By Willi Carlisle, for Folk Alley
“We can have a question-and-answer period while you get set up,” our room moderator jokes. I yank my banjo out of its case. I’m on the sixth floor of a hotel in Kansas City, about to holler four folk songs to a room of folksingers, industry pros, and empty folding chairs. I’m sweaty and a little late. I knock my cowboy hat off and leave it on the floor. My socks suddenly feel very wet. “I have a question,” jokes veteran (genius) songwriter Tim Easton. “What’s wrong with you?”
He’s not wrong to ask. Folk Alliance International is a once-yearly madhouse of friends, family, education, outreach, and charity. It’s a sideshow street hustle equal to—or greater than—any small town’s summer festival. It’s also a chance to connect, to engage with living traditions, to find your oldest friends and your newest obsession. It’s a little crazy, to say the least. When I arrived from the airport, I was already haggard. I remembered my previous Folk Alliances. In New Orleans, before the pandemic, I slept on the floor of my van most nights. I was broke and ate sardines from a can, which made my voice … fragrant. I made a video with Western AF.
When FAI was in Montreal, I stayed so busy I never once—not once!—went outside, but met a bunch of sweet Swedes. A bandmate of mine recalls sleeping on a bench outside in Kansas City many years ago, catching frostbite on his fretting hand, teaching himself to play pedal steel instead. All this to say: It’s a massive privilege to just make it to Folk Alliance and such a joy to be there, let alone sleep in a comfy bed, which I got to do this year. I’m pouring one out for anyone who couldn’t come or who slept on the floor. (It’s water, but I’m still rehydrating from the free beers in some of the showcase rooms.)
On my first night, I headed to the keynote address to listen to Shirley Collins and Madeleine Peyroux. Hearing Shirley Collins speak about her life and work was a highlight of my year. The keynote addresses at Folk Alliance would be worth the price of admission alone. It was on to showcases after that, including my own. Goin’ through it hard. Just doin’ what comes natural for 15-30 minutes at this industry/artist-facing conference. It feels like a split second. As my old man used to say, “turn your head to light a cigar and ya missed it.” It’s a whirlwind.
I saw plenty of great music, too. Stillhouse Junkies tore it down. I saw Sierra Hull play excellent, light-footed, virtuosic bluegrass. I heard Crys Matthews sing social justice songs with incredible power and clarity. I was blown away, utterly, by Lilli Lewis. I saw so many artists and professionals who work at the intersection of activism and creativity. Folk Alliance is proving to me that this is the power of what they refer to as “the music of the people.”
McKain Lakey and Mama’s Broke were my favorite two artists to see, and they both had been on my bucket list for a long time. Mama’s Broke epitomizes something I long for in “conference” settings: anger and depth of feeling from punks who play well, but don’t let great instrumental ability and tightness get in the way of great emotional impact. That’s a little bit editorial, but check them out and you’ll hear what I mean.
McKain Lakey’s gorgeous songwriting stands out. Their 6-piece band—fiddle, huge harmonies, pedal-steel, and more—was spellbinding. Their novel approach to phrasing was welcome among many proprietors of “three chords and the truth,” myself included. I sat in my room with McKain for several hours later, talking about rural advocacy, queerness, and the role of folk and traditional music in the lives of the people that we love and want to love. Conversations like these are precious, and what Folk Alliance International has given me in spades, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
It’s often a cynical industry, with algorithms and graphs at the center, but never here. Hell—I saw the head honcho hustling around at 3 a.m. with a huge smile. That’s dedication! Case in point: I’m running through the hallways myself at some very late hour, and see Christian Wallowing Bull, one of my favorite artists anywhere, and he’s surrounded by people telling him he’s brilliant, which he is. It’s his first FAI, and I wanted to be sure I supported. He’s a powerful presence and a viscerally good singer. We met by chance in Wyoming, and we’re both too busy to do anything but say hello. But I’m not bummed. He’s killing it, and when there’s an opportunity, we might get to work together.
On Thursday, I attended the LGBTQIA2+ Affinity Group Meeting, and was introduced to many artists and their projects. Is it weird to say tears were shed? That queer joy was had? I hope not. Elders in that room spoke about how Folk Alliance has grown in this regard, how roots music has often been a place for queer artists to flourish. I got to meet Lily Werbin, a hard working activist with her fingers in about a dozen worthy projects. I had the rare feeling that we are legion, that we are working to make things better. That we’re together in this weird career. This was the most important thing I did over the weekend, bar none, and it was because all we did was introduce ourselves and talk about our projects. It was an inspiration-and-pump-up- session.
So much of “the music biz” seems to forget the “folk” element of “folk singing.” FAI is where we refill our tanks, even if we’re tired. At 5 a.m., after picking all day on Saturday, we passed a guitar around one last time as the sun came up. I was surrounded by Ordinary Elephant, Wes Collins (wow!), Graham Weber, Jaimee Harris, and more new friends and old ones. I started thinking about Tim Easton’s question: “What’s wrong with me?” In the moment, I’d answered: “rejection-sensitive dysphoria,” which is something I’m learning to manage. What I really should’ve said is: “So many people here are beautiful and talented, and I haven’t learned to tell them all that I love them.”
Here’s a shot: Folk Alliance International, friends and family, fellow folksingers and folklorists and activists, you’re gorgeous, you’re doing the lord’s work, and may we make a living (not a killing) until we die. Let’s spread the good around.