Even after three nights of ending at 4 a.m. followed by early mornings and days filled with sessions devoted to industry matters, panels offering artists insights into publicizing themselves better of thriving on a record label and conversations about the history of folk music, attendees at the 28th Annual Folk Alliance International conference filled the halls with the strains of guitars, fiddles, banjos, dulcimers, string bass and harps, celebrating the joy of music and reveling in the power of music to create community.
One afternoon session traced the "routes of roots" music, as panelists Max Baca, of Los Texmaniacs, Compass Records co-founder Alison Brown, Gerald Trimble and Michael Brown engaged in a lively conversation about the ways that the musical styles and instruments that they play developed and influenced contemporary roots and folk music.
Baca, for example, pulled out his bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar whose bottom strings are strung like a bass and top strings strung like a guitar; the instrument was developed as a result of the meeting of German immigrant cultures that had moved to the southwest, bringing the accordion with them. The instrument became a key part of norteņo music in northern Mexico and in conjunto and tejana music.The bajo sexto is a rhythm instrument that mimics the left hand of the accordion, freeing the accordionist in the band to play lead.
Brown regaled the very small audience with tales of her own interest in the banjo and its movement to the Appalachian hills and hollers from Scotland and Ireland. She pointed out the ways that early American banjo players picked up lines from blues players and New Orleans banjo players and incorporated those into banjo. Brown admitted that she prefers the greasiness of early bluegrass banjoists like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.
In a crowded room, Sonny Ochs, Phil's older sister, Dan Bird of Georgia Satellites fame, Canadian music festival organizer and Si Kahn, delighted and amused the crowd as they shared the "wisdom of the elders" (a panel that has become a standard and a highlight of Folk Alliance).
Ochs recalled life with her brother, though she admitted that when he was younger, he didn't really exist for her since she was four years older. Kahn entertained the audience with his tales of organizing at the Harlan County, Ky. mine protests, declaring that it was music that overcame people's fears and music that brought them together, breaking down boundaries and creating community. He told the audience that folk music can be very political, but that singers need not sing songs with political lyrics during a set. If artists finish a gig - where they might have sung songs about love, for instance, and music devoid of explicitly political lyrics - and then head out to do a benefit for autism, they are making a political statement.
Music once again ruled the night, and many rooms were overflowing with attendees singing along, swaying and dancing to the music. The hottest room for over two hours featured Hot Club of Cowtown, which had everyone in the room swinging to jazz - "Canyon Call" - funky bluegrass - "Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer" - and western swing that swung the crowd right over the moon - "Big Balls in Cowtown." Elana James and her crew were followed by Los Texmaniacs, led by the Max and Josh Baca, the Chuck Berry of the accordion. "Marina, Marina" was a polka-inflected Tejano tune that allowed Josh Baca to show off his Jimi Hendrix-like accordion licks, as he traded riffs with Max's licks on the bajo sexto. The band closed its set with a soulful blues that combined the rhythms of Mexicali music with Mississippi 12-bar grittiness.
Gospel crooners The Sojourners closed out the electrifying showcase in the same room, featuring Paul Pigat on guitar. They had the crowd with them from the opening lines of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" right on through their moving versions of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" - both of which had the audience on its feet singing - to "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."
The night ended - though no one wanted it to concluded - with guitarists Bill Kirchen, Albert Lee and Redd Volkaert at the top of their game, effortlessly following one another's leads and trading licks as they played everything from Elvis' "That's All Right, Mama" to Tex Williams' "Gone, Gone, Gone."
That 30-minute set illustrates what Folk Alliance is all about: musicians finding one another, sharing their passions, following each other in jams that simply require one person to call out a chord or a song title and have everyone else follow along until another calls out a different song or chord and pretty soon everyone is singing, playing, discovering new sounds and friends in these joyous moment that celebrate the power of music to bring people together.