Confessions of a "Kerr-virgin"
May 22, 2007
(or a Wide-Eyed View by a First Timer)
In less than 24 hours, it will be my great pleasure to head off to the 36th Annual Kerrville Folk Festival on the rolling hills of the Quiet Valley Ranch in the beautiful wildflower-strewn Texas Hill Country, just south of the quaint little town of Kerrville, Texas. But before I cram that last little camping item into my sedan, roll up the windows and head off into the sunset, let me tell you a little about my experiences from last year's Kerrville Folk Festival - my "first".
Now you see, first timers out there on the ranch are referred to as "Kerrvirgins", and that I was, both wide-eyed and full of wonder! The operative word here is ‘was’, as it didn't take more than about 20 minutes for my heart to be completely won over by this wonderful and magical place commonly referred to as "HOME" by Kerr-verts 'round the globe who make the annual pilgrimage.
The Kerrville Folk Festival celebrated it's 35th year at the Quiet Valley Ranch just south of Kerrville, Texas, 25 May-11 June 2006. I spent 18 blissful days (and nights!) last year witnessing, and sometimes participating in, some of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my life. From the time I awakened to the moment I drifted off to sleep, I was serenaded by jam sessions just outside my tent! Somehow, even after the campground was fully packed, we managed to find a spot to sqeeze in two tents along the road right across from the Kerr-try Store where beverage, food and ice was served to the camps, along with a generous portion of music by folks who gathered there beneath the shade trees for 'round the clock, spontaneous jam sessions. I'd come prepared with a small Moleskin flip book for taking notes, an extra tent and a photographer friend to put in it. We'd planned for the weekend concerts only, at first, but after only one day and night, it became clear to us that we didn't want to miss ANYthing, so we both secured Staff positions so we could stay for the whole shebang.
Once in the front gates, we were welcomed with such warmth and genuine kindness and love with hearty "Welcome Home!" that it became apparent that this was no ordinary Folk fest - this was a community who had experienced living together in village-like camps and looked forward to 18 days in each other's company every year, welcoming newcomers, all for the love of some really good Folk Music and peaceful community.
I didn't know really what to expect, but found people from all walks of life, young and old, college kids, old hippies, young professionals, retired folk, whole families with young children and teens, and everything in between. Consideration and respect for one another, this good earth, and for the music seems to be the joining factor between all of these good folks, and this was a very good place to be, if you ask me.
Within a few minutes of our arrival, I started to hear the music...and ohhh, the MUSIC! 24/7, everywhere, rain or shine (as I came to learn), here was what it was all about! One look and listen to all this, and I knew that we just HAD to stay and become a part of it all. So, I determined to find a spot on STAFF where I could be useful, and was fortuitously situated with the Texas Folk Music Foundation, the organization which works closely with the KFF and funds such things as the various Music workshops and schools during the festivals, such as the highly regarded Roots/Blues Guitar Workshop, Harmonica Workshops, Song Writer's School and accredited classes for Educators, such as the Annual Professional Development Program for Teachers.
The TXFMF supports educational enrichment outreach programs in various schools and universities and to the community at large, along with a wonderful annual Summer Youth Music Camp held on the ranch each year. The TXFMF also funds the improvements on the Threadgill Theater and various other projects on the ranch, to make things more accessible and enjoyable to the listening audience.
Long rows of open, hand crafted benches line the audience areas of both the Kennedy Outdoor Theater main stage, and at the more intimate and newly roofed Threadgill Theater, allowing for plenty of great open, non-reserved seating for all, in addition to lots of room for those who prefer to bring their own lawn chairs or blankets.
Last year the TXFMF raffled a Taylor 214 acoustic guitar (donated by the Guitar Center Austin), plus held a silent auction of some wonderful donated items as part of a fund raiser for the Foundation, as well as encouraging memberships as a "Friend of the Foundation" which helps to sustain Folk Music by “Saving the World One Song At a Time" (the Texas Folk Music Foundation's motto). I had the best time meeting and talking with the good folk who came back during the concerts to sign up for the Foundation and to fill out their raffle tickets for the drawing. Of course, I got writer's cramp writing the web address for Folk Alley for everybody. This year, I'm going to be prepared with a nice bright yellow messenger bag with the www.FolkAlley.com logo printed boldly on the front, plus another one kindly donated by Folk Alley to the Silent Auction as well!
It all runs together - so many wonderful sights and sounds.. The next 18 days were awash with a dreamy water color palate of stage performances by such fine artists I'd only hoped to hear Live in this lifetime, some of them on the same stage all at once, plus artists I'd had yet to discover, as long time KFF Producer and MC, Dalis Allen introduced artist after artist, day after day & night after night.
I was carried away by the sweet rockin' blues of Matt Andersen and Charlie A'Court, who were generous in their willingness to chat a bit afterwards and to sign CDs. I'd asked Matt if it ever made him dizzy to swing his head 'round and 'round, sending his long, curly locks airborne, and he said, "You know, I tried to stop doing that once and it just started to mess things up and nothing worked right, so I decided to keep doing it." Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Ray Bonneville, Ruthie Foster, Vance Gilbert, The Dreamsicles (Tom Prasada Rao & Cary Cooper), Slim Richey & the Kat's Meow with the sultry Kat Edmunson, the feel-good antics of Billy Jonas, and the amazingly energetic and edgy David Jacobs-Strain all made quite an impression.
A discovery of a new favorite singer/songwriter there one night was a real pleasure for me, and that is the one and only Eric Taylor. He's part of a trio of survivors called The Texas FlatLINErs (Vince Bell, Eric Taylor, and Steven Fromholz). Eric's music reminds me of an oil on canvas, sparsely painted, with bits of the canvas showing through, yet the painting is perfectly complete with great depth of field and a few daring surprises thrown in. Eric has had an interesting, edgy life from a young age, evidently, and tells a good tale or two..and amazingly with very few words! It also came to my attention that Butch Hancock is a kind of modern day prophet or philosopher. There are these moments which sear into my consciousness, and Butch had that branding iron hot and ready.
"See you in the camps!":
After performances, many of the featured artists would casually stroll around, hang out and trade songs from camp to camp and visit with friends. I came across Freebo and Jonathan Byrd and Peter Yarrow and Dana Cooper and..and..the list goes on.
Side note: (An interesting thing..I did get to finally thank Dana Cooper for being my "first" live act I caught in Houston when I had only just come of age. He and his former performing partner, Shake Russell, were setting up for a sound check in a place off Westheimer some 30 years ago, and I shyly peeked around the corner into the place one early evening, and Dana said, "Come on in! We're just setting up for a sound check - have a seat!", so I did - got a private early concert, and thoroughly enjoyed the immediacy of my first Live gig out and about and on my own. It was good to finally be able to thank him for that sweet memory. And oddly enough, my crew chief of the TXFMF Staff last year had had near the very same experience at the very same place - we'd each seen Dana & Shake as our 'firsts' at Corky's that same summer! Small world, big circle.)
The Texas Folk Music Foundation also supports the crown jewel of the Kerrville Folk Festival, which is the Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Competition, the highly respected annual event for Emerging Songwriters, with a 35 year history of celebrating up-and-coming singer/songwriters in a big way. Of the 800 entries last year from 42 of the 50 states and also from Australia, Canada, England, France, and Germany - only 32 finalists were selected. Of these excellent 32 finalists, a panel of esteemed judges managed the difficult task of selecting just 6 winners, which, along with a very nice winner's package and great world-wide exposure added to their names, would now have the opportunity to be invited back to perform on the Main Stage in years to come. (Many of the names I'm mentioned above were New Folk Winners in their early days.)
The 2006 KFF 35th Annual Grassy Hill winners were:
Antje Duvekot (Somerville, MA), Jud Caswell (Brunswick, ME), Gordy Quist (Austin, TX), KJ Denhert (Ossining, NY), Diana Jones (Nashville, TN) who left me speachless and teary-eyed with her "Pony", and Andrew Smith (Kelowna, BC, Canada).
Besides the headliner concerts, there are opportunities to hear not only the New Folk Concerts, but also the University Songwriter Finalists, Music to Life Finalists, the Blues Project, and the ever popular Staff Concerts - where I got to hear and see many of the people I worked with on a daily basis with new eyes!
For those early risers on Saturday and Sunday mornings, there is a very nice Shabbat Service and a Folk Mass, and even Yoga and a bike ride and canoe trip for those who wish to stretch their legs beyond walking all over the ranch.
Another important part of the KFF is the Ballad Tree up on Chapel Hill, and the Texas and Tennessee song circles beneath the deep shade of a grove of Live Oaks behind theon the ranch. Songwriters can make appointments with the experienced singer/songwriter hosts to have their work critiqued in a relaxed atmosphere, to get helpful suggestions on how to find a way to make a new song even better.
For the Children:
There is a wonderful Children's area in the camp, just along side the Kerr-try Store & Pizza Oven, and near to the Threadgill Theater area, which features programs for children throughout the day. I participated in a Tee-shirt Tie Dye event, donations made to help support the very worthwhile children's activities throughout the event. The ever popular Children's Concert series happened during 6 selected days throughout the entire Festival, and featured such crowd-pleasing acts as Trout Fishing in America, The Red Dirt Rangers, Billy Jonas and others guaranteed to bring excited giggles and smiles to the faces of the young and young-at-heart alike.
Real Life Creeps in:
During a festival as lengthy as this one, real life things start to happen, such as weddings! Everyone was invited to witness the joys and join in the celebration with Cary Cooper & Tom Prasada Rao, as they pledged to one another in a beautifully exotic ceremony and magical, musical night. Their friends gifted them with words and song, and you may see some of the pictures of it all on The Dreamsicles MySpace page!
One of the most meaningful experiences for me during the 2006 Kerrville Folk Festival was the mid-afternoon Memorial Day Concert for Allen Damron, the well loved, long time friend to many, and who had been instrumental in the development and longevity of the festival. His closest friends, and those who only wished they’d been, sang and shared stories and memories with Allen's widow, Marie, and with one another and the rest of us there who came to celebrate Allen's life. I didn't know him, but Allen Damron's legacy will stay with me for a long time, in the voice of his friends.
My fuel is new music by songwriters and some times this may come from new songwriters themselves, so I tried not to miss many of the late night Open Mic performances at the Threadgill Theater. I found a few jewels there too, which makes the long listen and late-night chill-out worthwhile for me. But I must confess that the sweetest times for me would have to be wandering from camp to camp, listening to the song circles overnight - watching as songwriter after songwriter shared, in turn, hearts and skills upon their instruments. As the beauty and pain and jubilation rolled easily from their tongues, others might join in with a complimentary lick or harmony. Eyes would brighten all around as a new thought would express an old emotion in a new and inventive way. I was only able to visit about five of these various song circles in the camps, but have hopes to take in more this year.
One enthusiastic young musician was heard to have said that there are only 24 hours in a day, and at the Kerrville Folk Festival ONE of them is wasted sleeping! If actually sleeping at night is your thing, then let me recommend Camp Forest Lawn - the place for those in need of total silence by which to get to sleep. No joke, it is really quiet there, and very dark!
Many singer/songwriters roam the camps sharing their songs with anyone who's happy to listen for a bit, and sometimes to join in with a harmony or two. I was delighted to find that one of these guys, who happened to be a fav of mine, actually lives right here in my own town, and would you believe it, just on the other end of the same street half way across town and plays local gigs a lot!
Here's another observation: I didn't really know what to expect when it came to what kind of music would emanate from this or that person, but a few of my assumptions were blown to smithereens real quick, when I discovered some of the older folk really rocking Folk up, and some of the younger folk really sticking with the age old traditions of Bluegrass and music from the hills of Tennessee. It gave me a whole new image of this living Folk phenom we've got going on here!
To draw the festival to a close, there was a lovely evening concert with the Memorial Festival Orchestra, conducted by Composer David Amram, honoring those friends who are no longer with us. This was a fitting expression of respect, with Folk soloists and beautiful, orchestral music to the setting of a lovely, cool evening and brilliant Texas sunset.
One of the last nights in the camps was the sweetest, when we were all blown away by one gentle, yet bold voice as young (11 year old) Kevin Brenner began to sing his tender and flawless and rendition of "I Ain't Marching Anymore", by Phil Ochs. Kevin's father, Eric, later told me that his young son had one day very seriously informed them that he'd like to learn to play guitar. Since none of the family were musically inclined, they had little idea what to suggest, so they asked around and got some good advice. Kevin had only been taking lessons for a short time, amazingly, when he sang and played with skill and with heart. Witnessing this young one sing with such passion and dedication gives me hope for the future of this living thing which is FOLK Music.
And if I can at all help it in future, I will try never to miss a Kerrville Folk Festival, ever, as I am truly a "Kerr-vert" now. (Even survived the extreme low 100ss heat of KFF 2006 - whew!) You may see a few photographs of last year's festival in an album here (clic "Pics" - more photos to be added later). Oh, and did I mention that there is also a lovely Kerrville Wine & Music Festival in the early Fall? It's wonderful too!
There's an old saying at the KFF which goes something akin to, "It could be this way always!" I wonder if other Folk Music festivals are at all similar to this one. I'm paying attention...
This year's 2007 KFF line up and New Folk Competition looks to be subperb, and I can't wait to get back out there! You'll find me camped smack dab in the middle of the Green Mountain Grass in CAMP TOUCH THIS!, right across from the Kerr-try store. Can you tell that I like to be in the thick of it all? The jam sessions ‘round the campfire will literally be just 4' in front of my tent door!
SO, if you're there, drop by and say hello, either in the camp or at the Texas Folk Music Foundation booth during the concerts, and I'll sell you a raffle ticket for a Taylor acoustic, or take your bid for that Folk Alley messenger bag!
See y’all in the Camps!
Posted by JoLynn Braswell at May 22, 2007 8:53 PM