability over time, as the majority of us running Folkus are a bit older, and our audiences tend to be largely middle age and older as well. We continue to be mindful of these challenges and are addressing them in a thoughtful and practical way.

CS: What do you see for the future of the Folkus Project? 

SW: We see ourselves continuing with much the same charge as we always have – bringing people together in community to enjoy good quality acoustic music at affordable prices, paying our artists fairly, and continuing to work on having more people discover our concert series and get involved as show attendees, volunteers or both. We’re never lacking for more good artists to bring to Folkus, and are fortunate that there are many patrons who have come to trust us enough to attend our shows without knowing the artists that we’re presenting. We’re thinking of adding an occasional workshop given by a performing artist once again, and have also talked about doing a special family show geared for children once every season.

CS: Here comes the fall and winter season already. What can we look forward to?

SW: We’re excited to be kicking off our fall season on September 16th with The Black Feathers, an Americana duo from the UK who captivate with their stunning harmonies and their unique ability to weave together both traditional and modern influences. The rest of our fall line up encompasses our typical variety of musical genres in addition to Americana – singer songwriter, bluegrass, blues and even a bit of Grateful Dead interpretation and tribute in a new show called Dead to the Core. Carolann Solebelllo, best known as one of the founding members of the trio, Red Molly is being showcased as a solo artist, blending rural folk traditions with contemporary urban sensibilities. Mile Twelve returns to Folkus after being named International Bluegrass Association New Artist of the Year, and Brooks Williams, Georgia native who now makes the UK home, will treat us to blues and Americana, with a bit of jazz and rockabilly thrown in for good measure. Finally Folkus will be featuring the Acoustic Guitar Project’s 8th year of showcasing 5 area singer-songwriters, each writing a song in one week with the same guitar on which 45 previous songs have been written, and sharing a couple other of their original songs. For more information on all of these fall shows and to purchase tickets, go to our Folkus website – folkus.org, and watch for our upcoming spring lineup which is currently in the process of being booked.

CS: Where do we stay in touch with the Folkus Group?

SW: The best way to stay in touch with us is through our website – folkus.org. There you can sign up to be on our FolkusFans email list, see our current lineup of shows, get information on volunteering, membership or to make a donation, and contact us with any questions or comments. We also have a Facebook page. We ask that you do not call May Memorial UU Society regarding Folkus, as they only host our shows, but otherwise have no role in our programming.

CS: Thank you, Susie. Best wishes for success with the Folkus Project. I’m glad you’re all here.

SW: Thanks Chuck. It’s been a pleasure. I appreciate you helping to spread the word about The Folkus Project.

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member of SaltCityChill.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.