Kerrville Folk Festival: Songwriter Heaven
In my last column, I mentioned that the Kerrville Folk Festival is the main reason that I expatriated from Portland, OR and have found myself living in a 1972 ranch house in South Austin with a husband, two kids, and a dog. I thought I’d follow up with the full story.
In 2005, I met a woman named Elena outside Mississippi Studios, the venue where I worked in North Portland. She extolled the virtues of an 18-day songwriter festival two hours west of Austin called Kerrville Folk Festival. I was skeptical about Texas in general at the time, but felt so called to this festival that I bought a plane ticket and signed up to volunteer for the entire 18 days, without knowing a soul involved. When I set foot on Quiet Valley Ranch, I immediately felt at home among the sun-bleached rocks, caliche dust, and hundreds of blissed-out weirdos. This was the first place I had ever been where being a songwriter meant that you were COOL. Not just cool, but almost revered.
Over the next year, I bought a van, built a bed in it, booked myself gigs all over the country, and set off on the road, thanks to the guidance I received from folksingers I had met at “Fest.” In 2006, I spent 25 days out at the Kerrville Ranch volunteering in the kitchen and singing songs late into the night around campfires. Two years later, I was in the New Folk Competition and since then I’ve played both the Threadgill Theater and the Kennedy Mainstage, and I’ve attended every year for a decade.
Kerrville is truly a cultural phenomenon. It incites deep loyalty in its festivalgoers and volunteer staff, who call themselves Kerrverts. There are a few staff members – including producer Dalis Allen – but the festival is run mostly by hundreds of volunteers, most of whom are musicians.
The festival starts each year in late May, on the Thursday before Memorial Day. It has mainstage shows on weekend nights and smaller shows at the Threadgill Stage on weekday evenings, inside the campground. After the shows have ended, a huge portion of the festival audience goes back to the campground and shares songs all night long. The dancing smoke of the campfires reaches high into the heavens and takes along with it the thousands of songs sung.
Since its beginning in 1972, Kerrville has hosted a legendary roll of musicians including Willie Nelson, Peter Paul & Mary, Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and hundreds of others just as worthy of a mention. The brainchild of the late Rod Kennedy and Peter Yarrow, the festival is truly a mecca for songwriters. Canada’s own Stan Rogers spent his final night on earth singing songs at the Crow’s Nest before passing away in a plane crash. Legend has it that Townes Van Zandt spent many a wild night in what is now Camp Merrville. I could go on and on and spin stories of my own adventures at this magical slice of earth, but I will just say this: if songs are your religion, Kerrville might just be your heaven.