Folk Alliance 2012 Review
By Art Menius for artmenius.com 2/28/2012
Last week brought another Folk Alliance International Conference, the last of a six year cycle in Memphis, Tennessee. Next year brings Toronto, then five years in Kansas City, Missouri starting in 2014. I started attending with the formation conference produced by Clark and Elaine Weissman in 1989. This year’s vintage proved one of the best of the 24 so far.
Adventures in Obligations & Awards
I arrived Tuesday night for the start of many hours of FAI Board meetings that stretched through 4 PM PM on Thursday. Working together, we sorted through some serious matters involving this upcoming transition and the birth in 2014 of an exciting winter music camp. Board work continued on Friday with a celebratory meeting with the FAI Regional leaders marking the consummation of a long awaited formal relationship with the international organization. We enjoyed a delightful reception and conversation on Friday with some potential members of the soon to be formed Advisory Council of Folk Alliance. I was reelected to another year on Ex Comm as Secretary as were incumbents Renee Bodie, President, Michelle Conceison, Veep, and Donald Davidoff, Treas. Chris Frayer joined the Ex Comm team as at large. The board welcomed one new member, Joan Kornblith of Voice of America, and thanked Mike Gormley, Linda Fahey, and Ralph Sutton for their years of service.
Wednesday evening brought the Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards. Scott Alarick again produced fantastic and informative videos for each recipient. As LAA chair, I had the honor of accepting for Harry Belafonte as Living Performer. Most of the LAA videos can be found on here. Pam Michael, current Executive Director, accepted for the Highlander Center. Robert Johnson’s grandsons were there to accept the Legacy LAA and rendered a spirited, electric performance of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
An entertaining interruption of board work, following the least controversial Annual General Membership meeting in history, was the key note interview of Bob Lefsetz by board member Wendy Waldman.
Who is Bob Lefsetz?
When one says and writes as much as Bob Lefsetz, especially statements outrageous enough to entertain, the quality remains variable. One can read this article about him from the current Wired Magazine. That said, Lefsetz connects with spot on accuracy some of the time, and always provides something to talk about. Highlights from his keynote Interview included:
“You have to be good enough that agents and labels come to you.”
“Mumford & son broke; the folk ghetto no longer exists.”
“I want to go to Youtube and see you play live.”
“Twitter is information, not self-promotion. Let your personality come out.”
“If you’re in this business for the money, quit.”
Lefsetz raved about Memphis and the Folk Alliance. You can start reading with this one.
Music, Lots of Music
And, of course, we had showcases upon showcases, a Coney Island stretching from the most traditional to the most self-involved singer-songwriter and pretty much everything in between. They ranged from bands together for months to one-time hit makers like Jonathan Edwards and Dale Watson. The big buzz acts included Elizabeth Laprelle, a young traditional ballad singer, the gospel Sojourners, the retro-hipster Milk Carton Boys, and the Dunwells, who are live from Leeds and bring to mind Mumford & Son. Lefsetz loved the Dunwells, read this.
Elizabeth Laprelle proved an astonishing southwest Virgina young traditional singer. At a tender age she has mastered the acclaimed Madison County, NC ballad style (think “Songcatcher” and the soundtrack for “Cold Mountain”) and become a commanding string band lead vocalist. She is the niece of veteran singer and fiddler Jon Newlin, the husband of the outstanding singer/banjo player Amy Davis and member of such groups as the Hushpuppies and the Maudlin Brothers. Jon now anchors Elizabeth’s band The Fruit Dodgers. LaPrelle is blessed with a timeless voice that projects authenticity. She possesses a magic gift that earned her this year’s Mike Seeger scholarship to Folk Alliance. Her latest album, Bird’s Advice, features Jon and Amy, Jim Lloyd, and her mom. Elizabeth Laprelle is real. ‘Nuff said.
Thursday night I saw the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century. She is an 18 year old from Winnipeg named Kaia Kater (Hurst) who has been playing banjo for just 5 years and knows every inch of that long neck. Mitch Podolak was her first teacher. She sings the old songs and composes fascinating new tunes describing her sound as “alternative/crunk/folk.” Find her now, including a Phillip Glass cover, at http://www.myspace.com/kaiakaterhurst Banjo playing Canadian singer-songwriter Old Man Lubecke and Austin’s idiosyncratic rising star Matt the Electrician were also terrific on the same set.
From Laprelle’s Friday night showcase in one of the trad showcases run by Andy Cohen into the wee hours, meandering led me to a hot set by Brooklyn’s Dustbusters. They gave me an advance on their May CD with John Cohen from the New Lost City Ramblers on Smithsonian-Folkways. These three are clearly eaten up with hard core old-time scouring the old recordings for stuff to fit their high energy, pure trad string band on meth style. The Dustbusters performed at the Country Music Hall of Fame on the way home and opened for Steve Earle and Alison Moorer in early February.
Perhaps because of the compressed showcase timeframe, my favorite male singer-songwriter Malcomb Holcombe gave the most focused and effective performance I have ever seen by him in is official showcase on second floor Friday night. FAI president Renee Bodie said he was just as powerful in her room 90 minutes later. I met Malcomb at jam sessions in Asheville in the early 1980s when he was a wild young man with amazing songs. Now, he is a wild acting middle aged married songwriter of extraordinary depth and masterfully economical writing. Seeing Malcomb in these small spaces took me back three decades as did the way Holcombe retains the facial and body contortions that add another layer of expression to his poetry and guitar playing. The St. Louis Room was SRO. It’s reaffirming to see this artist finally getting his due since a glowing profile in the Wall Street Journal. I also enjoyed catching parts of excellent performances by a bunch of other old friends including Kickin’ Grass, Joel Rafael (who presented a big Woody Guthrie tribute show Thursday evening), and Scott Ainslie.
Wednesday night I ran into old-time and bluegrass veteran Paul Kovac, one of two people I know from Chardon, Ohio, which would be ripped into the headlines on Monday. Jim Blum from Folk Alley had just given him a CD of one of the two shows he played as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1981. Boy = Girl, Paul’s current effort, is a fun duo with upright bassist Jen Maurer, who also plays in the zydeco-jam band fusion group Mo’ Mojo. They sing romantic duets resembling country and pop styles of a half-century ago, accompanying themselves on banjo and bass. Somehow it ends up sounding more contemporary than atavistic, perhaps because the songs are original.
Austin’s Atomic Duo somehow noticed that the 1930s were the highwater marks for both brother duet music and socialism in the USA. So they put the two together. I discovered later than they face paced and hilarious showcase was webcast. “Another Key in the Key Chain” is a brilliant example of masking contemporary commentary with the trappings of the past. Who said we learned nothing from watching “M.A.S.H?” The Atomic Duo offers a compelling reinvention of American folk song.
From the same town, musical time period, and appearing next in the same room were three women who call themselves The Carper Family. Anyone who likes Hot Club of Cowtown will immediately engage with the small ensemble western swing and cowboy sound of the Carper Family. Bass player Melissa Carper has a penned a collection of strong original songs that work perfectly in their take on the retro-hip wave, including “Who R U Texting 2Nite?,” which appears on their Back When CD that features Cindy Cashdollar.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Andy Cohen led a bunch of volunteer musicians two blocks down Main Street to give a public concert in solidarity with Occupy Memphis. The Memphis Mayor’s office helped make it happen.
Workshops and Panels
Board service means that our directors miss all too much of the workshop and panel sessions.
The session on Hazel Dickens seemed all too short. John Lilly had prepared a nice powerpoint of photos and an informative brochure. Mix of singing and stories from John Lilly, Tracy Schwarz, Ginny Hawker, Bill & Louise Kirchen, and Ken Irwin. The stories covered various aspects of her personality, songwriting, music, wisdom, and the ways she touched our lives. A completed but unreleased album should appear in a few months. Ken has not yet begun going through her many cassettes for what might be hidden there. Bill Kirchen said he regretted that they did not record the honky-tonk album they had discussed. Bill and Louise took Hazel to a John Lilly concerts just days before she passed. They sang all the way back to her apartment. One tale reminded me of how Hazel would always inspect my wife Becky Johnson before the IBMA Awards shows. You can watch the 2002 LAA video for Hazel Dickens here. My obit for the FAI newsletter lives here.
Saturday morning also offered an exemplary conversation about festivals that benefited from the diversity Louis Meyers structured into the panelists. The previous day I made my debut as a Maryland resident in attending the NERFA session rather than my previous home in SERFA.
We had a wonderful conversation that could have gone on forever in the session Pam McMichael and I hosted about the Highlander Center. Wanda Fisher from WAMC radio offered a first person account of frequenting there as a UT student to the consternation of her dorm mother, while Dave Marsh of SiriusXM and Bau Graves from the Old-Town School of Folk Music offered challenging perspectives.
The 2012 FAI Conference provided a blissful last time around in Memphis, arguably the best of our six efforts on the bluffs above the Mississippi. Well see you in Toronto next year and hence in Kansas City.