The halls are alive with the sound of music at the 2016 meeting of Folk Alliance International. Everywhere you turn, folks are tuning up fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, launching into old-time hootenannies around every corner in the lobbies of the Westin and Sheraton hotels in Kansas City.
The 28th annual conference draws artists, industry folks and media from around the world to sit in on panels on topics ranging from inspiration in songwriting and operation "PR" to studio and production tips and the original folk revival, and to spend their nights wandering from room to room on three floors of the Westin, listening to new sounds and old sounds from artists just getting started to musicians like Happy Traum and Lowell "Banana" Levinger.
And the music is the reason for Folk Alliance. From roughly noon until 3 a.m., hundreds of showcases - both official and private (often sponsored by labels or PR firms, or a combination of both) - feature a wide range of musicians playing traditional folk, country folk, bluegrass, Celtic, jug band music, rootsy folk blues, gospel, folk rock and fiddlehead stomps. Each artist takes 30 minutes or so during the showcase to share their music - sometimes their new stuff and sometimes songs that they're just trying out for the first time.
Attendees can become easily satiated on the rich fare offered in this musical cornucopia. The only question is whether the food they're feasting on is folk or something else (but that's for another column). No one can make it to every minute of every showcase. So, you're left running hither and yon, sampling the music of artists you've not heard before and artists whose music has been with you all your life.
Canadian singer-songwriter Corin Raymond held forth in an official showcase where he sang songs from his new album, "Hobo Jungle Fever Dreams." He's a consummate storyteller. Think Arlo Guthrie or Steve Goodman. He led the crowd in a sing-along (there are lots of sing-alongs at Folk Alliance; it's a requirement of folk music) in his gospel-inflected "Take Me to the Mountain."
Over at the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) showcase, bluegrass folkster Jenny Ritter entertained the crowd with tales of life on the musical road - including opening in the UK for Lucinda Williams (they had named a boat after Lucinda - for a strong woman - so when they got to the festival, they told Williams they should open for her since they had the boat; and they did). Ritter and her band serenaded the gathered throng with a stomping folk shout, "Queen of the World," and a haunting and poignant ballad that's the title track of her new album, "Raised By Wolves."
Applewood Road is Amy Speace, Emily Barker and Amber Rubarth. Barker, from Australia, had moved to Nashville, looking for some folks with whom to write some songs. She ran into Speace in a coffee shop in East Nashville. The two hit it off and wrote a song that day. The trio - minus Speace, who lost her voice on the trip back from her recent UK tour - put together a set filled with gorgeous vocals, insightful songwriting and tuneful playing. They opened with the evocative title track of their new album, "Applewood Road," and turned in a lovely, haunting cover of R.E.M's "Losing My Religion."
The court jester of folk, Steve Poltz, tore the house down with his hilarious stories, his comic songwriting and his cheerleading of high quality of folk music at the conference. He led the audience in a sing-along of his tongue-in-cheek ballad of a folk singer who spends his life playing in bars where no one listens, but whom everyone promise is just on the cusp of success: if you've driven from one run-down bar to another and given away more CDs than you've sold, then you know you're a folk singer, for sure, as the chorus goes.
Poltz regaled the gathered with his crackerjack tale of having a stroke last year, coming out of it and hearing the Grateful Dead on Sirius XM - and he never liked the Dead. He grew up listening to Pavement, Television and The Ramones - and finally "getting" them. Poltz then launched into a good time version of the Dead's "Uncle John's Band," that had the crowd on its feet singing.
Fresh off their Cayamo Cruise, the Bird of Chicago followed Poltz with a set as energetic and as full of humor as his. JT Nero and Allison Russell delivered a set filled with sweet harmonies - they're some of the best in the business these days on this score - as they toured through several songs from their new album, "Real Midnight," which hits stores Friday, including the poignant ballad of loss and love, "Remember Wild Horses," "Lift Me Up" and "Dim Star of the Palisades."
In smaller suites, private showcases featured artists ranging from Aoife O'Donovan, Jeffrey Foucault, Caitlin Canty, Corinne West, Michelle Lewis, and Raina Rose to Happy Traum, Bill Kirchen, Freebo and Levinger.
In the audience for Traum and Levinger's set was folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had left by the time Levinger called him up to join them. Watching Traum and Levinger play transported the crowd back to early days of the folk revival in the mid-Sixties when many streams of music came together in a torrent of folk music that changed the shape of the music forever.
Levinger's and Traum's set, as well as Levinger's and Kirchen's - the guitarist most famous for playing with Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, and for inventing the riff for the song "Hot Rod Lincoln - focused on political issues in ways that much of the music of the rest of the night did not. Levinger and Kirchen played fluidly, calling out chords to each other, signaling their musicianship and camaraderie, and hearkening back to the days of the hootenanny where folks simply followed others in playing the songs.