Serious About Their Joy

This is about a music conference that happens every year - Folk Alliance International. I was there last week and have been thinking about it since. I’m writing about why it matters to me, what it tells me about myself.

What is it like there? 

Well it happens in a hotel. For the last four years that hotel is tall and is  located Kansas City. Said hotel gave itself a remodel between last year and this. The room I stayed in smelled like a carpet store, which I enjoyed and my roommate did not. The hallway carpet pattern was dark blue with an ambitious abstract image of — was it a chromosome? An amoeba? A abandoned rainbow-colored macrame project? Anyway I thought it was brave for a joint at that price point and I noticed it every time I walked back to my room. 

At Folk Alliance you don’t spend a lot of time in your room. Or, you’re not supposed to. It doesn’t make a lot of fiscal sense to do that because it cost you a lot of time and money to get there and a lot for the hotel and a lot of the conference registration. So you are financially motivated to make something happen. And even though you’re not exactly sure what you’re supposed to do to make something happen, you’re pretty sure it involves meeting new people. Beyond that, strategies are not forthcoming. At least not in my case. I have been going for six years and the end game is still a little fuzzy to me. 

So is it worth it? I think if my goal were to advance my career in a way commensurate with the thousand or so dollar price tag, the answer is an easy no. 

But FAI isn’t really about money. No one there is rich or on their way to being rich. Unlike SXSW or even Americanafest, you get the sense at Folk Alliance that these people — whether they are fiddlers or songwriters or festival promoters or they run a house concert series in Wichita — are in it for the music. If I had to describe its spirit in one word, that word would be earnest. People here are serious about their joy. Essentially a niche genre, the contemporary folk scene attracts deliberate personalities. It is a genre of nuance, and many of its pleasures are reserved for the careful listener — his clever internal rhyme, her bow’s unique inflection against the string. The musicians among us have almost always spent years and decades learning how to play their instruments, and those instruments are usually the same ones people played a hundred (or five hundred) years ago. And the listeners — the fans, festival programmers, radio DJs, record label people — have at the very least a working understanding of the arc of folk music in the twentieth century and its important figures. 

In talking about FAI you have to say something about tradition. People who come here, who play this kind of music, they have a characteristic interest in that which has gone before. Old songs, old players, time-tested forms. There is a looking backward that informs the fundamental aesthetic. I think the organizers try hard to downplay this, because so much in American culture is about jettisoning the past in favor of what’s next. If you want to make it pay, make it new. 

But folk is not pop music, and its people come and listen and play because there is something humble about it, something of the frontier spirit, something punk rock. Folk music is the original DIY entertainment, and so figuring out how to make it pay is like using a belt for a guitar strap — you might pull it off, but that wasn’t its intended purpose.

I’ve been going for years, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to understand why exactly I play the kind of music I do. I’ve written a hundred or so songs in my life — not that many given the two decades I’ve been trying to do it, and while I’ve earned a little bit of recognition for my efforts, not one song has ever made me a pile of cash or a reached a wide audience.

In Nashville where I live, that fact stands as testament to why I don’t matter as an artist. Nashville is a commercial town. Art is not art. Art is commerce. You might pen a song that breaks every heart in the room, but if it doesn’t sell, it ain't shit. That said, I love living where I do, not because it loves me back.

It would be nice to make a little coin from my creativity, but given that my hero is Norman Blake and not Burt Bacharach, it stands to reason the limelight won’t find me anytime soon. The people who like me, too, tend to be quiet, introverted, melancholic types who are not, under any circumstances, about to crowd behind a security barrier with ten thousand of their friend to watch me play My Little Life under a translucent curtain of fog and lights. Not going to happen. 

I have some really talented friends whose talents are like clay in their hands. Malleable. They can write a song about the first amendment or a first kiss. And because songs about kisses tend to make more money, they write more of those. That is what popular songwriting is. After living in Nashville 10 years it’s something I’ve come to understand about myself. I’m not good at writing about things that don’t have personal meaning to me. Which is why I’ve written songs about whaling ships and snake handling churches and cross-dressers and book nerds and bible verses. 

Forgive this meandering monologue. I’m trying to tell you why I go to Folk Alliance. It’s for one reason. I go because I find people there who are like me. People from the fringe. Weirdos who don’t fit, whose pictures aren’t in Billboard and probably won’t ever be. Sure there are a few precious jewels every year whose shine is recognized, but the actual work of folk music is done by a people whose hearts are bigger than their volumes. Who sing a song from their own particular place in the universe. Who, for three or four minutes at a time, show you what the world looks like where they live. It might not be your world, but that's just it: you see life through someone else’s eyes, and you take it with you when you go. 

I was at folk alliance all five days. I didn’t have an official showcase (one of the ones they advertise in the program, on a stage with sound and lights), but I had a bunch of what they call guerrilla showcases. These mini concerts are the lifeblood of the conference. Every night at 10:30 or so, three floors of the Crown Westin hotel in Kansas City are host to 30 or 40 'venues'. Most of them are totally unplugged, which means it is not uncommon to walk into a room and find a three-piece bluegrass band singing high and lonesome to a handful of people sitting on a queen sized bed. It is not a forum for seekers of cool. 

Between the hours of 10:30 and 3 or 4 am every night, chaos reigns on those three floors. Handmade posters falling off the wall. A wildly bearded man in a beaded vest shoving his full-size bass past a child trio dressed in matching sequined suits. The sour smell of human sweat accreting as the night plays on. The cacophony of noise - streams of little joy pouring out of each hotel room, to be swallowed up in the sound adjacent or tromped upon by the alcohol-fueled conversations in the hall. The pace is frentic. Everyone is looking for something, for each other.

I met new artists. I saw so many great sets of music. Plenty of mediocre ones too. Not everyone is good. That’s not part of the guarantee. But chances taken are often met with rewards. And if you’re looking for something real, something you can think about long afterward and say to yourself “that, that was not bullshit” — Folk Alliance is worthy.

But it’s not the showing off or showing up that keeps me coming back. It's a particular thing that happens every year on Saturday night, after all the showcases are done. 

Though I think he would deny it, it’s Matt the Electrician’s energy that gets it going: the afterhours song circle.

How it happens: word gets out among the song dorks - usually a room number. This year it was in my friend KC Turner’s room. His had a PA system, but by that time, no more need of it.  We were more interested in the metal church-potluck chairs the festival issued. Around 4:30 am, we got together, circled up the chairs and closed the door. What then proceeded was something I can only liken to a kind of agnostic holiness. The best songs by the most dedicated troubadours in the world. These people who, like me, spend their lives in rental cars driving across the country over and over again to play songs for strangers, play for each other, one song. Some of them have families, some are lifelong loners, but here, at the end of the festival, we circle up the chairs and pass around a guitar, a play a song. It takes a long time. Sometimes people peel have to leave early, sometimes people fall asleep, sometimes the sun comes up. But I look forward to it every year. I don’t even care about playing a tune myself, I just want to hear Robby Hecht sing his latest, and Megan Slankard and David Berkley and Nels Andrews and Ben Parker and and Carrie Elkin and Stephanie Macias and Rebecca Loebe and Julian Mueller and some English girl whose name I never learned — the soft voice, so quiet. You can hear the words, the notes, the heart. 

No it doesn’t pay the bills. But it is precious and it is real. And real is what I’m looking for. 

Here are some of the friends whose photos I took the last night of the conference, running around with a polaroid camera I bought at Target. The above photo is of Matt the Electrician and Nels Andrews.