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North of $15 Million

Hard Traveler Kenn Roberts on making — and giving away — millions

Bay Weekly: The Hard Travelers are in their second life. How is this one different?
Kenn Roberts: Buddy Renfro and I had been listening to the Kingston Trio when we started the Hard Travelers in 1958 in the basement of the Phi Delt house at the University of Maryland. We were young guys grasping for notoriety and a career in music.
    Now nobody’s looking to get discovered. It’s all about playing this original music for people and using that to raise money for charity.

Bay Weekly: What happened in between?
Kenn Roberts: We stopped to pursue careers. Buddy, who died in 1998, was a budding film producer with aspirations. I was going to be president of Ford Motors. We made a good choice. With drugs and all the crap that goes on in Hollywood and Nashville, one or the other of us would have been destroyed.

Bay Weekly: You didn’t get to be president of Ford.
Kenn Roberts: My career was in real estate, developing land for major builders in Montgomery and Howard Counties. In 1988, my partner and I sold the company, put the money in the bank and walked away. I was 48 years old, and I had enough money to play golf and ski for the rest of my life.
    If you’re Type A, that’s me, I knew something was going to find me. I’d had no interest in charity; in fact, disdain. But God had another plan for me, and on my own I figured out it was time to give back. Why not concerts, since music is the love of my life? That meant another whole career.

Meanwhile the Hard Travelers had gotten back together.
Kenn Roberts: On three-day weekends each month, we were filling up the old Maryland Inn, which was a jazz house, Charlie Byrd’s home. That’s where we started having guest entertainers.

Bay Weekly: How did the Hard Travelers get hooked up with charity?
Kenn Roberts: I felt a burning desire to spend the rest of my life working for charity.
    When the Hard Travelers were asked to show up at a concert at the old Millersville Inn on Veterans Highway, I became involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. In a matter of months, I formalized the MUSE Foundation, named for the goddesses that inspire the arts and as an acronym for Music Unites the Souls of Everyone.
    MUSE books and pays my band and the entertainers and puts in staging, sound, lighting, the whole production part.
    I will swear on the Bible every cent raised goes to charity.

Bay Weekly: How’d you do in this new career?
Kenn Roberts: Our first concert for cystic fibrosis in Downs Park had 200 people and raised $12,000. Those humble beginnings turned into a multimillion-dollar concert series.
    The third year, we decided to go bigger. We did concerts at Pier 6 in Baltimore with Kathy Matea and the Oakridge Boys. Then at the Merriweather Post Pavilion with Emmylou Harris and the Starland Vocal Band, which Bill Danoff brought back together for our concert. When they did “Afternoon Delight,” the place erupted.
    By then we were netting $300,000 for charity and moved to the Baltimore Arena, where we were getting crowds of 8,000 and 9,000 people for concerts with Alabama and Randy Travis.

Bay Weekly: Do you have a favorite?
Kenn Roberts: The best concert we ever did was John Denver, whose airplane went down in Monterey Bay two weeks later. That one made half a million dollars. John and I shared center mike closing the show with our band sitting in on “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

Bay Weekly: Who made the most money?
Kenn Roberts: With Alan Jackson, we made a million three. We had 12,000 people at the Baltimore Arena.

Bay Weekly: You seem to like the company of stars. Big names headline each of your charity concerts.
Kenn Roberts: We went with big names — and we’ve had some of the biggest — to generate money. It was strictly financial.

Bay Weekly: How have you chosen your charities?
Kenn Roberts: I look at what they’re doing out in the field. Maryland Therapeutic Riding is good in the field, working with special needs people and now veterans and soldiers. Number two, I look at how they handle their money. I’ve always been conservative business-wise; I look for no more than 10 percent in expenses.

Bay Weekly: You have experience a lot of us envy. How does it feel getting rich?
Kenn Roberts: So different than what I thought when I started in 1961. I made up my mind I was going to be rich and went for years writing those numbers down, and they progressed and progressed. The whole time I was so involved in making money that I never thought what it felt like or what I was going to do, because as you start to acquire wealth, you can have a pretty good time.

Bay Weekly: So money let you do anything you wanted?
Kenn Roberts: Which doesn’t always make you happy. Look at the Kardashians. In my case, I’ve gotten to do something I loved, but not without a cost; it wasn’t any less work.

Bay Weekly: You’ve raised $15 million for charity in 26 years. Will you just keep bringing it in?
Kenn Roberts: My clock has been telling me it’s time to slow down. I had as much stress and anguish putting on concerts as developing real estate. It was 365 days a year. I turned 74 last week. Now my brother and I run the foundation out of my home on the Severn River.
    Believe me, it’s harder staging million-dollar concerts than $200,000 ones. Alan Jackson brought three buses and six tractor-trailers. The Oak Ridge Boys come in one bus with a drum and piano.

Bay Weekly: You made millions for yourself the first time around. What have you gotten out of this ­second career?
Kenn Roberts: What I wanted to do has at least gotten me a ticket through the Golden Gate. I don’t think I even have to ask St. Peter to open the door. I think he’s going to let Kenn Roberts in.

Kenn Roberts, vocalist; John Glik, fiddle; Ira Gitlin, bass, banko; Mack Bailey, guitar, lead vocalist Mike Munford, banjo.

Bay Weekly: If we buy tickets to hear the Hard Travelers open for the Oak Ridge Boys, what will we be in for?
Kenn Roberts: You’ll be coming to a real farm, parking in the field. The concert is in this really nice indoor riding arena that holds 1,000 people. You put on boots and a cowboy hat, sit on chairs on the riding sand and listen to good old-fashioned uplifting country and bluegrass music. You’ll be standing and singing along. It’s a good old time.


    Get your ticket to hear the Hard Travelers open for the Oak Ridge Boys Friday, September 7 at Maryland Therapeutic Riding’s 12th Annual MTR Benefit Concert Live on the Farm,1141 Sunrise Beach Rd., Crownsville. Doors open at 5:30pm. General admission $45; premier seating and artists’ reception $150: 410-923-6800; www.horsesthatheal.org.
    See a preview at www.myspace.com/thehardtravelers.