Folk Alliance International in Kansas City — Or, Sorry About the TV in the Pool
Before there was Americana, before there was alt-country, there was folk music. Or, as Bill Broonzy once said, “I guess all songs are folk songs, I ain’t heard no horse sing ’em.”
This week we have a treat by Jill Kettles — longtime photographer, writer, and general music world bon vivant — who covered the recently concluded Folk Alliance International get-together in Kansas City, Missouri, Feb. 17-21. Here’s her inside look and feel of those four days in the Midwest winter. All I can add is, “Wow!”
Apology for the TV in the pool, I am not sure who did that
— Jill Kettles
For five days in the heartland of America, a thousand or so musicians and music industry folks invaded two hotels, the Westin and the Sheraton, to share their talents and network with each other. It was the 28th annual conference of the grassroots group that has grown over the years from its infancy in 1989, when CDs were so brand new, to now, when CDs are fading out of style. The mission of the group is to provide outlets, resources, and materials to musicians that have been labeled by the industry as “folk.” Folk can mean different things to different people — from traditional/native sounds from various regions of the world to the mixing and blending of other genres like rock, blues, and jazz, to creating new sounds.
When I was asked to do a photo blog for No Depression, I thought “OK, I can do that. Easy peasy.” Oh boy. Late nights, early mornings for meetings and coffee, burning my eye with contact solution, not saline (hence my red eye on Thursday), walking everywhere, shaking hands and kissing babies … It was survival of the fittest. Thank God I went to the gym the day before I left.
Events like this are hard to organize, delegate, and produce. The FAI board is filled with experts in every field to help make it all work smoothly. Panels this year covered everything from legal help to songwriting and publishing, to traveling with a band, radio airplay, and more. Kudos to these people!
My point person with the event was Joan Kornblith, a longtime FAI board member and former radio contact I had known for years, from her days at the Voice of America radio station in Washington, DC. She put me on a panel with four others about music publicity, which is my day/night job, to tell a standing room only crowd the do’s and don’t’s of our side of the industry. Then, for another two days, I was in mentoring sessions to have a dozen or so people pick my brain.
Then there was music — lots of it. Tons of it. Bunches of it. You couldn’t get away from it.
Voices came from all over the world — some sweet and pure, others gruff and gravelly, but the voices were all coming from one spot: their hearts. These were well-oiled machines, for they could drop and give you a waltz or a polka or a tribal drum beat or provide a good political holler. Some traveled for days, hours, miles, minutes, and some just crossed the street. If you needed some wallpaper for your bathroom, you could’ve found it on the tables in the hotel halls. They were loaded with flyers and cards of every size, color, and font imaginable, trying to catch your eye and pique your interest in hopes that you would come to one of the showcases they advertised.
After I checked into the conference, I sat down with my pal Patterson Barrett, a long-time attendee from Nashville, and he tried to tell me how to map out my week. Telling me who was good to see and to use a highlighter; I, on the other hand, cried over the fact there was no app for it. (I got corrected later — there was an app. I apparently didn’t read the newsletter entirely. That’s the “artist” in me.)
In the hosting hotel, the Westin, they roped off floors 5 – 7 for private showcases in rooms and suites either sponsored by an outside group or by musicians. Some rooms were set up like a coffee house or listening room, while others left the room with the beds and TVs as-is. Twinkle lights, candles, and incense burned in one. Down the hall, there was a full bar and PA system. Each of the rooms was a sneak peek into another world for a few minutes to an hour.
As I navigated through the crowded halls, I was reminded of college dorms — posters and pictures were scattered everywhere. It was a cluttered yet organized mess of times, rooms, and musical sounds. There were many countries present: Sweden, the UK, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Spain — and I heard that Japan was there, but I can’t confirm that.
Following are photos are of many different acts – not just the usual headliners, but also little pictures of what happened in the larger ballrooms, the hallways, and the stairways to hotel rooms. I tried to keep a running tab on folks that I was shooting, but at 2 a.m. on Friday night, all I could do was zone out and listen to Glen Phillips, so at that point, I gave up.
David Amram, from Frank Zappa’s band, was a favorite. So was a guitar battle with axeman gods Redd Volkeart, Bill Kirchen, and Albert Lee, in a once-in-a-lifetime showdown. Judy Collins was the keynote speaker. Steve Poltz emceed the awards show. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was awarded a lifetime achievement award for his long career, which he began by following around the folk hero of them all, Woody Guthrie.
Kim Richey played. Jenni Finley put on an excellent public FAI showcase with David Olney and James McMurtry at Knuckleheads, a famed venue in Kansas City. Henry Wagons and David Myles from OZ played a set or two. A group of East Nashville songwriters huddled in a room, and 2Ton Bridge played three showcases. Steve Dawson (Black Hen Music) sat in with many musicians. One of the most talked-about rooms was the Oklahoma Room, hosted by Horton Records, who created a listening room a la Bluebird Café to showcase that state’s unique sounds.
My old client, the Hot Club Of Cowtown, wowed folks with their swinging jazz and Whit Smith’s crazy guitar fingers. There was a neat pop-up studio set up where I caught David Olney recording a new song. Considering how long a song can take in a bigger setting, artists who recorded there just had to wing it.
A towering 6’6″ tall Calvin Arsenia, who carried around a full-sized harp, was a pleasant surprise with his BYOI (bring your own instrument) invite for his showcase. There was also a man with a bass mandolin as tall as me, a woman clog dancing, and bagpipes wailing … all of these people were scattered all over, creating an enchanted magical kingdom for five days.
We all knew each other, just couldn’t put our finger on where and how. That’s Folk Alliance for you.