Our Founders

Tim Duffy

Tim Duffy

Tim Duffy knew from an early age that he wanted to go out into the world and meet artists like Doc Watson and Etta Baker. When he entered Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, Tim was thrilled to join the Appalachian Music Crew, documenting local musicians. Tim has been seeking out musicians performing traditional music ever since. He records them, talks with them, photographs them, and learns their stories.



As a college student, Tim moved to Kenya, where he found friends in the traditionally tight knit Old Town section of Mombasa, and learned the harshness of poverty. “I became acutely aware of how tough it could be, and how not everyone could live their dream,” says Tim. When he returned to Kenya after several months Stateside, he brought with him future wife Denise Durocher. They would move from Kenya to North Carolina after nine months, where the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) began.


While Denise worked in Winston-Salem, Tim entered the Curriculum of Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was there that he met bluesman James “Guitar Slim” Stephens of Greensboro and spent the next year learning blues guitar and being introduced to musicians in the area. When Slim was dying of cancer, he asked Tim to find his friend Guitar Gabriel. Tim had no luck until one day, during a substitute teaching job, a student said Gabe was her neighbor.


“I got out of the car as Gabe was walking up to his porch. He took one look at me and said ‘Where you been so long? I know where you want to go. I’ve been there before and I can take you there. I’m an old man and my time is not long, when I die I want you to promise to bury me with my guitar.’” – Tim Duffy


After finding Gabe, Tim began to record him and many new musicians he was introduced to. A small grant from the NC Folk Arts Council helped him document artists such as Macavine Hayes, Mr. Q, Willa Mae Buckner, Guitar Gabriel and Captain Luke. Tim got gigs at clubs around North Carolina. He couldn’t afford long-distance phone calls, so he mailed hundreds of postcards to talent buyers around the world, landing festival gigs in Europe for these authentic musicians. They became his closest friends – they all had stories and every story was different. Besides their love of music, they shared the constant struggle to make ends meet.


Tim became deeply disturbed by the difficult choices these artists had to make each month: food or medicine, rent or gas, heat or the telephone. Tim dedicated himself to finding a way to help these artists, and the many others that he would meet in the coming years.

Denise Duffy

Denise Duffy

Denise Durocher Duffy is dedicated to preserving our nation’s most authentic music alongside husband Tim. Before MMRF, Denise followed her interest in historic costume, majoring in clothing and textiles at Hampshire College. After graduating and landing at a dress company, Denise felt called to a different path. Remembering Tim, a friend of a friend, she called him on March 27, 1986 and hasn’t complained of boredom since. At the time, Tim had interrupted his education to care for his terminally ill father in Connecticut. When his father passed away several months later, he asked Denise to join him in Africa for his last term of college.


Upon returning from Kenya to settle in North Carolina, Denise began work in the apparel industry in Winston–Salem. She joined Tim on his journey of discovery through the music community of Winston-Salem, and developed deep bonds with the artists as well.


Tim began to plan the Music Maker Relief Foundation to assist these artists, and Denise voiced her desire to move away from the corporate structure and work in small business. Soon, MMRF became Denise’s sole priority; she managed the nonprofit, while Tim found artists and got them work. With the help of some dedicated supporters, Music Maker was founded in 1994 – their first donation was a pallet of Ensure that sustained their flock of artists.


“I think what’s meant the most to me working with Music Maker are all the relationships we build between people from different walks of life. The love of the music brings us all together on a deep level of understanding that I don’t think happens in many aspects of modern life… and that’s why I love it.” – Denise Duffy


Denise travelled with Tim between rural North Carolina and New York City, pitching their mission both to supporters and the music industry. The Duffy’s travels extended to Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to visit more artists to bring into the MMRF family.


Early efforts taught them it was easier to help an artist earn $500 than to raise $500 to give away, and the earning usually involved an artist doing what they love best: performing. Better yet, this most often results in a crowd watching the show, keeping the art form vibrant and our culture enriched. Employing this new and unique model, the Duffys realized that Music Maker could be much more than a relief organization.


And so, Music Maker’s mission of upholding American traditional music by supporting the artists who perform it was created.


Since 1994 MMRF has assisted over 300 artists. Over one million people worldwide have had the opportunity to experience American traditional music live, and 150 CDs have been issued on the Music Maker label. The Southern Folklife Collection of Wilson Library at UNC houses Music Maker’s archive of recordings, photographs and artifacts in perpetuity. Music Maker now has its headquarters in Hillsborough, N.C, and includes a staff of six employees assisted by a small army of interns. Tim and Denise remain Executive Director and Managing Director, taking Music Maker forward into its 20th year.