They are an odd lot, collectively speaking. Hardin owns a music shop. Rich is a local air traffic controller, Teresa a bank executive. Maggie and Julie actually sing for their supper.

Yet all are players in a dedicated community of souls linked by a common passion for one particular form of music - a form critics have labeled "contemporary folk." They are invariably songwriters, poets and dreamers.Labels aside, their music shares a common flavor in that it is inextricably linked to acoustic string instruments (guitars, fiddles, mandolins and even ukuleles) and a 1960ish social awareness. And mostly they play their music for the sheer love of it.

"Playing music, it's what makes me happy deep inside," says Teresa Fuller, an officer with First Security Bank who picks up spare change on weekends playing Salt Lake clubs and coffee houses. "I'd still be playing somewhere, even if I didn't get paid."

To Fuller and others, contemporary folk music is more than a song. It's something that touches the human soul.

Contemporary folk might seem a contradiction of terms. "Folk" refers to something rooted in generations of tradition. "Contemporary" implies something new.

And Utah's disciples of acoustic music can't agree on the terminology either. Hardin Davis, an accomplished guitarist and owner of Acoustic Music, refers to folk music as "non-commercially inspired music that is played or sung in non-commercial settings," he says, adding that the "folk" label has been applied much too indiscriminately.

"It's the songs people sing sitting around a campfire or on the front porch. And it doesn't become a folk song until it gets out there."

Fuller disagrees. "The old stereotypes don't exist anymore," she says. "Folk singers do not sing `If I Had a Hammer' and `Michael Row Your Boat Ashore'; that's not what folk music's about any more."

What today's folk singers sing - and write - are story songs about real-life people in real-life situations. There are anti-war songs, socially aware songs and even songs extolling the virtues of family.

"Campfire singing's OK, but I sing the songs I sing because they mean something to me. They portray a picture that needs to be told."

The same with Jay Toups, one of Salt Lake's best-known acoustic guitarists and songwriters. His songs employ a wicked sense of humor to convey personal messages that address issues as diverse as buying a retirement condo in St. George and the corrupt morals of Wall Street.Toups and Fuller and many, many others fit the mold of "contemporary folk" musicians around the nation who have drawn their inspiration from songwriters like John Gorka, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Joni Mitchell and Bill Staines.

"It is the music of a new generation," Fuller says.

The new generation is actually not that new. Most of these Utah singer-songwriters are well into their 30s, many older. Most are all well-educated with regular 9-to-5 white-collar jobs. Many are spending small fortunes on state-of-the-art instruments and recording equipment.

But it's contemporary folk that turns them into musicians. "If I play a song and it brings a tear to my eye, that's a real powerful message," Fuller says. "That's why I play. It's not the money. It's a real soulful thing, playing out a storybook in my mind."

What those in Utah's acoustic music community agree on is they play the music not necessarily for the money but for the pure love of it.

"There's not enough money to make a career of it in Utah," says Rich Myrup, a Salt Lake air traffic controller who plays a couple weekends a month. "If I could, I would. I've known in my heart since I was 8 years old that music was what I wanted to do."

Myrup, who plays locally with David Brimhall, was a professional musician for six years, surviving on $200 a week and a life on the road. Fuller used to be a professional musician in Sun Valley. Davis also played professionally. Toups still does, for the most part.

Making a full-time go of it in Utah is a hard life, as Maggie Beers and Julie Mark can attest. They are trying to make a living as acoustic musicians playing weddings, clubs and special dates anywhere they can.

They have even pumped considerable sums of money into recording an album of original tunes.

"There's not heaps of money, but we make a graceful living," Mark laughs. "You have to do it for the love of it. We do it because we love it, but also because we are committed to it."

"Almost every night we wonder whether we should go get real jobs," Beers adds. "But the best part of it all is we get to write and perform and promote our own music. And music is where our hearts are at."

For many, the heart is the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association, a clearinghouse of sorts for Utahns who share the same passion for acoustic music. They have sponsored dozens of concerts featuring some of America's finest songwriters, and they publish an acoustic music magazine for the 400 subscribing members.

"Actually we give out 1,200 to 1,300 magazines a month," Davis says. "We find it is a way for people with the same interests to communicate with one another."

Davis was the driving force behind IAMA seven years ago when acoustic musicians were remarkably few in number and those that existed didn't know each other. There were few, if any, outlets for acoustic music in Utah.

Today the organization is entirely non-profit and staffed by volunteers, some of whom donate up to 20 hours a week for the cause. Davis donates his own house for monthly "house concerts" featuring local musicians and potluck food offerings in an informal setting. "You know it's informal when the dog runs through the legs of the performer," says Davis' wife, Sandy Olsen.

The IAMA has also pushed weekly acoustic music concerts at the Unitarian Coffee House where anyone can crawl onto the stage and perform 20-minute sets.

"More than anything, what the IAMA has done is create an outlet for local people to play their music," Davis says.

And in a few short years, Utah's version of contemporary folk music has risen from next to non-existent to a vital subculture.

For more information about Utah's acoustic music scene, contact the IAMA at 531-7066.