The audience only outnumbered the performers by slightly more than two to one, but Andrew Calhoun wasn’t whining. As president of Waterbug Records, he’s been staging weekly concerts to showcase the artists on his Evanston-based folk label. “A lot of people think folk music is John Denver,” he says. “I’m flattered if anyone shows up.”

Calhoun, 39, has been writing and perform-ing songs for all of his adult life, but by 1990 he’d grown disgusted with the music business. He was just about to call it quits when his spark was rekindled around a Texas campfire.

At the time Calhoun was depressed: his marriage had broken up, and he’d stopped touring. He’d made several albums but hadn’t sold many. Popular music sounded about as good to him as a nail in the ear. Where had all the songwriters gone–gone to computer programming, every one? Was it the business or was he the problem? Calhoun thought he might find an answer at the Kerrville Folk Festival. “I’d always heard about the ‘Kerrville magic,'” he recalls, “listening to these horrible, corny songs. So I went down there to hear if anything was happening.”

When Kat Eggleston took the stage in Kerrville, Calhoun was captivated. “She sang ‘Paper Boats’ and I was really knocked out,” he says, “so I talked to her, told her how much I liked the song.” They palled around for the rest of the day, joining one of the campfire sing-alongs that started up at midnight. Calhoun figured it was time to go. “I’d been planning to leave the festival around midnight, and I realized I was falling in love with her, and I should get out. So we were saying goodbye to each other, and we hugged each other, and we just didn’t stop for about 15 minutes.” He left the next afternoon.

Calhoun returned to Kerrville the following year, and the year after that. While he didn’t fall in love again, he loved much of what he heard. But he was one of the privi-leged few. “I heard these people I thought were brilliant, and none of them had any interest from labels or two nickels to rub together. So I started taking it less personally that things hadn’t gone so well for me and started to look at what could be done as a group.”

He started Waterbug in 1992, borrowing money from his father to put out his own CD and a compilation called American Impressionist Songwriters. Money was tight and things haven’t improved much. Over the past few years, Calhoun says, he’s come across plenty of good songwriting, but there’s such a glut of product little of it gets heard. “Some station directors are getting 50 CDs a week. It’s hard to get listened to.”

Yet Waterbug has managed to stay afloat by being unusual. It’s an artists’ collective, with most of its CDs owned and bankrolled by the performers themselves. “I don’t know of anything like this in the folk business,” Calhoun says, and for good reason. Running Waterbug diverts a lot of time from his own career. “I could work 50 hours a day and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

But he believes that if enough people hear what he’s been hearing–new and complex songs that touch the heart and mind–eventually 50 hours a day will be enough. So far Calhoun’s labors are paying off: Waterbug’s mail-order business tripled this past Christmas. “The problem for this music is exposure, entirely,” he says. “Either you’re completely obscure or you’re famous; there’s no middle ground. I’m trying to build up the middle ground.

“Every fan discovers artists,” he says, “and I’m just a fan discovering artists.” Eggleston, who’s now married to Calhoun, is one of the label’s biggest sellers, and the other 25 artists on Waterbug have shown a tremendous loyalty to their number-one fan. They play for free at Calhoun’s request and stick with Waterbug even when they might do better elsewhere. “The artists trust me. I pay them every month; unusual, but I know how poor they all are. They like getting checks. If it’s over ten bucks, it’s even better.”

Artists on Waterbug Records perform every Sunday between 3 and 6 PM at Martyr’s, 3855 N. Lincoln; admission is $5. The Waterbug Anthology, a sampler of 20 songs, also costs $5 and is available at the label’s weekly showcase. For more information, call 773-404-9494. –Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Andrew Calhoun photo by J.B. Spector.