By Paula Willits
My husband, Richard Willits, is as passionate about folk music as my dogs are about peanut butter. When we moved to the Del Webb at Ponte Vedra community (in Nocatee) three years ago, he immediately began thinking (that is, “plotting”) about how to start a folk music venue.
In South Florida, he put on more than 40 free “house concerts” for friends and clients. He’d pay professional musicians to come and entertain. Most attendees had never heard of, or been to, a house concert before. “I feel like I’m the President having great musicians performing right in front of me!” one told us.
But in our new neighborhood, we had so many friends that we couldn’t fit them all in our house. (It’s one of the reasons we love where we live!)
In 2013, with help from the newly formed Del Webb Performing Arts Club, Richard succeeded in starting a monthly coffeehouse that is still going strong. He hosts it at the DWPV Clubhouse every second Tuesday of the month.
Then in 2014, he was asked to start another coffeehouse at the Nocatee Welcome Center on every second Wednesday of the month so residents in all the development’s neighborhoods could enjoy the music. To say he was “excited” is an understatement. In a flash, it was up and running.
Both coffeehouses are informal listening rooms for folk music performances. While the Del Webb one charges a nominal $10 a person, the Nocatee coffeehouse is free because the artists are paid by the Nocatee governing body. Both venues have room for about 80 fans.
“Many people think only of Joan Baez or Bob Dylan when hearing the term ‘folk music,’” Richard said. “But it’s so much more.” He features what he calls FARO music – folk, acoustic, roots, and old-time. And some performers add ‘60s rock and roll to their offerings, which always triggers enthusiastic sing-alongs.
“I book only tremendously talented, but obscure, artists,” Richard said. “And I do my best to balance local professionals versus traveling performers and new acts versus returning artists.”
Richard invites only musicians he has personally vetted. He finds many at music conventions he attends all over the country. Those conventions are where singer/songwriters show off their talent hoping to land a record deal or bookings. “Artists who live in the cold north are usually very happy to come to our area for a gig in the winter,” he said.
And he regularly checks out St. Augustine and Jacksonville professional folk artists. “St. Augustine has many great musicians,” he said. That’s one of the reasons that drew him to North Florida.
He also visits Mudville, a listening room/restaurant in Jacksonville, where he has discovered a number of performers who love to come to Nocatee to gain new fans.
He invites Nocatee residents to volunteer as unpaid opening acts at each coffeehouse. They can sing and/or play instruments, recite original poetry, or do dramatic readings. “It helps neighbors get to know each other, and those wanting to practice their skills enjoy having an audience,” he said. “Some are really talented,” he added. If he’s short on volunteers, he’ll jump in and entertain the crowd with his own singing, guitar-playing, and jokes.
For more information about upcoming performers, or to volunteer as an opening act, Nocatee residents may contact Richard Willits at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author: Paula Willits, formerly an executive editor at John Wiley & Sons publishing, retired in 2014. She lives in Del Webb at Ponte Vedra in Nocatee with her husband and two dogs.