TIMOTHY FINN

Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City showcases the genre’s roots and future

Updated: 2014-02-22T23:57:02Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

The first time Louis Meyers attended the annual Folk Alliance Conference was in 1989, its second year. At the time, he was a director of the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, which he helped co-found in 1987. He attended the folk conference as a manager of several bands.

His experience?

“I’ve been quoted as saying, ‘I’ll never do another Folk Alliance showcase again as long as I live,’ ” he said.

Not only did he return, but in 2005 he was named its director.

Last August, he moved its headquarters from Memphis to downtown Kansas City. This week, the alliance is presenting its first international conference in Kansas City, and 26th overall, at the Westin and Sheraton hotels in Crown Center. It will showcase the diversity of folk music in 2014, but with an emphasis on its storied traditions.

“We’re unique because we service both the traditional and the contemporary markets,” Meyers said. “This year, we’ll have more of the old-guard folk acts than ever. But we’ll also have plenty of up-and-comers who have broken through the Folk Alliance in recent years: John Fullbright, the Stray Birds, Sam Baker.”

“A lot of what we have to do is make sure traditional folk is passed on from generation to generation. That’s almost the core of what we do.”

Going to Kansas City

When Meyers took over the Folk Alliance, it was a ship in need of remodeling. Two years earlier, he’d sold his share in SXSW, citing its precipitous growth as one reason.

“South-By used to be about discovery,” he said. “Taking thousands of entries and cherry-picking them into a few hundred, something people could digest. It was such a different business when we started. Now, there are 2,300 official acts alone. The big acts used to draw crowds to the showcases and the unsigned bands. Now, they play during those showcases.”

The Folk Alliance, on the other hand, was a little too laissez-faire and needed a little more business sense, some of his South-By savvy.

“It was somewhat unprofessional and somewhat folky in the sense that it was like, ‘Oh, everything’s good, things will just … happen,’ ” he said. “There was no business mentality for moving artists up the ladder and helping businesses gain traction. It was obviously a very strong community. That’s what attracted me to it.”

Meyers spent eight years in Memphis, making the conference a go-to event. A few years ago, he started shopping for a new home. After considering almost three dozen cites, including St. Louis, Denver, Omaha, Little Rock, Austin and San Antonio, the alliance chose to bring its headquarters and its conference, which draws about 2,000 registrants annually, to Kansas City for a variety of reasons.

“The quality of life, the cost of living and doing business,” he said. “The access to the airport and the train station. Google is coming in. And the general forward progress of Kansas City was impressive. There are a lot of people doing things to make the city better every day.

“Plus, it’s in the middle of the country in a place that understands roots music. If the local roots music scene isn’t quite strong, the regional scene is, with Winfield and Branson. There’s a lot of understanding around here of what we do musically and a lot of good players.”

The public can listen and learn

On a recent frigid Sunday afternoon, Meyers sat in the alliance’s headquarters in the River Market: the Folk Store, 509 Delaware St., which sells a host of stringed instruments and hosts a variety of alliance events, like workshops and monthly jam sessions. At the time, the conference was 11 days away, and Meyers talked about how it would celebrate and benefit the Kansas City music scene.

Wednesday night it will throw a Kansas City Extravaganza that will showcase more than five dozen bands and artists, almost all from Kansas City or Lawrence.

For the first time, the conference is selling admission to its Performance Alley showcases. From Thursday through Saturday, roughly 75 bands and artists will perform each night. Advance tickets are sold out for each day but a limited number of tickets will be available at the door.

“And the public shows are all fundraisers,” Meyers said. “Money will go to the Midwest Music Foundation and our scholarship fund.”

In addition, the conference will screen two films with local ties: “Cowtown Ballroom … Sweet Jesus,” by local filmmakers Joe Heyen and Anthony Ladesich, and “Two Sisters,” another Ladesich film.

The rest of the conference is a mix of panels and roughly 75 showcase performances each night. Graham Nash will deliver the keynote at 11 a.m. Thursday. (For a schedule and the extensive list of performers and to buy showcase tickets, visit folkalliance.org.)

This year, the alliance will launch its inaugural four-day music camp, which is also open to the public. More than four dozen instructors will participate. The camp is open to all registrants. The public can register for the camp only at the alliance’s website.

“The camp offers instruction in all roots music, electric and acoustic, on fiddle, guitar, banjo, dobro, pedal steel, mandolin and ukulele,” Meyers said. “Everything from beginners to master class. Professionals are welcome, but it’s mostly for beginners and especially for the weekend warriors, the church players and campground players.”

Room for all styles

Betse Ellis will be a camp instructor, one of her many roles at the conference. She has two showcase performances, including the Kansas City showcase. She also coordinated the traditional-music panels and will be a panelist on one of them: “Where Worlds Collide: Folk Music Traditions In and Around Kansas City.”

Ellis, who played fiddle for the Wilders (now on extended hiatus) for years, said one intent of the conference is to show the many facets of traditional folk and bring new people into its fold.

“Folk music, for decades, has evoked images of the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, Pete Seeger or early Bob Dylan,” Ellis said. “For a lot of people folk music meant … singer/songwriters. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there are so many people who want to express themselves that way that … perhaps were in danger of being overrun by only that.

“Folk music is an ever-broadening and growing genre. There’s a lot of room for what it is.”

On the other end of the spectrum, among the younger, alternative bands, that “room” includes alternative acts like Whiskey Shivers and a band like Gangstagrass, a bluegrass/rap act from Brooklyn that is part of a subgenre called hick-hop. Its song “Long Hard Times to Come” is the theme song for FX’s cop show “Justified.”

“I received a package last year from them,” Meyers said. “I got it. But there was a long debate: Would our audience accept this?

“We brought them in for the conference. They had a showcase, and they killed it. They were the most successful rags-to-riches story of last year. A lot of people didn’t want to like it. They’re not use to seeing a traditional bluegrass band — guitar, fiddle, dobro, banjo — with two rappers with dreads. But it was really great to have them.”

Acceptance of the more experimental and nontraditional acts doesn’t foretell the wane of traditional folk, Meyers said. Rather, it draws younger performers and audiences into the folk fold and exposes them to its traditions.

“We need to develop not just the youth market but the alternative market,” he said. “We want to offer a large selection of styles, whether traditional or alternative, and many approaches to those styles.”

So as he approaches his 10th year as director of the Folk Alliance, Meyers can say that his conference is doing what the big music festival in Austin used to: honoring its stars and elders while discovering new talent and traditions.

Showcase schedule

As many as 2,000 fans, musicians and music industry insiders are gathering at the Folk Alliance International annual convention, which starts Wednesday and continues through Sunday at Crown Center. While the convention focus is business-related, there are live music showcases open to the public through Saturday featuring dozens of national and local artists.

Public showcase tickets are $25 per night. All shows are in the Westin Crown Center hotel. All times are evening unless listed. For more information, call 816-221-3655 or go to FolkAlliance.org.

Thursday

Brookside ballroom

7:30 Alana Amram & the Rough Gems

8 Cotton Wine

8:30 Blue Warblers

9 David Olney

9:30 Ragbirds

10 Casey Driessen Singularity

Century C ballroom

6 Tom Rush

7 Irene Kelley

7:30 Roys

8:15 Shel

9 Black Lillies

9:45 Sarah Jarosz

Liberty ballroom

6 Michael Johnson

6:30 Claudia Schmidt

7 Bills

7:30 Ruth Moody

8 John Gorka

8:30 Ray Bonneville

9 Eliza Gilkyson

9:30 Danny Schmidt

10 Carrie Elkin

Penn Valley ballroom

7 Ben Rogers

7:30 Kaia Kater

8 Belle Plaine

8:30 Lucas Chaisson

9 Tim Hus

9:30 Dana Sipos

10 Charlie A’Court

Pershing South ballroom

5:45 Kiki Ebsen, Marci Geller, Radolkav Lorkivic

7:30 Sonia and Disappear Fear

8 Buddy Mondlock

8:30 3 Trails West

9 Buffalo Tales

9:30 Ryan Shupe and RubberBand

10 Batdorf & Stanley

Pershing West ballroom

5:45 Carolyn Hester, Josh White Jr. and Harry Tuft

7:30 Kris Delmhorst

8 Poor Old Shine

8:30 Heather Maloney

9 Darlingside

9:45 Miss Tess

Roanoke ballroom

5:45 Matt Electrician, Eliza Gilkyson, Ariana Gillis, Jordie Lane, Jens Lysdal

7:30 Lera Lynn

8 Lilly Hiatt

8:30 Elizabeth McQueen

9 Nancy Cassidy

9:30 Tia McGraff

10 Bronwynne Brent

Shawnee ballroom

6 Shred Kelly

6:45 Lost and Nameless Orchestra

7:30 Honeycutters

8:15 Della Mae

9 Hot Buttered Rum

9:45 Gangstagrass

Union Hill ballroom

7:30 Blasting Company

8 Wyatt Easterling

8:30 Pops Bayless

9 Brad Cole

9:30 Hogan and Moss

10 Desi and Cody

Washington Park Place 1 ballroom

5:45 Oklahoma with Kyle Reid, John Calvin, John Moreland, Travis Linville, Red Dirt Rangers, Jared Tyler/Monica Taylor, Tom Skinner, Dustin Pittsley, Jacob Tovar, Beau Roberson, Wink Burcham, Desi and Cody, Paul Benjaman

7:30 Barn Bird

8 Flyin’ A’s

8:30 Shinyribs

9 Jim Lauderdale

9:45 Jadea Kelly

Washington Park Place 3 ballroom

5:45 Tribute to Willie P. Bennett

7:30 Brother Sun

8:15 Harpeth Rising

9 Robby Hecht

9:30 Rebecca Loebe and New Ordeals

10 Uncle Bonsai

Friday

Brookside ballroom

6 Brian Ashley Jones

6:30 Duane Andrews and Craig Young

7 Darryl Purpose

7:30 Moors and McCumber

8 BettySoo

8:30 Grahams

9 Lance Canales and Flood

9:30 T Sisters

10 Hot Nut Riveters

Century C ballroom

6 Owen Temple

6:30 Dan Navarro

7 Amy Speace

7:30 Chip Taylor

8 Kim Richey

8:30 Jimmy LaFave

9 Steve Poltz

9:30 Sam Baker

10 John Fullbright

Liberty ballroom

6 Dawn Landes

6:30 Anthony da Costa

7 Ashley Condon

7:30 Emily Elbert

8 Chuck Mead

8:30 Bruce Robison

9 Christine Lavin and Don White

9:30 Brewer and Shipley

10 Guy Davis

Penn Valley ballroom

6 Andy Cohen

6:30 John Lilly

7 David Berkeley

7:30 Navigators

8 Qristina and Quinn Bachand

8:30 Ben Fields

9 Lyal Strickland

9:30 Spencer and Rains

10 Jon Brooks

Pershing South ballroom

6 Red Moon Road

6:45 Jenny Ritter

7:30 Pear

8:15 Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys

9 Ian Kelly

9:45 Gabrielle Papillon

Pershing West ballroom

6 Calan

6:45 Mountain Firework Company

7:30 Burning Bridget Cleary

8:15 Old Salt Union

9 Baskery

9:45 Howlin’ Brothers

Roanoke ballroom

6 Amy Black

6:30 Ronnie Fauss

7 Sean Rowe

7:30 David Halley

8 Paul Anastasio and Hot Lands Group

8:30 Molly Tuttle

9 Bill Evans

9:30 Gunner and Smith

10 Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum

Shawnee ballroom

6 Talbott Brothers

6:45 Amigos Band

7:30 David Aamram

8:15 TBA

9 Reed Turner

9:45 Redd Volkaert and Bill Kirchen Guitar Army

Union Hill ballroom

6 Jens Lysdal

6:30 Zachary Lucky

7 Laith Al-Saadi

7:30 Sea Sea

8 Olion Byw

8:30 Mel Parsons

9 Maja and David

9:30 Liz Stringer

10 Linda McRae

Washington Park Place 1 ballroom

6 Gordon Grdina’s Haram

6:45 Birds of Chicago

7:30 Crooked Brothers

8:15 F5 Four

9 Foghorn Stringband

9:45 Whiskey Shivers

Washington Park Place 3 ballroom

6 Midnight Roses

6:45 Slocan Ramblers

7:30 Nu-Blu

8:15 Railsplitters

9 HanaLena

9:45 Lindsay Lou and Flatbellys

Saturday

Brookside ballroom

6 Riley Baugus

6:30 Lil Rev

7 Pete and Joan Wernick

7:30 Jordie Lane

8 Ellis

8:30 Del Barber

9 Carolina Story

9:30 Webb Wilder

10 Rachel Ries

Century C ballroom

6 Don Henry and Jon Vezner

6:30 Eric Brace and Peter Cooper

7 Ellis Paul

7:30 A.J. Croce

8:15 Kevin and Dustin Welch

9 Grant Lee Phillips

9:45 Stray Birds

Liberty ballroom

6 Mae Trio

6:30 Tim Easton

7 William Graham and Jon Dee Graham

7:30 Willie Watson

8 Lowell Levinger, Banana From Youngbloods

8:30 Henry Wagons

9 Ronny Cox

9:45 Willie Nile

Penn Valley ballroom

6 Bobby Bare Jr.

6:30 Michaela Anne

7 Jeff Black

7:30 DnA: Delyth and Angharad Jenkins

8 Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman

8:30 Billy Strings and Don Julin

9 Hut People

9:30 Louise Mosrie

10 Jerry Joseph

Pershing South ballroom

6 Raina Rose

6:30 Guy Forsyth

7 HalleyAnna

7:30 David Garza

8 Michael Fracasso

8:30 Darden Smith

9 Patrice Pike

9:30 Matt Electrician

10 Carper Family

Pershing West ballroom

6 AJ Gaither

6:30 Sara Swenson

7 Victor & Penny

7:30 Olassa

8 Howard Iceberg

8:30 Betse Ellis

9 Twenty Thousand Strongmen

9:30 Making Movies

Roanoke ballroom

6 Cahalen Morrison and Eli West

6:30 Wild Ponies

7 Radoslav Lorkovic

7:30 Roy Book Binder

8 Jim Kweskin

8:30 Mike Compton

9 Darol Anger and Emy Phelps, Furies

9:30 Aching Hearts

10 Barrel Jumpers

Shawnee ballroom

6 Lonely Heartstring Band

6:45 Appleseed Collective

7:30 Star and Micey

8:15 Missy Raines and New Hip

9 Hillbenders

9:45 Farewell Drifters

Union Hill ballroom

6 California Feetwarmers

6:30 Frank Martin Gilligan

7 Bella Hardy

7:30 Daniel Champagne

8 Andy Brown

8:30 Ben Arthur

9 Kail Baxley

9:30 Jonah Tolchin

10 Evie Ladin and Keith Terry

Washington Park Place 1 ballroom

6 Bombadils

6:45 Graydon James and Young Novelists

7:30 Ariana Gillis

8:15 Samantha Robichaud

9 Samantha Martin

9:45 Shtreiml and Ismail Fencioglu

Washington Park Place 3 ballroom

6 Ian Sherwood

6:30 Gordie Tentrees and Hill Country News

7 100 mile house

7:30 Laura Smith

8 JP Hoe

8:30 Sweet Lowdown

9 Suzie Vinnick

9:30 Steve Brockley Band

10 Dave Gunning

Open to the public

Some of the Folk Alliance Conference events are open to the public. For more information, go to FolkAlliance.org.

The public is invited to all of the Performance Alley Showcases for an admission of $25 per night. Advance tickets are sold out online, but a small number of tickets will be available for each night at the door.

The public can participate in the Winter Music Camp at the Sheraton Crown Center. The camp offers instruction and jam sessions for musicians and songwriters in all styles of roots music. Times: 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Register at the hotel or at FolkAlliance.org. Cost: $250 for the entire camp or a discounted rate of $50 a day using the code folkcamp50.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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