Rest Yourself Beneath the Strength of Strings: A Memorable Knight at the Folk Alliance

Note: This article originally appeared on on Feb. 20, 2015.



Billy Strings & Don Julin at Folk Alliance International 2015. Photo by DONNA TRUSSELL.

People who play guitar tend to divide the world into two distinct groups: Those who play guitars (us), and those who don’t (them).

The style of music you play doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that you’ve spent years, maybe decades, trying to unlock the tonal mysteries contained in six steel strings pulled taut on a structure made of wooden panels, braces and struts that were shaped and glued by someone in a factory or workshop who actually gave a damn.

The beauty of the guitar, and a small family of other stringed instruments, is that it allows you to make music anywhere you happen to be.

You don’t need a license. You don’t need permission. You don’t need an orchestra leader. You don’t need an education, although the ability to read music isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

People with guitars have made music in prisons and box cars. They’ve performed at fish fries and barbecues. They’ve played at weddings and funerals. They’ve written songs in bus stations and flop houses and the backs of vans. With a guitar balanced on one knee, they’ve written songs on grocery sacks and envelopes and paper napkins.

So when guitar players get together there’s a kind of collective consciousness in the air, an unspoken collective bond.

That’s how it felt during a day and night of hanging around at the Folk Alliance International, an annual trade show held in Kansas City that attracts musicians from several continents.

Kansas City has its own community of acoustic singer/songwriters — labeled “folk” artists for lack of a more specific term — but for one weekend they have a chance to meet fellow travelers from across the country. And from Canada. And Australia. And Ireland. And the UK.

And just about anywhere you turn, you run into somebody you know, another guitar player wandering from one musical event the next, soaking it up like a human blotter.

I didn’t have anything to do with the folk alliance a year ago. But then I started seeing videos people had shot at of some of the private showcases in hotel rooms on the upper floors of the Westin Crown Center. And they were pretty amazing in terms of skill, originality and diversity.

This year my wife — the same person who showed me the videos — decided to volunteer. So I figured: Well, why not?

My first stop on Thursday night was the Music Fair, the label for public performances at the nearby Sheraton Crown Center. The first order of business was to see Billy Strings and Don Julin.

I was there for one simple reason: I had seen a video of one of their showcases a year earlier, and I imagine my reaction was basically what any guitarhead’s would be: These guys are amazing.

The duo from Traverse City, Mich. on Thursday were playing with a bassist, Kevin Gills, a big man who looks like he came down out of the mountains not so long ago.

Strings, the guitarist, is in his 20s and when he plays an expression of pure happiness sometimes spreads across his face. At odd moments he looks angelic, but during solos he can just as easily look demonically possessed. He plays with an intensity you don’t normally see in acoustic guitarists.

Strings, with his trim haircut and nicely fitted suit, stands in sharp visual contrast to Julin, the mandolin player. The portly, hairy Julin looks old enough to be Billy’s father but his exceptional musical abilities make him a good match.

Bluegrass, we know, can sometimes acquire a sort of mechanical precision, but Julin and Strings approach the music with something like a jazz sensibility. Their solos are unpredictable and full of surprises and you get the feeling that they rarely, if ever, repeat themselves.

The next stop was a show by Matt the Electrician, a songwriter based in Austin, Texas. On Thursday he was accompanied by another Austin musician, Jeff Plankenhorn, who backed Matt up with impressive work on dobro and guitar.

Matt’s stage patter seems a little affected, although his deadpan sense of humor generates honest laughter. His songs are quirky and engaging and he’s an expressive finger-picker.

Later we migrated back to the Westin, where we went upstairs and divided our time between the fifth and seventh floors. This is where the private showcases happen and the moment you step off the elevator you see that the corridor walls — indeed, the elevator doors — are virtually plastered with posters and fliers.

Some doors are labeled “green room” with handwritten signs, which tells you that inside musicians are probably warming up for a performance. Some countries and regions have their own showcase rooms. There’s an Oklahoma Room, for example, and a Folk Music Canada Suite.

That’s where we saw James Hill, a ukulele virtuoso from Nova Scotia. The ukulele has achieved a prominence in the last few years nobody would have thought possible when it was viewed contemptuously as a novelty instrument, but Hill plays with convincing (though understated) passion and a sophisticated musicality that would put some guitarists to shame.

He was joined in his showcase by Anne Jannelle, a classically trained cellist, who provided nuanced accompaniment and harmony vocals. Hill is a gifted songwriter whose lyrics deserve second and third listenings.

The showcases are meant for musicians and songwriters to demonstrate their talents for radio DJs and concert promoters, as well as just music-loving conference attendees. They run according to a strict timetable. Performers are assigned to time slots and they’re expected to clear out quickly to make room for the next musicians.

The hallways, as a result, are as congested as you might imagine an urban railway station in India to be. You see people wrestling full-size bass violins and packed-up electric pianos through corridors filled with gawking music fans flowing in two directions, often loitering just outside hotel rooms because the music from inside has caught their attention.

We wandered into a showcase by Trout Steak Revival, a Denver bluegrass band, just long enough to have a band rep hand me a can of New Belgium Slow Ride and hear a band member lament the next day’s drive back to Denver through predicted snow. I shoved the can into my coat pocket and we moved on.

At that point we ran into a guy I’d met earlier in the lobby who enthusiastically recommended another Canadian band in a nearby room. So we went in and took a seat to listen to most of a set by Sweet Alibi, a six-member group that incorporated guitars, a ukulele, a banjo, an electric bass, percussion, and electric piano and fantastic three-part harmonies by Jess Rae Ayre, Amber Rose Quesnel and Michelle Anderson — who are also the group’s chief songwriters.


Sweet Alibi of Canada performed several showcases during the Folk Alliance. Photo by DONNA TRUSSELL.

The vocals were sometimes cool, sometimes passionate, and the music itself was crisply arranged, bringing together disparate influences to create a distinctive sound.

With that, we called it a night. The only downside was shelling out a handful of cash to escape the Westin parking garage (our validated ticket had expired earlier in the evening).

That was a minor complaint in a otherwise unforgettable night of music. I’ve covered different aspects of the arts for a long time and here’s what I found unique at the Folk Alliance: A notable absence of obvious B.S.

This looked and felt like a group of people who were genuinely happy to be together and to do what they do best, make beautiful music.

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