Dylan sang it first: "Mama, you've been on my mind." Chances are, the storied troubadour wasn't waxing poetic about MAMA, the Memphis Acoustic Music Association, but he might as well have. The nonprofit organization, begun nearly a decade ago, hovers in the background of the local music scene, quietly producing quality events that might not make it to Memphis otherwise.
"We're a too-well-kept secret," MAMA co-founder Judy Kitts says with a laugh. "When we began this, people said nobody would come to our concerts. They called it folk music, but we said this is music everybody has grown up with."
Naysayers be damned: MAMA, which has its roots in the house parties Kitts hosted in the late 1980s -- gigs where Ian Matthews and Martin Simpson and Jessica Radcliffe played for crowds of 50 or less -- has now grown to a wide-reaching group that boasts more than 600 people on its mailing list.
"We did house concerts for about three years," Kitts says. "I play music and I had friends who play music, so we decided to meld this all together. We thought if Martin Simpson will come, maybe we can get our heroes here."
Since then, MAMA has produced hundreds of shows, including memorable gigs by Jim Dickinson, Chuck Brodsky, and Clandestine. "When we did Jesse Winchester at the Brooks Museum, he danced," Kitts says of one unforgettable concert in the organization's 2002 season. "Midway through, I said, 'You're having a great time!' He looked around the auditorium and said, 'Who wouldn't?' We turned so many people away that the Brooks complained. Too many people called them demanding to be let in."
Kitts continues, recalling a Martin Cathy and Norma Waterson concert that took place that same year. "When we went out to Cordova Cellars, we had a huge crowd. The rain came, but it was still wonderful. We went inside, and there were all these people picnicking on the floor listening to the music."
Kitts even takes her passion to work at White Station High School, where she teaches CLUE-level English. "My personal goal is to introduce these kids to their musical heritage," she says. "Right now, I'm teaching Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo, and I brought in my autoharp and taught my students 'Greensleeves.' Now they're all writing ballads and coming to MAMA concerts. When 18 of those kids showed up at one of our shows, I knew we had struck gold."
Kitts admits that attracting a youthful audience is integral to MAMA's future. "Our typical audience tends to be 40 and older," she says. "I'm a child of the '60s, and most of this music is of my generation -- stuff like the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.
"Even when we get a younger performer, we draw an older crowd," she notes. "Take Cory Branan. He loves playing for us. Our audience wants lyrics with substance, so they really listen to his songs. Cory reminds us of our youth," she says with a chuckle.
"But our focus is roots music," Kitts continues, "and, eventually, roots sprout. Martin Cathy and Norma Waterson provide English folk-music roots, Alvin Youngblood Hart provides the blues roots, Spencer Boren provides the gospel roots. Look at it that way, and you'll realize that Cory Branan plays roots music. Dave Matthews plays roots music. It all springs from the same tree."
MAMA currently depends on community support: About 20 local companies and individuals underwrite the group's scheduled concerts, while a bevy of volunteers help make the events happen.
"We're learning it as we go," Kitts confesses. "It's a grassroots kind of thing. We say, 'We need this,' and somehow it just happens." She credits dozens of volunteers with keeping MAMA running smoothly and on budget, including Anna Hogan, who has hosted her share of house concerts, Web-site builders Kim Helyak and Bill Schosser, and soundman Andy Cohen and his wife Larkin Bryant.
"We also have a selection committee that decides who we want to have perform," Kitts explains. "Within the niche of acoustic music, we feature artists who are so revered that people come in from all the neighboring states just to hear them."
Smaller shows are held at Otherlands Coffee Bar and Strings & Things Music Store, while larger venues -- such as Cordova Cellars, the Brooks Museum, or the Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center at St. Mary's Episcopal School -- host more popular events.
Right now, MAMA has just two more concerts scheduled for 2004, including a performance by Memphis' own Sid Selvidge at Otherlands Saturday, September 11th, and an appearance by autoharpist Bryan Bowers, which will take place at Otherlands on Friday, October 15th.
"Sid's done about six concerts for us," Kitts says. "He's one of the local heroes who really supports us, along with guys like William Lee Ellis and Alvin Youngblood Hart." Considering Selvidge's involvement a real coup, she happily notes, "Last night, Sid told me that his favorite place to play is a MAMA concert.
"Sid plays the guitar as an accompaniment. His real instrument is his voice," Kitts muses. "The smoky bar scene isn't what he wants. He wants to sing. He chooses his songs very well," she says. In a satisfied tone, she adds, "He's got multigenerational appeal." •
Sid Selvidge plays at Otherlands Coffee Bar,641S. Cooper St., on Saturday, Sept. 11th, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 and are available at Davis-Kidd Booksellers and Otherlands.