Even though I've been hearing a lot about Folk Alliance over the years, this was the first year I attended. I went partly because I'd never been to Memphis - I wanted to see the city and some of its attractions - but also because I thought it was time to see Folk Alliance for myself.

Folk Alliance is unlike some of the other music conferences I've been to in that all the panels and showcases take place in a hotel rather than being in nearby nightclubs and music venues.  I generally prefer to see music in actual venues rather than hotel conference rooms and was put off by that a bit at first but in the end I appreciated that the sound was surprisingly great in every room and the close proximity of rooms made it possible to catch a few songs of several different acts in the same time slot which made for a productive and fun filled experience. 

I have a habit of trying to fit in too much at music festivals, and all areas of my life for that matter, and then being more disappointed by what I didn't see rather than enjoying what I chose instead.  Everywhere I go I wonder if I'm missing something better elsewhere. At Folk Alliance that annoying thought still cropped up on occasion but since most acts played multiple sets it was much easier than it usually is at such events to get a sampling of as many artists as possible.

In addition to the official Folk Alliance programmed showcases in the larger conference rooms, the rooms on the top three floors of the hotel were full of renegade showcases that various organizations and fans hosted throughout the day and into the wee hours of the morning. People spilled out into the hallways and music flowed from many rooms. It reminded me a bit of being at a college dorm party only better because the resident adviser or dorm monitor was nowhere to be found.  It was one big free for all with people of all ages cavorting, socializing and enjoying music together.  The hotel even set up a bar outside the elevator on the top floor so if you wanted a drink and there wasn't one to be had in your room of choice you could get one there.

Some rooms had small sound systems but mostly there was no amplification and so you got a rare up close, intimate, personal interaction and performance from the artist. Imagine Sam Baker, Mark Olson, Steve Poltz and Web Wilder sitting in your bedroom playing in the round, it happened at Folk Alliance. One night I caught the Chapin Sisters in a small triangle shaped room lit only by black light and felt like I was in the cockpit of the mother ship. Their album didn't grab me when it came out awhile back but that night the music they made was beautiful and mesmerizing and I'm now compelled to give it another listen.

Most artists played as many as five or six times throughout the conference so it was possible to sample lots of music and see old and new favorites more than once. Lewis Meyers, the executive director of Folk Alliance, was one of the four people who started SXSW and several people mentioned that this years Folk Alliance felt like the early days of SXSW. The Folk Alliance contract with the Marriott in Memphis runs through 2012, so it will be in Memphis one more year, then move to Toronto for  2013 and the location for the next five year period is yet to be determined. There is no room for growth in Memphis so they are looking for other options. The board heard presentations from the three cities hoping to secure the next contract: Louisville, Kansas City, Mo., and Memphis.

The breakout band was the Dunwell Brothers from Leeds. People were buzzing about them and the music business folks in attendance were all clamoring for a chance to work with them.  I heard  the same thing happened with the Carolina Chocolate Drops at Folk Alliance a couple years back when they were largely unknown and look where they are now. I saw several sets by the Dunwell Brothers and if I had to pick an overall favorite they'd be it.  Watching them and feeling the reaction of the audience reminded me of seeing Neko Case, Whiskeytown, Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart and a few other bands prior to  being discovered by a wider audience.

Check out the video below and if you like that, here's a another one.


My five runners up for best of festival are:

Pokey Lafarge-  I first became aware of Pokey due to several blogs and videos posted here on the ND site. He and his band play a sort of old timey, rag time music. Read Terry Roland's review here to learn more about the band.


 Lake Street Dive - This talented collective of artists from Boston and Brooklyn are each in other bands (The Sweet and Low Down, Joy Kills Sorrow, Girls, Guns and Glory, and possibly others I'm not aware of).  Lead singer Rachael Price has star power.


 Ruby Jane - a 16 year old violin prodigy who played with her trusty sidekick Max Frost.  I haven't verified this but someone said that she is the youngest fiddler to have played on the Grand Ole Oprey. She's got a great voice and a bright future.

 John Fullbright- a songwriter in the vein of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Mary Gauthier. He's only in his early 20's, yet one respected industry veteran friend commented that he was the best songwriter he'd heard in years.

Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch- many of you are probably already familiar with Abigail and generally I like to promote lesser known artists but her set was so stunning it had to be included. 

There were lots of great artists who I didn't get a chance to see but some of my other favorites were Deep Dark Woods, Sam Baker, Natalia Zukerman, Ron Sexsmith, Amy LaVere, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hot Club of Cowtown, Wilderness of Manitoba, The Steel Wheels, Chatham County Line, The Honey Dewdrops, Mary GauthierJoel Plaskett and Paul Thorn.

Several ND community members had offered up suggestions of things to do while I was in Memphis in the comments of Cody Breuler's great blog Memphis: Center of the American Pop Universe and I tried to do as many as possible. I made it to the Civil Rights Museum, Stax Museum, Graceland, Gus's Fried Chicken, Earnestine and Hazel's, Beale Street and The Peabody Hotel to see the ducks.

I highly recommend a trip to Folk Alliance and Memphis. Put it on your list for next year!

Views: 305

Tags: 2011, Abigail Washburn, Alliance, Dunwell Brothers, Folk, John Fullbright, Pokey Lafarge, Ruby Jane, lake street dive

Comment by Mary Sack on February 22, 2011 at 6:01am
Amen, Kyla! Good to see you in Memphis this past week. Louis Meyers does an amazing job of cat-wrangling such a full & varied music event, eh! Next time, make time for the Sacred Steel revue. It's off-the-hook.
Comment by Dustin Ogdin on February 22, 2011 at 6:34am
Sounds like a great time, Kyla.  Wish I could have been there.  I have no excuse, really, being only a few hours away.  Next year I need to make this happen, especially after hearing your thoughts.
Comment by E.J. Friedman on February 22, 2011 at 9:34am
I'm glad you got to experience the conference this year, the sea of talent always feels much more like an ocean.  So many wonderful performers gathered together in one place, so many incredible songwriters and musicians both showcasing and getting to perform with or see their friends whom they miss due to constant touring.  Wandering the floors of the hotel, you walk into a room and there's Joel Plaskett with Ana Egge and Rose Cousins, you walk into another and see Steel Wheels.  I, too, found myself at a magnificent late night/early morning songwriter circle with Anthony Da Costa, Ron Sexsmith, Danny Schmidt, AJ Roach, Cory Branan, Carrie Elkin, John Elliott, Raina Rose, Nels Andrews, J Wagner and several others.  You really picked a banner year to come for a visit, Kyla.
Comment by Kyla Fairchild on February 22, 2011 at 9:47am

What were your top 5 picks E.J.?  I know I missed so much great music!  Hearth Music was down there and I'm only familiar with one of the artists on his list of favorites.  I'd love to hear your list. 

(same goes for anyone else who was there!)

Comment by Tom David on February 22, 2011 at 11:42am
Kyla - Thanks so much for this post and the introduction to artists like the Dunwell Brothers Band. Almost as good as being there! I've never been to Memphis either, and you have have inspired me to make the trip next year.....
Comment by Bill Frater on February 22, 2011 at 1:46pm
Great story Kyla! It was my first time to FA too and I loved that it was all in the same hotel! I would add New Country Rehab and Jonathan Byrd to my new favs list. I'm working on posting my own story with pictures soon...
Comment by E.J. Friedman on February 22, 2011 at 1:52pm

It's actually difficult to pick only 5, and I saw mostly songwriters this year.  There were so many terrific acts I saw, I'm scared I'll leave something out.  However, in no particular order, the 5 things that got me most revved up were:


Elliott / Rose / Da Costa 

New Country Rehab

John Fullbright

Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three

Nuala Kennedy Trio


Other things I saw that were great:  Ron Sexsmith (whose new songs are tremendous), Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, Purgatory Hill (Pat Macdonald), Amy Speace, Joel Plaskett flanked by Rose Cousins & Ana Egge (who also both had fantastic showcases), Zoe Muth, Treasa Levasseur, Steve Poltz, Tommy Womack, Garrison Starr, Valerie June, and The Dunwell Brothers.  I'll try to do a full roundup when my brain decompresses.

Comment by Jim Morrison on February 23, 2011 at 10:58am

 Thanks for the posts. I'm always looking for new artists and you've given me several to check out including the Dunwell Brothers, Pokey LaFarge and Deep Dark Woods.


If anyone wants to make a road trip, the superb John Fullbright will be in Norfolk on March 26 at North Shore Point (www.northshorepoint.com) for a return solo gig after his in-the-round with Sam Baker, Kevin Welch and Natalia Zukerman last summer.

Comment by Brad Hardisty on February 23, 2011 at 7:46pm
I'm glad you made it to Gus's. You know I had a tough time on two levels. I had so many emails of showcases and people offering to set up interviews and I came down with something that knocked me out Thursday on. I know Memphis real well, in fact, I love it as much as Nashville. I decided to focus on select things for the energy I did have. One thing was the kind of folk renaissance going on in New York much like back in the days of Dylan, only this time it's going on in Brooklyn. It's where Hubby Jenkins newest member of the Chocolate Drops came from and also a Gerron Paxton who took part in many jams. There is so much going on up there, The Punch Brothers, Justin Towns Early is up there now. I really want to visit. It really interesting how important that first Black Banjo Summit was, it was like that ripple effect.
I really appreciated the Music Makers Blues Showcase. It covered so much ground from the earliest via solo sets by the Chocolate Drops as well as current Country Blues and mainstream.
Andy Cohen's Read showcase was a trip. Getting artists that play early roots music to play the oldest piece they knew, be it a shanty or byzantine.
Darrell Scott, sublime. I got to meet the individual who books the Levitt Pavillions and got her into see Darrell. It was great to see how much she enjoyed it.
Amy LaVere was way different than her previous stuff. Kind if North Jones meets Americana. All new stuff. It was overwhelming and I just focused on certain leads and got some great interviews I'll be posting on my site soon.
Next time you're in Memphis, you need to get over to Sun Studios and have Lisa make you a shake. Google Furry Lewis, that's the spirit of Memphis.
I like your comparison to SXSW, it really had that indie spirit about it, almost like the Americana Festival with half of it being DIY instead. I thought it was great.
Comment by Richard Dee Long on February 24, 2011 at 5:43am
Re your comment about Ruby Jane Smith, she was indeed the youngest fiddle player ever to appear on the Grand Ole Opry, she was 9 when this picture was taken in 2004. She is one of the best fiddle players I've ever heard, in fact, I would say she is THE best. She's an extraordinary onstage performer, has a very pretty voice, also plays mandolin and guitar, and writes beautiful songs. She has also performed onstage with Willie Nelson, Asleep At The Wheel, Marty Stuart, Lyle Lovett, she's just an incredible talent, if you ever get a chance to see her don't miss it. She's also a VERY nice courteous young lady, very friendly and personable.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.