Deeper Into Folk
"You clearly missed the point of the folk festival," said a friend of mine on Facebook after I much-too-excitedly updated that I had, in fact, found wi-fi in Kerrville proper after two dusty days of sitting outside of the volunteer cabin on the festival grounds and siphoning internet that way (I asked first, of course).
I'm not that daft. I understand that a great appeal of this festival is both in a communal recollection of the past (think late sixties and early seventies - the Kerrville Folk Festival was founded in 1971) and a period of three-week amnesia regarding the way the outside world operates. "That's Kerrville!" I heard over and over during my two days, an explanation given to everything from memory loss to other things I can't remember right now. Campers and participants seemed comfortable and happy within the dusty belly of this early summer beast, and the general feel of the festival is largely as I remember it when I came for an evening in 1999 or thereabouts.
My first real experience with music at the festival took place at 5pm on my first day, when I visited Steve Gillette's "Texas & Tennessee" song circle. With gentle encouragement that sometimes digressed into not particularly pressing matters, Gillette encouraged a group of maybe five or so singers and guitarists as they strummed through recent compositions with which they were struggling. Some problems involved maybe a bridge that hadn't been worked out all the way or a stray line here and there that didn't sound right. A young folksinger from Dallas played one of her first compositions, which she said she had never gotten to sound finished enough to record. A woman (pictured, center) gave us a poem and an a capella composition called “Hunting Season.” I enjoyed the chorus: “Every night is hunting season/ When you're looking for the love of a man.” A friend of mine once made a ribald comment about a night at the bar being “an ol' fashioned dick hunt,” and I felt like the sentiments were united in theme if not presentation.
After that I caught the “New Folk in the Round” sundown concert at the Threadgill Theater. One thing that might surprise you about New Folk is that it sounds not terribly unlike the Old Folk. Featuring five songwriters whose ages looked to range from mid-thirties to mid-fifties, the evening progressed with each songwriter taking a turn at the microphone. Songs ranged from comical to intense to strange brews of both. I think the favored songwriter that night was Andy Gullahorn who mastered satire with a song that lampooned popular country music and a heavy-hitter called “That Guy” that tied in God's love, guitar theft and even a line about paying off student debt that managed to make me smile while it punched me in the gut – a lump in my throat welled up like I swallowed a peach whole.
The evening was not without other emotional highs. When Kim Richardson performed a song about her last year and the “hard winter,” she welled up a bit, and the camaraderie on stage sometimes took flight, especially when the irrepressible Hans York led tasteful (and improvised) leads to Richardson or Gullahorn's songs, or when the latter and songwriter Jon Brooks joined voices for a tune. The only other singer I haven't included yet is Nathan Hamilton, and that's no knock on him, I just felt like his songs were a little more self-contained. He's from Austin – I'll have to make a note to try and hear more from him when I return.
The next night's concert benefited an orphanage in Haiti that was destroyed in the earthquake. The project was Houston-based, and the story of how a group of acoustic songwriters managed to provide aid directly to this charitable cause was inspiring. The resulting album is called Shoulder to the Stone, and a group of singers backed by various iterations of percussion, keys and other instruments took turns interpreting their songs from the album live. Jack Saunders seemed on stage most of the evening, adding guitar on top of songs from other singers and playing his own songs as well. As I noted at the Free Press Fest, it's interesting to think that Houston – as big as it is – has an insistent music scene as well, but I feel as though I experience it very rarely. It was nice to get a glimpse this evening.
Coda: it's hard not to notice that while the Folk Festival lets it freak flag fly, the rest of Kerrville is pretty straight, and lousy with cops besides. While I was buying a Shiner, a few people by the picnic tables were yelling something about a jail fun for an arrested friend. With marker scrawled on her chest that said something like “tits for cash,” a young woman was taking money for the bail-out fund. I gave her a dollar in lieu of just sticking it down her shirt.
I found her to be rather soft-spoken considering the hoopla she was making, but then again, only the squeaky wheel gets the cash for the tits. “They profile everyone out here,” she told me. Apparently her friend Darcy “with dreads and like a mohawk up to here” had stopped into a gas station and the proprietors called the cops. A possibly sketchy search of Darcy's car revealed a gram of mushrooms. Bail was set at 10,000 dollars, bond was 1,000, and they had almost raised half by the time I contributed my modest sum. I'm betting the clash of conservative and weird Texas is going to be a tantamount theme of my trip.