Man of the Folk

Offering up a celebration of music that knows no barriers, The National Folk Festival fits Arts Greensboro’s president and
CEO Tom Philion’s ever-expanding vision of our musical future

If your idea of folk music is some tie-dyed hippie revenant belting out “Kumbaya,” T he National Folk Festival will short out your musical circuitry. Take your folk definition, tear it up and throw it away — you’ll never think about the genre the same way again. “It’s really like the Noah’s ark of living traditions,” says Arts Greensboro’s president & CEO Tom Philion, who was instrumental in bringing The National Folk Festival to Greensboro for the next three years.

From September 11–13, 300 performers on seven stages will bust your folk bubble with as diverse a grouping of artists as you’ll ever find on one bill.

In order to fully grasp the concept of folk music, you’ve got to get your mind right, get your head around the proper terminology. For instance, Americana is really anything but. In fact, a lot of Americana originated in other countries, notably England, Ireland and Scotland. And if you want truth in advertising, the backbone of bluegrass and most folk is an African instrument, the banjo.

“The terminology is so problematic, it means different things to different people,” says George Holt, chairman of the board for the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the organization that puts on the festival. Hardest of all, perhaps, may be coming up with a definition of folk music: “Some conjure up Joan Baez, and for others it’s anybody who plays acoustic guitar, any kind of singer/songwriter. But that’s not the definition applied by the NCTA and The National Folk Festival.”

That definition is not spelled out but illustrated by the diversity of artists and genres the festival brings along with it. “The National Folk Festival is not overly doctrinaire in its choice of programming,” Holt says. “But it takes its mission very seriously, which is to showcase music that is very deeply rooted in its communities and regions. A pretty high premium is placed on authenticity,” which Holt admits can be another tricky word to define.

The Festival gets it right, putting a selection of music out on display that has no barriers, a global array of genres and artists. But those global attractions are paired with regional and local attractions just as engaging. You can try to make your own schedule based on the biggies you want to see, but it’s just as much fun to do walk-ups on stuff you’ve never heard of.

A few years ago, I visited the Richmond Folk Festival, which started life as The National Folk Festival and then was taken over by the city after three years when the festival moved on. I happened upon Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes in one tent. There was only a small card with the group’s name outside the tent, but as soon as the first song cranked up, I was running for a front row seat. A regional attraction based in Virginia, the Ingram family puts out foot stompin’, Jubilee gospel strong enough to wake the dead and reform the nastiest sinners (even if only for a brief festival moment). With the aid of the Ingrams’ gospel music ministry, beer-gutted bubbas, cheeks bulging with ’bacca chaws, were big footin’ for Jesus beside society ladies in their summah finery, scruffy college kids, sunburnt sailors with high-and-tight haircuts and assorted miscreants like yours truly, dancin’ in the spirit. They’ll be bringing their fiery gospel to town here as well.

Ingram Family (left)

Pine Leaf Boys' Wilson Savoy (Below)
 Photos by Grant Britt

Or catch Nigerian bassist Babá Ken Okulolo, who stirs things up with his brand of energetic West African dance music known as Highlife, a brassy, lilting sound with a quickstep tempo that pumps up your pulse and makes you sway like a tropical breeze. Okulolo, who accompanied King Sunny Ade on four albums and two world tours and has played with Fela Kuti as well, concentrates on the classic Highlife sounds from the ’60s and ’70s. Although he probably won’t play marathon twelve hour concerts as he does in his native Nigeria, Okulolo can be counted on to give you all the dance workout your Western legs can stand.

If you watched the HBO series Treme, you might recall the Pine Leaf Boys’ brief segment lighting up the screen with rockin’ Cajun mojo. But that brief vignette didn’t begin to show the depth of their invigorating take on all genres. From swamp pop, which is basically ’50s era rock with a Cajun accent (Cookie and the Cupcakes’ “Mathilda,” Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans”) to traditional Cajun to country, the Pine Leafs fire up the music and free your feet to do their stuff while they do theirs.

And then there’s Dale Watson [see sidebar]. He’s the Texas country singer/songwriter who became so fed up with what TV twerps like Blake Shelton were doing with his beloved country that he came up with a new term for the music that he insists is still the real deal, dubbing it Ameripolitan. He wants to be remembered as “just as a guy who tried to keep the integrity of the roots out there.”

And now that hometown girl Rhiannon Giddens has gotten so popular, it’ll be a rare treat to see her at a venue where you can still get up close and personal with her ethereal voice.  The operatically trained singer/instrumentalist, who reintroduced black string band music with her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, now works in a ever-widening variety of genres and styles. She has always insisted her music has no limits and has always fought to highlight music and musicians she feels have been swept under the rug. “I can be a pretty girl singing a song, so can a million other people, but I feel like I was put here specifically to do this work,” she says. “And that’s what I hope to be remembered for.”

Although he’d been aware of The National Folk Festival’s activities for many years, Philion first became directly involved when a member of Action Greensboro strolled into his office with a circular from the NCTA and wondered aloud if Greensboro should be interested. “I said, ‘are you kidding?’” Philion recalls. “‘Yes! This is a big deal.’”

Philion first brought his musical savvy to town in 2003 when he was with the Eastern Music Festival, coming up with the Fringe series. The Fringe series featured about two dozen concerts each summer in what Philion called “a movable fest,” including acts as diverse as Mavis Staples, Steep Canyon Rangers, the Iguanas, Los Straitjackets, Bruce Hornsby and the Hacienda Brothers. When he returned to Greensboro from Seattle  in 2010 to take the helm of the United Arts Council, he initiated 17Days, a highly successful series presenting a cross cultural array of cutting-edge music, dance and performance.

George Holt says that one of the main reasons Greensboro was selected for the current three-year festival run was due to Philion’s exhaustive and inventive preparations. “He’s one of those people who can rub stuff together and make something out of nothing,” Holt says of Philion.  “In order for the event to succeed, the entire community has to embrace it — local government, convention and business bureau, corporate sponsors — there has to be substantial infrastructure to make it go.”  Philion not only had that lined up, he was looking beyond the Folk Festival’s tenure here as well.

Says Philion, “Part of our pitch to The National Folk Festival people was that we very much have committed to doing a North Carolina folk festival when they move in 2018.” Even though the Festival has its own production team that takes care of all the physical logistics including booking, the host is encouraged to participate in the selection process.

Philion seized the opportunity to revitalize Greensboro’s once glorious but fading music scene in cooperation with local venues. “We’re going to have two late-night stages, one in Hamburger Square, one over at the RailYards, in addition to the seven stages that are National Folk Festival,” he says. “And at those two stages, we will focus a tremendous amount of energy on local and North Carolina artists.”

In addition, Philion is introducing an initiative called Fabric of Freedom to remind  visitors and residents alike of the important role Greensboro has played in championing individual freedoms. “This part of N.C. has been a crucible of freedom since religious groups left Europe, like the Quakers’ persecution,” Philion says. “So Quakers, birth of the Underground Railroad here, Greensboro’s pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War, it’s a story that’s not told that often very well,  all the way through to the birth of sit-in movements here.”

Gospel /soul legend and civil-rights activist Mavis Staples has been booked to kick off the segment. In addition, Philion is setting up a school program to teach something not usually found on the curriculum. “We’re gonna bring a lot of these artists into the schools a few days before the festival, provide an opportunity for kids to engage and connect, a rare opportunity to engage them in something they’ve never seen before.”

Holt says Greensboro is the perfect venue. “Over the years, the festival has prospered most in communities about the size of Greensboro, not really big cites where there’s an abundance of arts and cultural activities. Greensboro really fit the profile.”

But if Philion has his way, that lack of abundance may come to an end. “One of the pieces to remember about the National is that for us it’s particularly poignant as a community because it is so diverse, because it allows us to draw the community together in a way that I’m not sure this community has ever really had before,” he says. In addition to drawing cultural tourists to town and creating a huge economic impact, the Festival will instill some pride into the populace for being part of a community-building event. “Because guess what? This isn’t Raleigh, this isn’t Charlotte, it’s not even Asheville,” Philion says. “It’s Greensboro . . . we’re doing it.”




(Photo by Sarah Wilson)

Leading the parade of interesting musical critters off The National Folk Festival Ark is the antichrist of country, Dale Watson. The Austin-based singer/guitarist was so disgusted by the stuff that was passing as country that he came up with a new label, Ameripolitan, for the roots music he has dedicated his life to. Honky-tonk, outlaw, Western swing and rockabilly are the four groups that make up his Ameripolitan sound. His first annual Ameripolitan Awards were held last year in Austin. But for the last twenty years, Watson has been railing against what Unknown Hinson, 2014 Ameripolitan Award Winner for Best Outlaw Male, dubbed the new crop of country singers: “Buncha steroid-eatin’ pretty boys with cowboy hats and shaved chests.”

Watson has been equally uncharitable about the artists who maimed the country sound he grew up with. On “Country, My Ass,” from his 2002’s Live In London, England, Watson noted that the pretty boys, “Took the soul out of what means a whole lot to me.” He goes on to say that he can see Hank and Lefty spinning in their graves, theorizing that if they could be resurrected, they’d tell that bunch to “stick it up high/Where the sun don’t shine/We’re pissed, we’re mad/ ’cause that’s country, my ass.”

But Watson got even more specific after Blake Shelton, 2014 CMA Entertainer of the Year for Best Male Video, announced in an interview on the GAC network that “nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music.” He further incensed Watson by adding “I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville are going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ That’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”

Watson was touring Europe when he heard about it. As soon as his plane landed, he found a recording studio in Holland and crafted an answer, “I’d Rather Be An Old Fart Than A New Country Turd.” The song featured lyrics like “I’m just a jackass that likes the ol’ country sound/plenty of us old farts still hangin’ around.” It got plenty of attention, but Watson doesn’t think Shelton ever got his message. “The guy’s a millionaire and not really grounded enough to know what he really did,” Watson says. “He still thinks he’s the savior of country music. As Ray Price said, there’s not a hat made big enough to fit his head. See how his music stands up in 65 years.”

Many musicians don’t like to be pigeonholed, but Watson says he loves labels. “I get to pick what I want. It’d be like going to the grocery store and have nothing labeled or categorized,” he says. “I’d hate to take a swig of whiskey and find out it was water. So yeah, labels are important to me.”

    Grant Britt



This article originally appeared in the September  O. HenryMagazine.