You have a ‘solemn duty’ to work and resonate, Graham Nash tells fellow songwriters

The role of the songwriter is to reveal the emperor’s lack of clothing, to expose the behind-the-scenes wizards who control our life and to shorten the distance between the public and the truth.

That’s the message Graham Nash delivered Thursday morning to a roomful of songwriters and musicians in his keynoate address to the 26th annual Folk Alliance Conference, being held for the first time in Kansas City, at the Westin and Sheraton Crown Center hotels.

He had another admonition: Life is too short, there’s too much injustice to illuminate and too much activism needed. Thus, musicians have a “solemn duty” not to waste time, he said.

Nash, 72, has been elected to the Rock an Roll Hall of Fame twice, as a member of Crosby Stills and Nash and as a member of the Hollies. Asked by moderator and folk musician Joel Rafael why a rock musician was addressing a folk conference, Nash declared: “Who cares? We’re all in the same business. The business of communicating.”

Nash reminded his audience that, despite the seismic changes in the music business, one thing remains the same: It’s still about writing good songs. And the best songs have the power to provoke change, to ease the plight of the underdogs and common man.

His innate activist spirit is the result in part of being raised in a country that has been bombed so destructively. America wouldn’t be so quick to go to war if its cities had suffered the devastation of places like London and Manchester, said Nash, who became an American citizen in 1972.

After he finished his prepared 10-minute speech in a ballroom at the Westin, Nash took questions from Rafael, many of which addressed “Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life,” the autobiography Nash released late last year. He credited his parents with not allowing him to fall for the “gold watch theory,” in which you work for a company for 50 years, you get to a certain age and retire you, give you a gold watch and replace you with someone younger, stronger and cheaper.”

His mother later told him she supported his music interests because she had wanted to be on stage. He has honored her since, he told his audience, by spreading her ashes on various stages across the globe, including Carnegie Hall. “I wouldn’t be here if not for my parents,” he said.

He recalled meeting the Queen and breaking protocol by speaking to her before he was spoken to. He revisited his choice to leave England for America and follow “the sound in my heart,” the sound he would make with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

He praised the Everly Brothers for their influence and passionately honored Buddy Holly, his first hero and great inspiration, and he recalled visiting Clear Lake, Iowa, in 2009 and standing at the site of the plane crash that killed Holly and three others in 1959. “To stand in the snow at that part of the field where the plane had gone through the fence was ... very emotional,” Nash said. “He was very important to our lives.”

Nash ended his keynote with three songs. The first was new one called “Back Home,” which he wrote in memory of Levon Helm. Then Rafael joined him in a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” and the audience joined them both in “Teach Your Children,” one of Nash’s best-known CSN songs.

Thursday’s keynote followed a Wednesday evening that was full of local music. More than five dozen local bands and musicians performed in nearly a dozen rooms and meeting halls in the Westin, and they showcased a music scene that is vastly diverse.

One of the more noteworthy performances was by the Celtic-rock band the Elders, who showed off their new fiddler, Colin Farrell, who previously performed at Ragland Road in the Power and Light District and now performs at the same restaurant in Orlando, Fla. Making Movies followed that set with its invigorting mix of Afro-Cuban music and rock. Then came the Grisly Hand, a

Other highlights: Katy Guillen and the Girls, who laid down some bristling electric roots/blues; Howard Iceberg the Titanics, who mix their folk with some hearty country accents; Dollar Fox, who give their country songs a heavy rock twist; Blackbird Revue, who mix folk, country and bluegrass into something warm and arresting; the Konza Swamp Band, a quartet with a lively bluegrass/jug band vibe; and Brandon Phillips, the lead singer of the rock band the Architects, who played a solo show that included a great cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.”

The conference continues Thursday through Saturday. Some tickets for the public remain for each night for $25. Performances in the Showcase Alley at the Westin Crown Center begin at 6 p.m. each night.

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