The Folk Alliance International Conference showcases are so wide and deep in breadth and styles, it’s hard to pick one or two moments to epitomize its excellence. But two performances inside the Liberty Room of the Westin Crown Center on Friday night are as good an example as any.
Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys took the stage at 8 p.m. and whisked a rowdy crowd of 200 or so through a brisk 25-minute set of classic country and rockabilly songs.
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Mead has deep roots in this region, going back to the 1980s and his days in Lawrence with the Homestead Grays. In the early 1990s, he co-founded BR5-49, a six-piece band whose music is steeped in several classic sounds, including rockabilly, 1950s honky-tonk and Western swing. The band has been on hiatus for several years, and Mead has used the time to work several solo projects, including his latest, “Free State Serenade,” a collection of songs about Kansas.
Along with his three-piece Grassy Knoll Boys (standup bass, drums, pedal steel), he played two of those Friday night. The first was “Evil Wind,” the tale of Dick Hickock, Perry Smith and the “In Cold Blood” murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan. The rest of the six-song set included “Neosho Valley Sue,” “On A Slow Train Through Arkansas” and “The Light of Day,” another “Serenade” song that includes the line: “You can see things more clearly in the light of day / That’s why they look better at night.”
Shortly after Mead’s set, Bruce Robison, one of the better songwriters in country music today, took the stage solo, with an acoustic guitar, and took another big crowd on a more stripped-down journey. Robison has written songs that were more famously recorded by others, and he played a few of those: “Desperately,” which George Strait recorded; “Wrapped,” recorded by Strait and Robison’s wife, Kelly Willis; and “Travelin’ Soldier,” a hit for the Dixie Chicks.
He showed off his sense of humor during “What Would Willie Do,” which chronicled the triumphs and tribulations of Willie Nelson. And he showed off his poetic and narrative skills in “Me and My Brother,” a splendid song about the bonds between brothers and families.
As Robison ended his set (which went a few minutes past deadline), there was plenty going on in other rooms. In Pershing West, a trio of Bondesson sisters from Stockholm, Sweden, called Baskery was turning folk and roots music sideways. They dressed in matching neon-orange shirts with black neckties, but they’re no novelty act. Greta Bondesson multi-tasked, playing banjo and working a kick drum and tambourine with pedals and, occasionally, pounding a floor tom with a drum stick. She was joined by sister Stella on upright bass and Sunniva on electric guitar. The music was brash, gritty and grimy, a mix of electric blues and folk.
Across the hall, Steve Poltz was holding court in the Century C Ballroom, the festival’s biggest venue. Poltz is an indefatigable songwriter, humorist and storyteller, so 30 minutes isn’t enough time for him to do more than a few songs. One of them was “I Want All My Friends to be Happy,” as in: "I want all my friends to be healthy, and when they see kale not just to scoff I want ‘em to live long and prosper and to tell cancer to just go (bleep) off.” And his rambling story about a roommate with a porn collection was hilarious.
Shortly after Poltz’ set, in in Washington Park Place 1, Whiskey Shivers, a five-piece band from Austin, Texas, took the stage, barefoot. They call their music “a freewheelin’, trashgrassin’ folk tornado.” It’s nothing we haven’t seen or heard before (Split Lip Rayfield) but they do it with authority and precision via upright bass, fiddle, guitar, banjo and a washboard battered with brushes. Their songs are tuneful and hooky and their three- and four-part harmonies were excellent.
Before the Shivers’ set had ended, John Fullbright took the stage up in Century C. Like Sarah Jarosz, who lit up the same room on Thursday night, Fullbright, 25, is a rising star in the folk world, someone who is drawing the attention of younger fans. His music breaches boundaries, sliding seamlessly from folk to soul to blues to country rock. At times, his music bears some heavy Steve Earle influences. His set include a soul-infused cover of the blues classic “Aint Nobody’s Business” and “I’m Going Home,” a heartbreak lament that has an Everly Brothers vibe to it.