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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.