For those who have chosen to make Folk Music their livelihood as well as their lives, nothing tops the recently completed Folk Alliance International conference in Memphis. Producers, publicists, managers, agents, programmers, and musicians gather yearly for workshops, panel discussions, showcase performances. and lots and lots of late night shows – some scheduled as late as 3:00 AM. This event offers musicians and songwriters a chance to be seen and heard, but also a chance to network – to meet people and discuss plans and ideas.
A typical day might start at 8 AM with a breakfast meeting, followed by a 30 minute panel discussion. I attended one on the “Next Generation of the Internet – Engaging Fans Online.” Present were Matt Ostrower from Pandora and Wayne Leeloy from Topspin. I was amazed at how much money Pandora was sending to Sound Exchange to compensate musicians – it was in the millions. After an hour of high tech discussion, David Newland from Roots Music Canada reminded all of us that the internet is not the experience; it’s a companion tool to follow the experience. He is afraid that those of us too close to the bone are losing sight of the reason we’re here – to revel in the live exchange – to go to a festival and laugh or cry during a song. Being on line does not replace being there.
I was part of the panel on the Future of Folk Music Radio. We discussed digital downloads and podcasting rights, and followed these conversations by individually responding directly to the topic of the session. Rich Warren of WFMT, Chicago felt fairly disillusioned by what the future held for radio, while manager Tim McFadden felt differently. Tim feels that the audience is growing and that we shouldn’t hesitate to ride on the coat tails of groups like Mumford & Sons – the top selling artist at the time of this post – and a group that calls itself a folk band. I feel that people will always want to hear a hosted program, preferring to connect with their personal companion. What may change is the way those programs are delivered and received.
As far as the music goes, highlights were the tributes to John Hartford, featuring Alison Brown, and Darrell Scott’s one set with legendary drummer/percussionist Kenny Malone. Darrell’s word choices always shine, and his guitar dynamics allowed Kenny to embellish the songs easily. Riders in the Sky also played only one set and it was far too short for most cowboy music lovers. The Steel Drivers played with lots of energy; what sets them apart are well constructed songs delivered with passion. They showed why they received Grammy nominations. As usual, James Keelaghan’s sets were packed and it was heartwarming to see just how admired he is.
There were many finds. Elephant Revival is a delightfully shy quintet from Nederland, Colorado. The songs are all original, backed by violin, old time banjo and an angel of a washboard player named Bonnie Paine who has a breathy delivery somewhat like Natalie Merchant. She stands on a stomp board, with a washboard and bongo drum in front of her. The Two Man Gentleman Band were very visual – almost vaudeville revivalists, bordering on the irreverent. Miss Tess and her Bon Ton Parade were very strong. Tess sings and plays swing standards which aren’t so standard when you add lap steel and a trashcan for a drum set.
Abigail Washburn played with her group and later with just her guitar player/keyboardist. There is lots of buzz about her new album. I saw a wonderful “in the round” with Billy Crocket, Grace Pettis, Cliff Eberhardt, Beth Wood, and R.J. Cowdery. When I stopped in on Chatham County Line’s set they were asking for requests. I called out the rest of their set – what a hoot!
Now that another Folk Alliance is past I have once again discovered that the overwhelming benefit of such a get together is that the weekend is a reminder. You are reminded that what you do matters, that you are appreciated, and that positive reinforcement works. There is no negativity, only excitement, and you remember why you fell in love with this music in the first place.