Folk Alliance, Part II: The Music, or the Community
Spend any time at all attending a Folk Alliance gathering, and it becomes real clear, real quick that this is not your run-of-the-mill music festival, conference, or gathering. Where so many trade conferences are full of schmoozy events and see-and-be-seen opportunities, the Folk Alliance is really far more geared to what actually happens when two or more people get together and start making music. They could be doing this in a hallway or a hotel room, or on an official showcase stage. But the authentic interactions and connections are what this whole thing is about. This is apparent in everything from the way panel discussions happen (I was on a panel today, talking about “Journalism Today”) to the way happy hour plays out, to the fact that one of the greatest draws at this event is the opportunity to pop in and out of strangers’ hotel rooms, where musical magic is, guaranteed, always happening.
Yes, unlike yesterday, where the whole day was about connecting with folks, today was all about connecting with the music. And there was plenty of it, no matter where I went.
Jordie Lane, Jennah Barry, and James Hill delivered what was, easily, the best songwriters-in-the-round performance that I saw all day. (A round is to Folk Alliance what BBQ is to Kansas City.) Employing everything from a ukulele to the standard acoustic guitar, to a solid body guitar case as instruments, these three impeccably talented songwriters delivered far too few songs for my liking. Then again, with so much happening at any given moment, it would be a shame to spend two solid hours listening to three songwriters swap tunes, even if that was a passing wish.
Making my way through the hotel rooms, I came upon Tall Heights, Pirate Canoe, Oh Pep!, Mark Erelli, the Stray Birds, BettySoo, Tish Hinojosa, Laura Cortese’s (incredible) band, and that was barely more than an hour. One could experience severe sensory overload, wandering out of one door and into another, like diving down into the ocean then almost immediately leaping into the sky. Disorienting, sure, but challenging, refreshing.
Official Showcases go down at a slightly more manageable clip, and I managed to catch Asheville’s own Americana troupe the Honeycutters, Virginia-based folk band Steel Wheels, Estonian dance folk troup Trad Attack, English a capella from the Young’uns, dreamy singer-songwriter stuff from Kristin Andreassen, songster tunes from Dom Flemons, quasi-political introspective folk songs from Dan Bern, and just plain heartbreak from Rose Cousins. More on that in a minute.
First, though, about halfway through the day, there was a panel discussion featuring Peggy Seeger and Tom Paxton, moderated by Sonny Ochs (Phil’s sister), where they talked about everything from how easy or hard it is to get out of bed in the morning some days, to, for example, Paxton’s memory of meeting a 13-year-old Janis Ian and being so taken with her that he insisted she get back up at the hootenanny and sing more songs. The memory of pride that flashed across his face when he added that she was famous within a year and he was still running the hoot, was telling. It became clear, listening to Seeger and Paxton talk, that more than the folk music itself, it had always been the relationships and the community that had driven these players. It’s nice to see how some things don’t change.
Later, as it was getting close to 10 p.m., Rose Cousins was winding down her too-brief 30-minute official Folk Alliance showcase in front of a quite-jam-packed ballroom in Kansas City’s Westin Hotel. She was being gracious with verbal affection for the gathering that had brought everyone here in the first place, sharing that this had been her “sixth or seventh” Folk Alliance, and she had met so many incredible people over the years who had inspired and supported her and her music. To demonstrate what she was talking about, she invited everyone to come onstage with her that she had, apparently, talked to ahead of time, and on came the parade. There was the Stray Birds (who had already joined her for a performance of the title track from Cousins’ most recent album — also, only sort of coincidentally, titled Stray Birds), but also Jordie Lane, Mark Erelli, Robby Hecht, Kristin Andreassen, Edie Carey, Laura Cortese, and the list went on and on.
Once the stage was sufficiently full — almost as loaded as was the audience — Cousins admitted the song she was going to play was brand new, so she was nervous about it, but also felt supported with so many people there to lend their voices to the chorus. (Not to mention Dr. Zacharia Hickman on bass, plus Cortese and the Stray Birds’ Oliver Craven on fiddles.) The song she and her choir of backup singers then delivered was the kind of so-honest-it’s-maybe-uncomfortable love song for which she is known. Behind her the rhythm and voices swelled, until the uncomfortable lead singer was made aware that she was not the only one who had been there before.
It was a stirring bit of folk music theater, not to mention a fantastic song.
But the point was well-received. The folk music crowd is a supportive community, and the way communities support each other best is by lending their presence, their talents, and their voices to the choir. This may have been the most visible evidence of that truth, but the community aspect — the support, the voices, the pooled talent, the showing-up-for-people — was everywhere, throughout this Folk Alliance weekend.