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A Whole World of Roots Music Hits Kansas City, With a Focus on Activism

Canada's The Dead South perform an Official Showcase at the 2016 Folk Alliance International Conference (Photo by Ron Wray)

Your head nods … suddenly you find yourself drifting into a sea of musicians, thousands … performers and bands marching forward and back in hotel guestroom hallways. Setting up in hotel room after hotel room from the dark of night to the light of next morning. You’re not dreaming, just moving in the flow of the private sessions, the so-called “gorilla sessions” of the (Feb. 15-19) Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City. The next morning’s light is no exaggeration, things go on full-bore until 4 a.m.

The bands will come from many locales and countries and are joined in their tumultuous ramblings by musical management, performing arts venues, recording labels, and media reps. Note after note, building and rebuilding mini castles of sound within the sharply confined architecture of hotel hallways and bedrooms. Instruments will compete for space with the human throng, and you must be alert not to get knocked over in the rush.

Folk Alliance International is a non-profit organization producing this annual conference, the world's largest gathering of the folk music industry and community. FAI is an advocacy, professional development and networking organization boasting this jewel, which is one of the five largest music conferences in North America. No small effort, FAI has a membership of about 3,000 and a budget nearing $1,000,000.

Artists at the conference are hoping in the largest part to get booked by venues - Berkeley’s Freight and Selvedge or the venerable Birchmere in Alexandria, for two of many examples, or any one of a number of house concerts countrywide – or, possibly, signed by recording labels or noticed by media.

A couple of raves from previous years include American Songwriter that wrote, "the annual conference ultimately relies on the oldest transmission form there is: the wandering troubadour." Jim Cowan of Jim Cowan Management added: "The FAI conference is truly a positive and irreplaceable experience for all attendees. The wide spectrum of generations gathered together with the commonality between them of creating grand and long lasting music was amazingly invigorating and inspiring.”

It’s a seemingly endless potpourri of sights, sounds, and tastes. Many sites (hotel rooms and suites) have offerings of appetizers, snacks, and desserts, often homemade, plus wine, beers, and fresh made drink concoctions. Some sponsors (often recording labels or management companies) offer green rooms for their artists and guests to relax between times.

This annual conference includes a keynote speaker that is this year the British legend Billy Bragg, awards shows, over 2,400 registered attendees from 18 countries, 75 exhibitors, 150 panels & workshops, 200 juried official showcases, and over 2,800 private showcases held late at night. The conference is always held at a local hotel, and while in Kansas City has been at The Westin Kansas City at Crown Center, with related programs at the adjacent Sheraton Crown Center.

Each conference typically has a theme. The 2017 theme is Forbidden Folk, and is meant to "celebrate activism in art and look at the ways folk music has, in the past and currently, played a role in labor movements, the civil movements, environmental movements, pacifist movements and political movements as the voice of the people".

Speaking of forbidden folk and activism in folk, guest presenters at the conference include Woody Guthrie’s daughter (and Arlo’s sister) Nora, responsible  for many efforts keeping alive the Woody Guthrie legacy and activist, as well as artist, traditions, including the commissioning of music by the likes of Wilco and Billy Bragg for lyrics Woody left behind.

On these multiple floors of guestrooms of the Westin, the walls will be covered with flyers and posters for myriad musical artists, and the elevator doors totally plastered with huge posters emblazoned with the rosters of musical management companies from the U.S. and Canada. Tables in the rooms and entryways will be packed with stacks of artist cards and flyers as well as CDs. There will also be an exhibit hall full of tables with artists, reps, and CDs open several hours each day.

But that “ain’t” all. Underneath the Westin’s high, cascading waterfall in its lobby and at tables and corners throughout the expansive common areas of the hotel, buskers and jammers will be found tuning up and playing in all combination of instruments and voices, while others will be comparing notes and travels and discoveries they will have made during the long weekend.

 In addition to the private sessions will a number of significant public showcases (concerts), including at least a hundred performances locals will be wise to catch – featuring acts including 2017 Grammy nominee Gaby Moreno, the legendary John McCutcheon, an Australian women’s hit parade of artists calling themselves All our Exes Live in Texas, Prairie Home Companion regular Sara Watkins, Africa’s super talents and , Sengalese singer-songwriter Élage Diouf, Jimmy LaFave, Scotland’s The Jellyman’s Daughter, and, literally, on and on, the very new and the long established icons - stretching from 6 to 11 p.m. daily in numerous auditoriums in the Westin.

The Westin also hosts a final event, a Folk Festival on Sunday, with still more concerts by prominent and emerging artists including Baile an Salsa, Billy Bragg, and Boston’s own Lula Wiles, as well as a Tribute to Woody Guthrie, and an exhibit hall featuring folk arts items and guitars/acoustic instruments.

There is one large room, by the way, that serves during the week as an instrument check room, always packed with instruments ranging from huge basses to, last year, a tiny toy piano.

This conference provides for its thousands of attendees, the chance to make new friends and contacts and revisit old ones while having the opportunity to compare road stories and share many conversations, songs, ideas, and plans.

Additionally, as part of the overall program, yet separate, will be a music camp hosted at the adjacent Sheraton Crown Center Hotel. The two hotels were connected by several long walkways, and cabs and shuttles run guests and conference participants back and forth day and night. Both hotels access into the high-rise Crown Center Shopping and entertainment mall.

The music camp is a remarkable opportunity to participate in small, intimate workshops with the likes of: Sam Baker, guitar genius Beppe Gambetta, Canada’s fiddler and step dancer April Verch, Canadian-African Cécile Doo-Kingué, activist singer-songwriter, the twice Grammy-nominated Eliza Gilkyson, and co-founder of the famed and outrageous Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Bill Kirchen, and numerous others.

The conference offers musical artists additional advantages such as on-site health care and yoga and a variety of informative panels and discussions. Keynote speakers will be Billy Bragg, direct from his home in England, fellow singer-songwriter-activist Ani DiFranco. And, the kick-off night, Wednesday, will feature the Alliance’s Annual Gala Awards, for which presenters this year include are a highlight in itself.

The Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards 2017 recipients are composer David Amram (Living), activist songwriter Malvina Reynolds (Legacy), and prolific Canadian folklorist Helen Creighton (Business/Academic). The Spirit of Folk awards 2017 recipients are Barbara Dane, Chloe Goodyear, Michelle Conceison, Ramy Essam, Si Khan, and SONiA disappear fear. The inaugural People’s Voice Award is being presented to Bruce Cockburn, the inaugural Clearwater Award  presented to the Clearwater Festival, and the member-voted Best of 2016 Awards for Album, Song, and Artist of the Year will be announced that evening, as well as induction of inaugural members of the Folk DJ Hall of Fame. 

Emceeing the evening is Grammy-Award winning artist and feminist, Paula Cole, the first woman in history to individually receive a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year.  The 2017 IFMAs Show also features guest presentations by Kris Kristofferson, TV star Megan Mullally, and two-time Grammy nominated Eliza Gilkyson.

If you’re going to the 2017 conference, or some component of it, congratulations! Speaking of components, the camp, official showcases, and folk festival can be attended without being a delegate first. If you’re not going, you might think about next year. For those in the music business, or for those who love music, who truly love music, there is nothing quite like it.