Singer-songwriter Shybo Torres' baritone voice and acoustic guitar stylings drift through the crowded bar and out to the back patio at South Stage Cellars in Jacksonville. The crowd has spilled outside, and people are still arriving.
Torres is the first of four music acts on the bill at South Stage and the Britt Festivals' second annual Rising Stars competition. The format will continue for six weeks with a different artist each hour from 4 to 8 p.m. each Saturday through April 20. Admission is free.
At stake is a slot on the Britt Festivals prestigious main stage this summer opening for a big name touring act. Other prizes are $1,000, a recording session at Blackstone Audio, and a radio show with Jefferson Public Radio.
The two-dozen acts in the competition cover musical turf from rock and blues to folk, jazz and country.
The event was the brainchild of the South Stage's Porscha Schiller, a New York City transplant who was surprised by the quality of the music scene when she came to the valley.
"I was blown away," she says out in front as inside, Torres, on the sound system all the performers will plug into, is introducing a song about his cat.
Jacksonville-based Britt, the Northwest's oldest outdoor music festival, signed on to the idea last year and this year has expanded its support.
"I think it's even better this year," Britt Executive Director Donna Briggs says of the event. "We'll try to match the musical genre of the winner with the main act this summer."
"I think everybody's having a good time," the 59-year-old Torres, a network administrator at ACCESS in his day job, says after his set.
He's been playing music almost 50 years. He moved to the Valley in 1975 and raised his kids here.
"It's nice to do benefits," he says. "Kind of a throwback to the minstrel days."
Schiller says it was when she found that a lot of good local musicians weren't that well-known that an idea for a competition began to take shape.
"I wondered if we couldn't showcase them," she says.
Making the event a fund raiser added another dimension. Audience members vote for their favorites, $2 a vote for a maximum of 15 votes, and the money (over $7,000 last year)
goes to a good cause. This year's event benefits La Clinica, the medical services provider.
Franklin Jonez, a guitar, banjo and mandolin player in the band Ponderosa Breeze, stops to say hello to Torres.
"I feel music is the only place I feel I can express myself," he says.
Jonez' band mate Larry West drifts out, stops to talk about the band.
"It's a retro sound," he says, "but it's all new stuff."
Torres returns from stashing his guitar in his car with news for Jonez and West.
"You might have to go on early," he says. "The next guy hasn't shown up."
That would be Jack Thomas Barthell, who performs under the name Game 6. But Barthell, a bearded 22-year-old, shows up a few minutes before he's due to go on.
When Briggs introduces him she asks him about what sounds like the name of a band and is also a name he shares with a 2005 Michael Keaton film that's set on the day of game six of the 1986 World Series.
"There's only one of you," Briggs says to scattered chuckles.
Barthell takes the mike and offers an explanation that involves a joke, a friend and the state of Minnesota, lets it go at that, then throws his head back and attacks the song with the energy of a circa 1961 Bob Dylan.
Kristin Lyon, a friend of Barthell's, says the singer moved from Minnesota last summer and does farm work and works as a prep chef to pay the bills.
"People love him at the Saturday Market," she says as Barthell finishes an uptempo acoustic tune called "Goats Are in the Garden."
"I think he has soul," she says. "I think he's gonna grow."
Ponderosa Breeze would follow with rootsy country rock, and the popular Frankie Hernadez would follow with a soul/funk/Latin/reggae set.
The next edition of Rising Stars is Saturday, March 16, at 125 S. 3rd St., Jacksonville, with City Squirrel, Dave Barnes and Jeff Judkins, Kieran Devine and Ryan Vosika.
Finalists from the six Saturdays will perform from 6 to 9 p.m. April 26 and 27 indoors on the Britt Stage, with the winner announced at the end of the last show.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.