The 2012 Folk Alliance Conference
Intimacy and Insularity
By Geoffrey Himes
Paste Magazine, 2/28/12
The annual Folk Alliance Conference is unlike any other music gathering you’ll ever attend. During the day, it’s normal enough: There are workshops and panel discussions on the challenges of making music—and making money from it—followed by official showcases. Almost all of these are held not in local barrooms or on outdoor stages but in the conference hotel, not a bad idea in February.
At 10:30 p.m., however, something strange happens. Every room on the hotel’s 17th, 18th and 19th floors becomes a mini-nightclub that offers 30- and 60-minutes sets through the early hours of the morning. One could wander up and down the long hallways of the Memphis Marriott, duck one’s head into each room and, if you liked what you heard, slip inside to sit on a folding chair, the carpet or the host’s bed to listen to live music.
A good example was Room 1827, occupied by Memphis singer Nancy Apple, who renamed it “Woody’s Motor Lodge” and decorated it with a railroad-crossing sign, a stand-up cardboard Elvis, a motel marquee and an antique soda machine. “You can sit in the middle of the bed,” she said, “but if you do, please take off your shoes, because I have to sleep there tonight.” Standing in front of the white curtains, below the red Christmas lights were Texas singer/songwriter Sam Baker and the Ithaca harmony trio, the Burns Sisters. Many in the room were near enough to Baker that they could have shaken his hand during any song.
Baker doesn’t possess an especially strong voice nor is he an expert guitarist, but he is one of the finest wordsmiths in American music, a legitimate heir to fellow Texans Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. In the hushed confines of Room 1827, his literary gifts were more obvious than ever, especially his ability to boil down his stories to a handful of short, descriptive phrases that almost sounded like a radio journalist’s reporting even as they led up to a big emotional climax.
When the gray-mopped singer reached the turning point in his song, “Truale,” where his female protagonist, after a long absence, comes home with a baby and no husband, you expect the tidy resolution and glib aphorism that pop songs have given us for decades. But instead the character tells her father, “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.” Baker strikes the same attitude, leaving his song every bit as messy and vivid as real life. He may not be well known to the public, but his fellow singer/songwriters, who crowded into the room, recognized his gift and lustily sang along to the chorus.
There’s something thrilling about being that close to songwriters as good as Baker, Mary Gauthier, Kevin Gordon, David Olney, Eliza Gilkyson, Oliver Wood, John Fullbright, Gretchen Peters and Malcolm Holcombe. In such intimate quarters, no amplifiers are needed, so you get to hear their unmediated guitar picking and conversational voices. By deemphasizing arrangement and production, this format puts the emphasis on a singer/songwriter’s two primary tools: words and melody.
Peters, for example, is a Grammy-nominated Nashville songwriter who has written hits for Martina McBride and Patty Loveless, but in the hotel’s room 1725 Friday night, all the gloss of Music Row production melted away and you could suddenly see just how smart and rootsy her lyrics are. Accompanied only by Barry Walsh’s piano accordion and her own acoustic guitar, Peters focused not on her radio hits but on her terrific new solo album, Hello Cruel World. On the album’s best song, “Five Minutes,” her character finds herself caught between a comfortable husband and the troubling memory of an ex-lover. Like Baker, Peters refused to smooth over such contradictions and instead allowed the tension to fester. And in those close quarters the anxiety really got under the skin.
Sharing the hotel carpet with her was Holcombe, an unkempt bohemian about as far from Peters’ hit-making clients as imaginable. With his thinning, matted hair pulled back from a gaunt face and bell-bottom sideburns, the agitated, ghostly singer began rocking back and forth so savagely in his folding chair that people in the front row had to pull back their feet. With his gravelly, Tom Waits-like voice and ramshackle country-blues guitar thrashing, every song seemed on the verge of falling apart, yet Holcombe pulled each one back from the cliff’s edge and allowed his music to buzz with conflicts in much the same way as Peters’ more craftsman-like numbers.
While it’s exciting to be up-close-and-personal with a great singer/songwriter, it can be torture to be trapped in a small space with a bad one. And there were plenty of mediocre singer/songwriters on the premises. Many of them were skillful in playing a clean guitar part, singing a pretty tune and turning a clever phrase. But they were all too ready to grab the glib aphorism and tidy resolution that Baker, Peters and Holcombe resisted. The result was what might be called “greeting-card folk music,” songs designed not to challenge you but to make you chuckle gently or nod your head knowingly.
A sort of reinforcing loop was established. Because the large majority conference participants were performers, they cheered each other’s greeting-card songs—those lists of things they believe and love, those vague prescriptions for universal peace, happy relationships and a clean environment—and waited their turn to sing their own variations on the formula and be cheered in turn. Because the flip side of intimacy is insularity. During the four days of the conference, it was possible to never leave the Marriott Hotel, which had been transformed into a sealed folk-music bubble.
The conference did go out of its way to celebrate folk music’s past. Woody Guthrie’s centennial was honored with four panel discussions, three documentary films, two theatrical productions and a tribute concert. Robert Johnson was saluted with a Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (accepted by his grandson Steve Johnson), panel discussions and showcases. Among the performers imported for the Johnson tribute were the brilliant Skip James disciple, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes of Bentonia, Mississippi, and the 21-year-old wunderkind, Blind Boy Paxton, a friend of the Carolina Chocolate Drops in New York City.
But little of Guthrie’s troublemaking spirit and almost none of Johnson’s informed the polite greeting-card music in the hotel rooms at night. Why should it? These singers weren’t trying to challenge or win over the different-minded; they were trying to reassure and be reassured by the like-minded.
Two of the conference participants, David Olney and Kevin Gordon, did venture off-campus to the Center for Southern Folklore to perform for anyone who wandered in off the street. On a tiny stage surrounded by the folk art made by poor Southerners, Olney and Gordon were able to conjure up the spirits of Guthrie and Johnson as few others had over the week.
A week earlier, Gordon had released Gloryland, which may end up being the best album of 2012. The album’s centerpiece, “Colfax/Step in Time,” describes his own experience as a seventh-grader playing trumpet in a marching band led by an African-American teacher through Colfax, Louisiana, where they were confronted by the Ku Klux Klan. The 10-minute number, which borrows from Guthrie’s talking blues and Johnson’s guitar licks, offered little in the way of reassurance or easy answers, but it did offer hope for the folk-music genre.
Wearing black cowboy boots and a black denim jacket, Gordon didn’t need anything but his raspy tenor and hollow-body electric Gibson to summon up landscape of pines and small-town stores, the confused feelings of a 13-year-old and a moment emblematic of a changing culture. He demonstrated the big impact folk music can make with the humblest tools in the smallest spaces.
The International Folk Alliance Conference will be held in Toronto in 2013 and in Kansas City 2014-2018.
The 2012 Folk Alliance Conference