Folk Musicians Convene in the Midwest

Apr 4, 2018

As I entered the lobby of the Westin Crown Center hotel in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, I was met with a cacophony of sound. People milled about, talking and laughing. Sounds of guitars, mandolins and fiddles wafted through the lobby as musicians jammed.  It was mid-February and the opening of the 30th Folk Alliance International annual four-day conference.

Established in 1988 for the advocacy and professional development of the folk music community, the conference is a gathering of music artists from diverse genres.  Singer/songwriters, delta blues, Appalachian mountain music, Tex-Mex, rock ‘n roll, Western Swing, Latin, Irish, roots music and more can be heard.

Artists from four continents and more than twenty countries gathered in Kansas City for presentations, panel discussions, professional development and a tradeshow all related to the music business during the day.  Adding to that mix are other industry professionals from record labels, booking agents, publicists, venue promoters and fans.  It’s five days of renewing friendships, making new ones and networking with the goal of advancing careers.

Marvin Etzioni is a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist. He’s known as the bass player and one of the songwriters for the country/rock band, Lone Justice. He is also a long-time member of Folk Alliance.

“One thing I kept reminding people during the panels,” said Etzioni, “is do not try to lift the entire weight of the world on your own shoulders. I want to inspire someone to say, ‘it would benefit me, my songwriting skills and my career to find someone else to work with and bounce ideas off.’ Whatever it is you want to do, do it.  But find someone with a common interest who can help you write better songs and make better music.”

“I want to know what’s going on with other people so I’m here to learn, too,” he said.

Ruthie Foster, the Austin, Texas-based blues and gospel artist returned after a years-long absence.  “My first one was when it was in Vancouver in 2001.,” she said, recalling her first conference. 

“In folk festivals,” said Foster, “I always found myself in blues and gospel workshops. But through the Folk Alliance, I was able to intermingle and mix it up with songwriters like John Smith and Ellis Paul. These people wrote beautiful songs that were in a different genre; I could see how they craft their songs and learn more about how to express my truth through my music.”

With more than 2,500 in attendance, conference regulars as well as new comers mingle. Jorma Kaukonen, a founding member of the Jefferson Airplane, and later, Hot Tuna, said he started out as a folkie. “This is my first time at the Folk Alliance,” said Kaukonen. “I was invited to play a showcase and I’m honored.”

“To be in a situation regardless of whether you’re here to promote yourself in some way, you just feel like you belong,” said Kaukonen.

“I was talking to one of the younger guys the other day-and even though he was probably fifty years younger-we both understood what the other was saying,” he said. “This is not an age defying thing. To be among peers, that’s a strong thing.”

British folk-rocker Richard Thompson was also attending for the first time. “I’ve been wanting to go for a long time,” he said, “as long as it’s been going.  I’m seeing lots of friends and making lots of new friends. I’ve always been impressed with the work they do. There’s almost a sense of mission.”

The evening is a time for performances throughout the hotel complex.  Official showcases, staged in ballrooms and conference rooms are an opportunity for an array of musicians to show their stuff to peers, industry professionals and music fans.

From 6 pm to 10 pm, artists play 30-minute sets on ten different stages. It’s buffet of music. Conference goers migrate from stage to stage sampling different musical genres.

There are other annual conferences which benefit the music community. South by Southwest staged in Austin, Texas and the Americana Music Association held in Nashville come to mind.  Attendance at those surpass that of the Folk Alliance.  However, there is one aspect which sets Folk Alliance apart from the others after the official showcases end.  At 10:30, conference attendees flood the fifth, sixth and seventh floors, wandering from room to room, to enjoy brief performances by artists.  Musicians playing official showcases are in the minority. Most play solely in the private showcases. With the last one beginning at 3:30 am, hundreds of showcases play out over four nights.

The hallways, plastered with posters promoting showcases, are crowded with people moving from room to room.  Musicians carrying instrument cases to the next performance challenge the late-night traffic flow.

The private showcases, sponsored by talent agencies, record labels, festivals and others provide an intimate performance setting. Private showcases with monikers such as The Alberta Room, Cantina Navarro, Howlin’ Dog Records, The Lost Cowgirl Records Room and The Oklahoma Room are among the nearly 100 rooms hosting late-night music. 

Some rooms, suites for example, are relieved of the usual furnishings and replaced with folding chairs.  Snack food and alcohol are readily available as enhancements to an all-night party encompassing dozens of rooms outfitted with sound systems.

In one room, a solo artist performs for a small gathering while in another, twenty-plus people jam into a room to hear the Canadian roots-rock band, Digging Roots.  To the uninitiated, the scene has a bizarre feeling.

Folk Alliance will move the annual conference to Montreal for 2019.  Following Montreal, it will be held in a city yet to be announced.  It will return to Kansas City in 2021 for three years.  

Chuck Holley is an IPR special contributer,  photographer and the author of A Perfectly Good Guitar: Musicians on Their Favorite Instruments. He currently lives in Maryville, Missouri.