Lots of Kansas City musicians were surprised and impressed by the doings a year ago when the Folk Alliance International took over two Crown Center hotels for a long weekend. The organization’s conference, held for the first time in Kansas City, brought nearly 3,000 musicians from all over the U.S., Canada and beyond for fellowship, learning and an ultra-fluid jam.
One night’s events shone a spotlight on the locals. Superstar Graham Nash gave an inspiring keynote talk. In the Westin lobby, I listened to impromptu bluegrass sessions that brought together white-haired and first-beard players, and after-hours gatherings kept music going all night long.
The conference returns next week with a welcome new feature, a Music Fair that gives the general public greater access to concerts, workshops, vintage-record and instrument vendors and other events meant to stimulate interest and talent in the many forms of global music that fall under the folk umbrella.
As the brilliant jazz pianist Thelonious Monk once told a young Bob Dylan, “We all play folk music.”
Which is somewhat the message that Louis Meyers has conveyed since he scoured the country for a new Folk Alliance home base and landed in Kansas City.
Meyers cut his musical teeth in Austin, Texas, and helped launch the South by Southwest Festival. After putting on the first Kansas City Folk Alliance conference in 2014, he stepped down as executive director and now heads special projects, which includes the Music Fair.
Meyers gave the alliance a public profile by opening the Folk store in the River Market. It sells vintage instruments and currently is being financially battered, Meyers says, by the streetcar construction on Delaware.
But “that’s progress,” Meyers says, even as he acknowledges that he has been impressed by the city’s current energy. It reminds him of the days before Austin — and South by Southwest for that matter — exploded beyond any reasonable measure of comfort.
“There’s no question Kansas City was the right move for us,” Meyers told me on a quiet recent morning at his shop.
Meyers has made local waves by extending the Folk Alliance reach in collaborative efforts with cultural organizations. The group helped develop a local music directory, a prelude to measuring the economic impact of the music industry here. The American Jazz Museum, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Kansas City Ballet and others are involved in various ways.
“That brings you a little more firepower for the city if you have something like the Folk Alliance coming in,” says Mike Gerken, a jazz museum board member. “It gives us juice.”
If most people have yet to discover Folk Alliance, its kind of progressive cross-fertilization has turned this annual event into a locally important asset. Instead of a closed-door conference, this one reaches out and helps define the cultural landscape.
Cross-fertilization is a hallmark of music — the kind of human experience that brings people together in surprising ways. One scheduled highlight of the Folk Alliance weekend will be a sneak premiere of a project Meyers produced — a bluegrass version of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” by the HillBenders of Springfield, Mo. Really. It’s slated for release this spring, but you can hear it late on Feb. 20 at the Folk Alliance bash or find the band playing a sample, “Pinball Wizard,” on YouTube.
Kansas Citians have a way of taking things for granted. We love our cultural assets, but we’re not always very good about ensuring that they grow and prosper.
The Folk Alliance arrived with a five-year contract to produce its big event here. City officials, tourism businesses and the local arts community should do everything they can to make sure the Folk operation can and will make music in Kansas City for the long haul.