Michael Troy's folk material is steeped in Fall River and local life
By James Reed, Standard-Times correspondent

Michael Troy was what he calls a "front-porch finger picker" long before he recorded his first album and won local songwriting contests. At 13, he taught himself to play guitar, later went to school for computer technology and considered music a pastime.

But he was full of stories -- ones about growing up in Fall River, about his friends who worked in the city's mills, about what really happened to Lizzie Borden.

In 1998, he became an earnest singer-songwriter, penned an album's worth of songs, performed at Boston's Club Passim and opened for folk luminary Bill Staines. Oh, and Bill Morrissey, one of New England's premier troubadours, is already a big fan. He told Mr. Troy that himself, after a fan had passed along a copy of Mr. Troy's album, "Whispers in the Wind."

If this sounds like it could be the introduction to the story of any promising musician, consider that in just five years, Mr. Troy has crafted a repertoire that is regional in its themes and yet universal in scope. Although he's far too sheepish to admit it, he makes music that exalts and preserves his hometown and its people, a Woody Guthrie for the SouthCoast, if you will.

"You write about what you know; it's truthful," he said last week at his home in Somerset. "I have great compassion for Fall River. I left at 19 for California for a year, and I soon learned that people from Fall River are the salt of the earth. They embrace each other."

Mr. Troy himself has certainly been embraced by his community.

His music is played on radio stations across the region, he performs regularly all over New England, and last year he won the 10th Annual Performing Songwriter Competition sponsored by the Rose Garden Coffeehouse in Mansfield. That victory has secured him a spot at this year's Summerfest in New Bedford, as well as prestige.

Saturday night he plays in Fall River at the Unitarian Church's Coffee House 309, at 309 N. Main St. The show begins at 8 p.m., and general admission is $8 and $5 for students, seniors and children under 12.

Mr. Troy is a man who is not readily comfortable talking about what he does. He'll amicably dodge the question of age, but he's the father of four teen-age daughters. He is certainly pleasant and hospitable, offering you coffee as soon as you enter his house, but you get the feeling he'd rather perform his music instead of analyze it.

When he's standing in his kitchen trying to explain a song about the tragic story of a friend who killed himself, he searches silently for the words and then stumbles over them.

"I think I can do this better if I just sing it," he says. The notion of truth comes up often when you talk to him. He is inspired by "affairs of the heart" and believes in making elemental music; the folk idiom is a natural outlet for his talent.

"Folk music is the root of what's going on. I like to uncover some secret emotion that we'd rather keep down," he said. "Hidden things are hurtful things, but I think when you put light on them, there's healing in it."

So far he's made little money doing this, but he's fine with that. He's astay-at-home dad to his daughters and claims his wife of 22 years, Mary Lou, as his biggest fan, even though she occasionally has a bone to pick with his material.

"She said to me, 'How come you write all these songs about your buddies and not one for me?' So I'm working on a song for her."

As a songwriter, Mr. Troy is a well-versed chronicler of Fall River's history. For the song "Lizzie," he researched historical documents to assert that Ms. Borden did, in fact, commit the murders. He sings in the chorus, "Revenge would feed a hungry heart that fatal day." He even used a photo of the Lizzie Borden house for the cover of his album.

Because his music tends to focus on themes such as fishing and mills, one would wonder how it is received outside coastal communities.

"I was in Texas last year, and it does well," he said. "I was in song circles at Kerrville (a renowned folk festival), and people like it."

It's easy to see why. On songs such as "Fishboat," he relies on his own experiences, cleverly shifting from third-person voice to first to relay the story of fishermen. "Stevie's Song" is a touching account of boyhood friendship and what later happened to it. On "Charley Pike," you get an idea of Mr. Troy's attitude toward fame. He sings, "I don't get to go too far/I don't get to be a star/All I want to do is play."

His voice sounds like a lived-in house: comfortable and easy. Its weathered tones complement his seamless guitar picking, which is reminiscient of the fluid strumming that marked early 1960s folk. It could easily be Phil Ochs or Joan Baez accompanying him.

Mr. Troy is back in the studio these days, hoping to record a sophomore album that is as honest and scaled-down as his debut.

"We're trying to make sure it's stripped down and true to what I want to say. That's what music is about."