Goodbye to Folk Alliance…and My Accidental Career

Folk Alliance International just wrapped up its fifth year in Kansas City.

Next year the conference, which attracts thousands of musicians from around the world, heads to Montreal.

And in 2020, the conference heads for parts unknown. That has a nice ring to it. I can relate.

Writing as a guy who literally stumbled into journalism in the late 1970s and who will soon stumble out — or, if you prefer, stumble on — I have to say I will sorely miss the annual FAI conference, which I’ve covered since 2015.

The annual shindig that wrapped up earlier this month at the Westin is not like anything else. It’s not really a festival, although the Folk Alliance plans to continue sponsoring an official, annual Kansas City Folk Festival moving forward. But the conference is it’s own weird thing.

The gathering is one part family reunion and one part schmooze-fest  (“It’s a fucking trade show,” is how one musician pal described it.) For any folk musician — or anyone who can rationalize applying the word “folk” to his or her music — this is the place to be. That covers almost everyone — from solo artists performing real folk songs to hip-hop singers, former rock stars and people patching together disparate genres to create something utterly new.

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Soul/blues duo Hat Fitz and Cara of Australia rocked the house at Folk Alliance International 2018. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The idea is that musicians from across North America and the world convene to perform a series of short showcases to impress music promoters, festival producers, DJs and anyone else in a position to boost somebody’s profile so that they may gain (or regain) “traction” for a career path that could easily lead to obscurity and poverty. Or maybe, just maybe, success.

I’ll miss the chance to meet and rub shoulders with that many musicians within four days of jam-packed performing. Before I became an oh-so-serious arts reporter covering theater and institutionalized arts organizations for the Kansas City Star, I had two roles — B-movie critic and pop music writer. Reviewing bad movies was fun (does anyone out there recall The Incredible Melting Man?) but interviewing musicians was even better.

Musicians tend to be unguarded, spontaneous, impolitic. They give you good quotes simply by thinking out loud. Sometimes they give you epithet-riddled poetry, a little like the playwright David Mamet when he wrote good plays back in the ’80s.

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Mile Twelve, a progressive bluegrass band out of Boston, performs an official showcase at Folk Alliance International 2018. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The decade sandwiched between the rowdy ’70s and corporatized ’90s is rightly recalled as an era of hollow movies and plasticized pop music, but interesting things were happening in Kansas City. Once I visited the old Grand Emporium (near 39th and Main) to review The Legendary Blues Band, the group that for years had backed up Muddy Waters. During a break I scored a quick interview with harmonica player Jerry Portnoy and at one point he stared at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke and said something like: “So you mean they pay you to go out and see shows and write things down in your little book?”

Yep. And it’s been a privilege.

Before I landed a job as a copy clerk at the Star in 1977, where my new employers were no doubt impressed by a resume that included college drop-out and liquor-store clerk, much of my time was spent playing the guitar and listening to Townes van Zandt, Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt on vinyl.

The job got me into the Star newsroom, a din of clattering typewriters and teletype machines where heavy-smoking copy editors ground out their butts on the linoleum floor. It was acceptable for reporters and editors to engage in shouting matches and post-shift drinkathons were a cherished tradition.

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Jayme Stone’s Folk Life reinterprets historic field recordings in a private showcase at Folk Alliance International 2018. From left, Stone (banjo), Joe Phillips (bass), Moira Smiley (accordion) and Sumaia Jackson (fiddle). (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The world was low-tech and manageable. We bought records at PennyLane when it was still on Troost. Carless for two years, we took the bus and we walked. Sometimes I took cabs to movie theaters in Johnson County and KCK to fulfill movie-reviewing assignments.

I scaled the newsroom ladder, moving up to obit writer, then news clerk, then reporter. All along I cranked out movie reviews for the arts desk. In ’83 I formally joined the arts-and-entertainment staff. And that’s when I discovered the pleasures of interviewing musicians — Jay McShann three times in his east Kansas City apartment, Claude Fiddler Williams twice in his east-side home, Eddie Baker at the Charlie Parker Foundation. I talked to Claude “Blues Boss” Long, a blind guitarist, in his small northeast house. Over time I met the members of Colt. 45, Rich Hill, Ida McBeth, Priscilla Bowman, David Basse. The list goes on and on.

And then there were the telephone interviews: Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Mose Allison, Pete Seeger, Taj Majal, Tony Bennett and many more.

Some, like Goodman, could be guarded. But most were open and candid. Once I talked to Tony Joe White, the legendary Louisiana swamp rocker. Back in the day Tony Joe had played gigs in my hometown down in South Texas near the Gulf Coast and about midway through the conversation I said: “Look man, I know who you are. I’m from Kingsville, Texas, and I remember when you played the Inferno Club down there.”

Tony Joe fell silent. And after a long pause he said: “Man, you could’ve told me a thousand things and nothin’ would’ve been as weird as you bein’ from Kingsville, Texas.”

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Canadians share a laugh during an impromptu collaboration in the BreakOut West Room at FAI2018. Celeigh Cardinal (blue dress) and her band perform with Madeleine Roger (center with acoustic guitar) and guitarist Sam Gleason (far right), who plays with Sarah Jane Scouten. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Musicians aren’t quite as loose at the FAI conference. They’re on tight schedules and they need to impress people with their professionalism as well as their artistry. But a sense of shared happiness and gratitude permeates the gathering. Everyone’s glad to be among their own kind. Everyone’s happy to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s why I kept coming back, even after I retired from the Star in 2016.

But that’s always been true of musicians. The music is what matters. The music is what lasts. Folk Alliance gives you a chance to see artists perform in ballrooms and tiny hotel rooms, but in every case the music is what lingers. The music works its way into your psyche and into your soul — which, come to think of it, is precisely what it’s supposed to do.

To read my story on the 2018 FAI conference’s protest musicians, click here.

 

 

 

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Folk Alliance International 2018: Music, politics, more music, more politics. And more music.

 

It’s no secret that folkies lean left.

You know the drill: Folkies write the protest songs. They sing the labor songs. They sing about injustice, racism, greed and destruction of the environment. They join hands and sing “Kumbaya” and “We Shall Overcome.”

In fact, the 2017 Folk Music International Conference adopted protest as a theme. But this year the organization celebrates 30 years of existence. And according to FAI executive director Aengus Finnan, the fundamental purpose remains the same: For musicians to experience a sense of solidarity and community. The conference goals, he wrote in his welcome letter, is not fundamentally different from the very first gathering three decades ago in Malibu.

“We must also collectively acknowledge and address the chronic issues of harassment and discrimination that continue to plague the music industry, of which folk music is no exception,” Finnan wrote. “We can do better in all regards, but it requires dialogue and commitment . . . Let’s not just be leaders, but let’s do what is right as we set course for the next 30 years.”

This year the political vibes were palpable. As Finnan said, a sense of community coalesces at the annual gathering, and that’s a good thing for musicians who spend a big part of their lives on the road for modest financial rewards. The conference always feels a bit like a family reunion. And at a time when a lot of politicians are working overtime to divide people, community matters.

As usual, the coming together of the tribes attracted musicians from across the U.S. as well as Ireland, Britain, Australia and Canada.  Bands from Sweden and Norway were on hand. So was an Italian guitarist and another from Holland. A vocal group from Zimbabwe attended. While it was possible to hear actual folk songs, the music spanned a wide spectrum, from rock to hip-hop to “progressive” bluegrass.

Next year the conference moves to Montreal but will return to KC in 2021. Where it will be in 2020 has not been announced.

The 2018 conference spanned four days (Feb. 13-17) at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. Musicians filled the hotel lobby with spontaneous jam sessions day and night. Private showcases ran on tight schedules in the afternoons and wee hours on three floors upstairs, while prime-time hours were devoted to “official” showcases in the downstairs ballrooms as well as Benton’s (the former steakhouse) and a new venue this year — the terrace level with the big rock formation and bubbling water an escalator ride up from the lobby.

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Anais Mitchell performs with Rachel Ries at the keyboard at Folk Alliance.  (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The political zeitgeist expressed itself early and often, most notably in the closing minutes of a standing-room-only showcase by Anais Mitchell, the exceptional songwriter whose mix of emotional vulnerability and steely determination has melded many a male and female admirer’s heart. Accompanied by her longtime friend and fellow singer/songwriter Rachel Ries (aka Her Crooked Heart) on keyboard as well as Brooklyn record producer Alec Spiegelman on bass clarinet, Mitchell turned to one of her most potent songs: “Why We Build the Wall.” It comes from “Hadestown,” Mitchell’s folk-opera retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth. Hades, king of the underworld, performs a call-and-response with his people about what seems to be an eternal public works project meant to “keep out the enemy.”

As she introduced the tune, Mitchell allowed that some listeners might perceive certain parallels between Hades and the current occupant of the White House, even though she wrote the song years before a Trump presidency was conceivable to anyone except clairvoyants, comedians and schizophrenics.

“Not everything is about him,” she said.

Then she proceeded to sing as Hades: “Why do we build the wall, my children, my children? Why do we build the wall?”

To which she replied as the chorus: “Why do we build the wall?/We build the wall to keep us free/That’s why we build the wall.”

Mitchell’s parable of state paranoia triggered a visceral reaction from a vocal audience. Elsewhere at the conference I saw a man carrying an enormous sign that read: “Trump That Boy Don’t Act Right” and met someone else wearing a button with the same slogan. Personally, I emerged from the exhibition hall wearing a “Woody Guthrie for President” lapel pin. That would be the same Woody Guthrie who wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar.

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From left, Seth Bernard, Alex Spiegelman and Ana Egge share a private showcase slot at the Folk Alliance International 2018 conference. (Donna Trussell)

The night before Mitchell’s show, Spiegelman offered a tune of his own, “Kelly Anne,” an ode to White House flack Kellyanne Conway, the “Garden State blueberry princess” who learned to show her boss “that she could talk like a man.” “She knows the difference between a story that’s good for us and one that’s true,” Spiegelman sang.

Minutes later, impassioned songwriter Seth Bernard, who shared the time slot with Spiegelman, Ana Egge and Mark Lavengood, sacrificed his last chance to perform a song in order to voice a plea to the small audience. To paraphrase: Things get worse by inches until finally there’s a “paradigm shift.”  At that point people have had enough and band together to make a change. He urged all Americans to reject propaganda, accept the hard facts about the history of racism and genocide in this country and to be guided by love to make a healing contribution.

Canadians, who were well represented at the conference, are usually too polite to comment on American politics. But not always. At an afternoon showcase in the Breakout West Room, singer Adrian Glynn of The Fugitives introduced the band’s song “No Words,” a tribute to Leonard Cohen, by saying that when he heard the news that the great songwriter had passed, he was so shaken that he sat on his bed and stared at the wall for five hours.

“But that might have been the day Trump was elected,” he deadpanned. (Mr. Cohen died Nov. 7, 2016. Trump, perhaps supported by Russian bots and hackers, was elected the next day. I gather it’s not uncommon for people in shock to conflate tragedies.)

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Chris Lee Becker, center, performs in the Oklahoma Room at the 2018 Folk Alliance International conference. (Donna Trussell)

A late-night visit to the always-soulful Oklahoma Room offered a chance to hear Chris Lee Becker, a Tulsa songwriter I’ve admired since listening to him on a compilation CD three years ago. Becker, a blunt but consistently surprising lyricist who writes compassionately about people on the margins, has the look of a burly trucker.

He described his tune “Stigmata” as a song about misogyny, which he first performed at last year’s conference because Trump had been elected. “And why is he still there?” Becker said with a tone of simmering outrage.

Later in the set, Becker blanked on the lyrics to one of his songs and the music came to a temporary halt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This shooting (in Parkland, Fla.) has really gotten to me.”

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Ken Pomeroy, left, impressed listeners with the honesty of her lyrics. She performed in the Oklahoma Room at FAI18 in Kansas City. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

 

I discovered someone else in the Oklahoma Room: Ken Pomeroy, a young woman who sang with mournful eloquence of the folksinger’s life — and how itinerant artists can lean on each other if nobody else is available.

“Rolling chords and packing gear/All my folk friends got a friendly ear/
They’ve all got my back,” she sang in “Livin’ the Dream.” “They’ve got mine and I’ve got theirs/In this cruel world I know somebody cares.”
Indeed. Sometimes knowing somebody cares makes all the difference.

 

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Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Dayna Kurtz performs a late-night private showcase at the 2018 FAI conference. (Donna Trussell)

The following night, earthy singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz of Brooklyn began an after-hours private showcase with “a drinking song about the apocalypse . . .  I seem to be writing a lot of drinking songs about the apocalypse these days.”

Her song questioned what Jesus would think if he could see the state of the world.

“If Jesus comes back he’d be shaking his head,” she sang. “As we search for the missing and count all our dead/He’d say ‘did you or didn’t you hear what I said?’/ If Jesus comes back he’ll be shaking his head.”

The excellent Swedish band Kolonien, which made its American debut at the conference had nothing to say about Trump but took time to explain the group’s political roots. In the beginning the band, comprised of two brothers, a cousin and a neighbor, focused exclusively on green politics. Message was more important than melody. Gradually Kolonien evolved to embrace a larger world view and a sophisticated musical vocabulary.

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The Swedish band Kolonien combines excellent musicianship with hopeful political messages. (Donna Trussell)

But in performance Kolonien dropped plenty of hints about their likely view of Trumpism.

“We start with a song about tearing down walls and building bridges,” they said to enthusiastic applause.

Guitarist Arvid Rask introduced a song he wrote about one of his forebears who emigrated from Sweden to the U.S at time when Sweden lost a third of its population. He dedicated the song “to the people from Sweden who traveled here for a better life. And to the people coming to Europe. And the people now coming from the south to your country.”

That triggered another wave of applause.

Rask and the other members of Kolonien spoke English well. But they, like so many of their fellow musicians at the conference, spoke protest even better.

For more information on Folk Alliance International, visit www.folk.org