Folk Alliance Conference – (Nashville, TN)
The 15th annual conference of the North American Folk Music And Dance Alliance pledged allegiance to that most exemplary of folk singers, Woody Guthrie. Because the Folk Alliance gathered this year in Nashville, the meeting had the added benefit of providing Music City a chance to express appreciation for Guthrie’s impact on commercial country music. The acknowledgement was certainly overdue, as was suggested by the site of the conference itself. From one window at the Nashville Convention Center, you could view both the roof of the famed mother church of country music, the Ryman Auditorium, where Guthrie never played, and the radio-tower spire of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where he is still not a member.
The evening before the Folk Alliance conference began, a Guthrie tribute concert, “Nashville Sings Woody,” was held at the Ryman to raise money for the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. For several years now, Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, has been encouraging musicians to visit the archives and dig through the innumerable scraps of lyrics and poetry with an eye toward making them into songs. The Mermaid Avenue collaborations between Billy Bragg and Wilco are only the most famous result of Nora’s efforts to sow the seeds of her father’s legacy.
The show featured many folks you’d expect to find at a concert dedicated to Guthrie: Guy Clark, James Talley, Marty Stuart (who received the evening’s biggest round of applause when he declared Guthrie should be inducted into the Country Hall of Fame), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Peter Rowan & Tim O’Brien, Nanci Griffith, and Arlo Guthrie, among several others. Most of these acts performed versions of Woody’s best-known songs. But the highlights came with the unknown numbers, in which Guthrie’s music-less words were given melodies. Janis Ian, for example, performed a song about remembering the voice of a departed mother, leaving more than a few audience members weeping.
During the concert’s second half, Nora introduced two groups of recent visitors to the archives: Blackfire, a politicized Native American grunge trio, and Wenzel, a German art-rock ensemble that included one tux-clad member who plunked out rhythms on swinging, half-filled bottles of water. Stranger still was the duo of Rob Wasserman and DJ Logic laying down a jarring, found-sound groove as accompaniment to the taped voice of Studs Terkel reading a righteous Guthrie journal entry. It was a performance intended to challenge preconceptions about Woody Guthrie, and about the very definition of folk music.
The Folk Alliance is mainly a professional organization. Most of those willing to pony up the conference’s substantial registration fee are musicians interested in networking and gleaning tips for advancing their careers — which is to say, they’re just trying to earn a living doing what they love. The panels and workshops are most likely to satisfy these folks.
Still, there’s time to address more philosophical concerns. One panel discussion, “Art vs. Commerce: Walking The Tightrope Of The Professional Songwriter,” featured oft-covered Nashville tunesmiths Gretchen Peters (“Independence Day”, “Chill Of An Early Fall”) and Marcus Hummon (“Cowboy Take Me Away”, “Born To Fly”, “The Cheap Seats”), along with two song publishers and a music journalist. Hummon told the two dozen attendees that “there is no shame” in success, as long as your individual idiosyncrasies haven’t been “polished off” by Music City’s “culture of the co-writer.” It is on the radio, he stressed, where your song and its message move beyond the purely personal and “become communal.”
A Sunday morning panel titled “Can You Get From The Dust Bowl To Music Row?” turned out to be the most disappointing Woody-related event of the weekend. This was mostly because singer-songwriter David Massengill replaced the scheduled moderator, Dave Marsh, who was snowed in back east.
Co-editor of Pastures Of Plenty: The Unpublished Writings Of An American Folk Hero and an adviser to the Guthrie Foundation, Marsh is something of a Woody expert. By contrast, Massengill announced at the outset that he was unfamiliar with the details of Guthrie’s life and that he hadn’t thought much about the topic. These proved fair assessments. A most immoderate moderator, Massengill strenuously avoided any serious discussion of possible connections between the folk tradition and country music. Indeed, he spent less time engaging his panelists (country historian Robert K. Oermann, singer Nanci Griffith, and Nashville Scene music editor Bill Friskics-Warren) than discussing his own life and songs.
Consequently, it was musicians who provided most of the morning’s highlights. Jimmy LaFave started the session rolling with “Oklahoma Hills”; Sara Lee Guthrie (Woody’s granddaughter) and husband Johnny Irion delivered a halting (her dad, Arlo, prompted her from his seat in the audience) but charming “Philadelphia Lawyer”; and Griffith offered an unexpectedly bluesy version of her “Troubled Fields”.
Near the end of the session, Massengill goaded Arlo to sing one of his father’s songs. He declined the offer but reseated himself in front of a microphone, where he displayed both Woody-style passion (“How’s about we build one less ship and put music programs back in the schools?”) and Arlo-style pith (“[My dad] made being average seem like a noble thing”). He also went out of his way to draw a dubious line between art and entertainment — a distinction that, on the one hand, seemed odd coming from a man whose great gift is not his writing or his singing but his stage presence; and that, on the other, works to ensure “real” art preaches only to the converted.
Leave it to the loquacious Nora Guthrie to ramble her way to a more expansive ideal. Joining Arlo down front, she argued for broad-based connections and for politics that, like her father’s, reach further than the end of your own arm. “Folk is under-the-radar country,” she said, “part of a chain that describes the conditions of struggling people.” The key question, always, she concluded, is: “What are we going to do about those conditions?”