Steve Paul

Broken hearts and timeless sounds at Folk Alliance’s musical world in Kansas City

The Stray Birds and friends from all over played a hotel-room jam early Sunday at Folk Alliance International.
The Stray Birds and friends from all over played a hotel-room jam early Sunday at Folk Alliance International. The Kansas City Star

It was almost 3 a.m. Sunday when I finally pulled myself away from Folk Alliance International. That’s the annual music confab now based in Kansas City and sprawling over the two hotels at Crown Center. I’d just spent about 45 minutes of quality time in a seventh-floor room at the Westin surrounded by a couple of dozen people sitting on the beds and standing to the doorway and beyond. We were all listening to a neo-bluegrass trio, the Stray Birds, whose members were hosting a jam session with an eager lineup of friends standing against the room’s closed aqua drapes.

It was intimate and enlivening and rather joyous as multiple fiddles rang and songs filled the air.

Call it an obsession. Or a diversion from the everyday world, which lately seems to cry out desperately for diversion. But in 26 hours over four days, I got a decent immersion into the ever fractured world of music. Call it folk, call it Americana and bluegrass and blues, or call it young men and women with guitars who are finding their voices and sharing something from deep within.

Songwriters from Austin, Tulsa, Nashville and Wales caught my ear. Some very young pickers, and journeymen, too, from Michigan, across Canada and all other directions animated the hallways and showcase rooms throughout the complex.

After I caught Tulsa’s John Moreland quite unexpectedly on my first night at Folk Alliance, I began raving about him uncontrollably to anyone who’d listen. Moreland, a 30-year-old of considerable girth, prodigious tats and a brushfire beard, has even greater talent as a poet and songwriter. He’s squarely in the lineage of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. “If it don’t bleed it ain’t a song,” went one of his lyrics. And, indeed, his sad-eyed tunes of heartache, social disconnection and psychic pain were a revelation. (“The best songwriter I know,” Anthony Ladesich, Kansas City musician and film maker, chimed in later on Facebook, “and a hell of a good guy.”) And, sure, I will keep my eye on Moreland’s gathering force as his music gets around and as he spends many of his days on the long tour road.

I took a liking, too, to Carrie Elkin, up from Austin, and not just because of her sweet, arch-topped Gibson, circa 1942. She’s got a life-burnished voice and a gentle writer’s touch, and she sang a tune she often sings with its writer, her husband Danny Schmidt, that demands to be a classic anthem of life and memory. Called “Company of Friends,” it’s got the stuff everyone needs in a song, and I’m hoping someone will think to sing it at my funeral: “I believe in living smitten/ I believe all hearts will mend/ I believe our book is written/ By our company of friends.” In addition to some of her own songs, I heard Elkin sing “Company of Friends” twice over the weekend, and I felt kind of blessed.

Kansas City musicians won new listeners, too, and it will be great to hear how their exposure at this crossroads of the industry will translate into whatever the measure of success might be in the digi-download transformation of musical careers. If you ever get a chance, for instance, to hear Fedra Cooper Barrera’s powerhouse voice on Spanish songs with guitarist Beau Bledsoe and Ensemble Iberica, do not miss it. The hard-working “antique-jazz” ensemble Victor & Penny seemed to be everywhere over the weekend. And the Grisly Hand, Kasey Rausch and other local trailblazers got plenty of opportunities to strut.

A one-of-a-kind tribute came from the creative mind of composer and musician David Amram. At 84, he’s something like the last of the original hipsters. He knew Charlie Parker, played with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, laid some music on the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and continues to represent a generosity of spirit that’s increasingly hard to find. Amram took to the stage last Saturday night, invited a few musicians from Kansas City and elsewhere to join him, then launched into a bebop rap about Kansas City that segued into a long jam with lyrics (“Kansas City Is the Place to Be”). It was, of course, priceless. (You can get a glimpse of its first several minutes in a video I posted, along with several others, on YouTube.)

It was disturbing to hear that a rising talent from Wales, Kizzy Crawford, got caught up in a U.S. Customs nightmare on her way to Kansas City so she never made it. (The government of Wales is pressing U.S. Customs for an explanation.) But some of her fellow Welsh musicians did, including Gwyneth Glyn, an emerging talent with an echo of the young Joni Mitchell.

Everyone who wandered the hotels in search of music found new favorites and old friends. And they’ll give you a rundown of highlight moments of their own.

The Folk Alliance International and its new public-access Music Fair have won many friends, and many of us hope it can stay in Kansas City for the long haul, though that’s not a given. The show is an incubator of talent, a marketplace of entrepreneurialism, and a melting pot of social critique, indie entertainment and frontier beards.

If there were brief moments when I felt as if trapped in “A Mighty Wind” — that great folkie parody flick — there were easy exits and better stuff next door.

Like Dylan devotee Jimmy LaFave, the effervescent keyboardist Radoslav Lorkovic or

, one of my new favorite bands, day or late night, the Stray Birds.

Steve Paul is The Star’s editorial page editor. To reach him, call 816-234-4762 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @sbpaul.

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