In the new feature film American Folk, the character Joni (played by Amber Rubarth), on an unplanned cross-country road trip in the days after 9/11, makes a pact with her traveling companion and fellow musician Elliott (Joe Purdy), to “bring back the folk.” She shouts it out the window to a passing America - a cry for communication, unity and empathy invigorated through music.
There were any number of allies in that cause in Kansas City over the long weekend, as 2,700 artists and businesspersons gathered for 2018 edition of Folk Alliance International, the most diverse and untamed conference on the roots music calendar.
For four days, the sounds of Appalachian fiddlers, guitar-stroking troubadours (lots of them), Western swingers, Australian country punks, gypsy jazzers and more surged out of official showcases, crowded hotel rooms, hallways and lobbies. Almost no genre of music outside of metal is unheard or unheard of at Folk Alliance. If artists feel called to be part of the tribe, the tribe welcomes all with exceptionally open arms. On display in Kansas City was a global community stepping away from the tumult of the world to affirm a collective mission to entertain, uplift, challenge and provoke in song.
Thirty Years of "Family"
It was the 30th conference, an anniversary celebrated with a look-back to the group’s origins in 1989, when music presenters Clark and Elaine Weissman organized a retreat in Malibu, CA. In the pre-internet age, the national infrastructure supporting folk music was haphazard and out of touch with itself. The North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance, as it was first named, created a new forum for best practices and career development. The group spawned vibrant regional societies and took the name Folk Alliance International in 2008.
At a panel discussion about that history, artist Dan Navarro recalled the revelation of being invited to his Folk Alliance in 1998 when he was half of the already prominent duo Lowen & Navarro. “We saw something rather magical, he said. “I came looking for work. I found a family.”
Navarro, now a former FAI board president, also spoke about the organization’s balancing act cultivating art and commerce: “The word industry was a little weird when applied to folk (music). An industry is not necessary for folk. We understood the balance, if you will, of the four magnetic points between commercial and non-commercial, traditional and non-traditional. And there are various points in the Venn diagram. We saw that (at Folk Alliance) and went ‘Halle-blankin’-lujah’ and we never looked back.”
The Winner Is...
Awards were handed out at a Wednesday night ceremony, though FAI’s are much lower-key events than their counterparts at the Americana Music Association or the International Bluegrass Music Association. Nashville’s Molly Tuttle, a breakthrough IBMA guitar player winner last Fall, won Song of the Year for “You Didn’t Call My Name” from her 2017 EP Rise. Austin acoustic duo Ordinary Elephant was named Artist of the Year.
Those winners came from the personal, intimate side of folk music. Others were far more pointed and political. Rhiannon Giddens earned Album of the Year for Freedom Highway. Anais Mitchell, honored with one of five Spirit of Folk Awards, performed “That’s Why We Build The Wall,” a song penned for the musical Hadestown several years ago that moved audiences several times over at the FAI with its newfound relevance. And at the ceremony, bluesman and activist Guy Davis reprised Richie Havens’s era-defining Woodstock performance of a spontaneous song that’s become known as simply “Freedom.”
A Sampling of the Sublime
With that opening event behind them, musical mayhem followed, with showcases official and private by more artists than a dedicated listener could absorb in a year, let alone in four nights. Any given fan could only offer a sampling of stirring and revelatory performances, so here is mine:
Wallis Bird is rather well known in Europe with at least one major label release there and extensive touring, but she seemed new to many American ears. That said, the Irish native left a large audience standing and shouting after her explosively charismatic and daring performance. Her guitar style, upside-down and left-handed, was fervently percussive and her textured voice was forceful but controlled. Performers this at home and playful on stage are rare.
Canada always has a sizable contingent at the conference. One standout was Winnepeg-based emerging duo The Small Glories, featuring former Wailin’ Jennys member Cara Luft and solo artist JD Edwards, who lock voices with thrilling intensity and profound subtlety. Meanwhile a buzz followed the Toronto songwriter AHI (pronounced “eye”). He fronted a cracking four-piece band and used his velvet and sand voice to cast a warm, emotional spell at a showcase night sponsored by the Americana Music Association.
Striking for both her music and her message was Kentucky born, New York based Martha Redbone. In recent years she’s stepped out from the anonymity of a career writing pop songs for others and into a role as a bandleader and songwriter who fuses soul, gospel and blues with her Cherokee and Choctaw heritage. With her husband on rollicking piano and a fiddle/banjo combo behind her, she set Native American rhythms with a stomp and shakers and displayed a commanding voice tinged with tragedy. Her subject matter included mountaintop removal as cultural removal and the impact of white schools on Native children.
I am drawn to instrumental twists on folk tradition, so I sought out Sam Reider and Human Hands. The Brooklyn based collective is fronted by a jazz pianist who fell for Woody Guthrie and Bill Monroe and built a new hybrid sound around his accordion. The strong melodies evoked music from France, Brazil and the Appalachians while setting up virtuosic soloing from players better known in the world of bluegrass.
A stage positioned in the home hotel’s most spacious lobby beside a rock garden produced some joyful and heavily reverberant sounds on Saturday night. Abbie Gardner, a member of acclaimed folk group Red Molly, went solo with her voice and dobro (a rare and gutsy proposition) to sing original blues and classic songbook-form numbers that trusted the listener to enjoy a spare musical space. But in that space was a light-filled voice and deftly chosen lines and chords from the horizontal instrument.
Later that evening, Canadian-born, Colorado-based banjo player and self-described “instigator” Jayme Stone presented his Folklife quartet, in which fiddle, bass, accordion and voices re-animated obscure folk songs culled from field recordings and archives. It couldn’t have been a better illustration that folk is fusion among regions and eras and that a very large number of young, highly skilled artists are and have been answering that call to Bring Back The Folk - which never, after all, went away.