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Al'right, folks 

Why do Southerners go loop-de-loop for the nutty, the eccentric and the otherwise touched? Is there something programmed into the regional DNA to make us revere people like Elvis and Howard Finster or the freak-show characters of Flannery O'Connor, Harry Crews and Carl Hiaasen when the rest of the country shakes its head in wonderment?

There is no better illustration of the local deification of difference than the mania with which the region has embraced folk art. Nothing touches the Southern heart like an outsider and an underdog, especially when they are channeling their alienation into art making, as is the case with myriad sharecroppers, prisoners, homeless, mentally ill, former slaves and just plain iconoclastic folk featured in the 11th annual Folk Fest.

Produced each year by the 39-year-old Buford husband-and-wife team of Steve and Amy Slotin, Folk Fest pulled in more than 10,000 attendees last year at the North Atlanta Trade Center. It bills itself as the world's largest folk art show and sale and is therefore the most massive gathering of folkies since Woodstock.

And there's good cause for the cultish allure of the form. Folk art expresses the powerful urge of artists to create despite impressive obstacles like poverty, old age and a lack of education. Self-taught artists have employed materials as oddball as matchsticks, toothpicks, chewing gum, canvas window shades and the perennially popular cardboard in their relentless drive to create. One of Folk Fest's exhibitors, Running Film of Kuttawa, Ky., specializes in prison-made art that includes working musical instruments crafted from matchsticks and stained with coffee grounds, and a Hawaiian artist who creates vessels out of molten lava.

Dealers such as Baton Rouge's Gilley's Gallery will represent the high end of the Folk Fest spectrum, with its expansive selection of work by the "Black Grandma Moses," Clementine Hunter, retailing in the $10,000-$50,000 range. Smaller local galleries like Matilda's Gallery in Alpharetta and Le Primitif Galleries in Atlanta will feature a range of more affordable works.

Folk Fest runs Fri.-Sun., Aug. 20-22, at the North Atlanta Trade Center, I-85 and Indian Trail Road, Exit 101. Fri., 5-10 p.m. $15 (includes Meet-the-Artists Party and Show Opening); Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. $7; Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $7. 770-932-1000.

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