At 2023 Folk Alliance International, in Kansas City, Missouri, the songs were plentiful, the nights were long, and it seemed nobody was in a mood to talk about small things. Keynote speaker Valerie June said, “I invite you to join me in dreaming of a new world.” Artists and fans alike took those words to heart over the course of the five-day conference.
In some ways, Folk Alliance can feel like a fever dream. When you’re wandering the halls of a hotel at two in the morning as basses, guitars, and fiddles rush past, each room you peer into seems more intriguing than the last. You may think you’ve stumbled into a folk neverland. This year, everyone wanted to find deeper meaning behind the music, wanted to find a better way to come together. For those few days, it did indeed feel like a new world.
“Imagination is our currency,” said cellist Leyla McCalla while accepting the People’s Voice Award at the awards ceremony. “We cannot create the world that we want to live in or the change that we want to see unless we can imagine it.”
As befits a genre that’s based in a reverence for tradition and elders, some real legends attended this year. Janis Ian was due to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award but surprised everyone by winning Artist of the Year as well. (“How many awards can you fit in your suitcase?” she quipped from the stage). Josh White, Jr., accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award for his father, Josh White. It’s too bad that the elder White is so little remembered in American music—he was the first Black artist to sell a million copies of a record and was responsible for great change in American culture.
As a hallmark of Folk Alliance, there was an increase this year in diversity and equity initiatives. New Orleans songwriter and artist Lilli Lewis led the Black American Music Summit in conjunction with the main conference, though artists from this summit also performed at the conference. This is a great idea to make immediate and lasting change in a folk organization, and it bore fruit with Folk Alliance’s previous Indigenous Summits that have now become their own conference in Canada.
Of course, with so many artists roaming the halls, it’s hard to pick out just a few to spotlight. Nick Shoulders’s name floated around the halls all the time after his barn-burning set on Thursday night that saw superfan Mary Gauthier in the front row, bopping along. He came off like a cross between Bill Hader and John Prine, and was a hands-down favorite.
Aside from Shoulders, here are five other Folk Alliance 2023 moments to remember:
Scottish folksinger Iona Fyfe is known for slicing up misogynists online as easily as she does through her pointed song about Lady Finella’s 10th century assassination of King Kenneth II of Scotland. Fyfe was a force onstage, singing traditional songs as easily as she translated Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” into Scots as a statement about the importance of recognizing Scottish sovereignty and language.
Oji-Cree guitarist and songwriter Aysanabee had a strong set in the Indigenous Music Summit room, but he told a story whose imagery I can’t seem to shake. Growing up without electricity, he only had three things. One was an ATV made from a riding mower. Another was a bow and arrow from a relative, and the third was a guitar left behind by his brother. He crashed the ATV, lost the bow and arrow when he shot his parents’ car, but the guitar remained. He coupled this story with some great Kaki King-style guitar work was an indelible moment for me at Folk Alliance.
The Nordic Roots room at Folk Alliance was a happening place this year, following the first Nordic Folk Alliance last year in Gothenburg. The three artists in Northern Resonance hail from the same tiny village in Sweden, home to fewer people than attendees at Folk Alliance this year. They were great together, but I loved a solo set earlier in the evening from their fiddler, Anna Ekborg. Twisting her way through intricate tunes and ornamentation with a wry smile, she confessed: “These tunes … to me, they are like home.” We were all transported home with her.
As a special surprise, Iris DeMent popped out from backstage to sing a tribute to her late friend John Prine at the Folk Alliance Awards Show. Joined by The Milk Carton Kids and Prine’s guitarist, Jason Wilber, they all raised the roof with a lovely version of “Mexican Home.” The reason for the tribute was a Lifetime Achievement Award in music business to Prine’s label, Oh Boy Records. The accompanying video tribute gave a great perspective on Prine’s playfulness and his unwavering focus on promoting independent artists and great songwriters.
Each year, Stephen Winick and others from the Library of Congress present the Archive Challenge, asking key artists to reinterpret a traditional song from the Library’s Archive of Folk Culture. This year saw some great covers of Lead Belly and other famous artists, but Navajo brother/sister duo Sihasin had an absolutely unshakable performance. They recontextualized a field recording of a song called “Navajo Happiness Song” that was recorded at a residential school. This old field recording captured a moment in the middle of such terrible genocide, but it’s still a song that has great meaning to Sihasin and the Navajo today. That juxtaposition is a difficult line to ride as an artist. They pulled off an unforgettable interpretation that reminded us of the enduring power of folk song.