Folk music isn’t a walk in the park even in the United States. The scene thrives only where enthusiasts come together and create something special. The Southwest Regional Folk Alliance (SWRFA) is one such nonprofit organization with a mission to strengthen folk traditions in their own region. Now, when talking about regions in American terms, we’re thinking big – this region encompasses Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and even welcomes guests. Every year, SWRFA hosts a conference in Austin, Texas. Several hundred artists, radio DJs, event organizers, and fans gather to exchange ideas about folk music in these states, make music together, and build business connections. This year, from September 27th to October 1st, folker magazine was on the scene as well.
Text: Martin Wimmer (The German version of this article can be found here.)
It’s an extensive program. Music is happening around the clock: official concerts in larger venues, open mic sessions by the pool and in a bistro, as well as showcases organized by the artists themselves in smaller conference rooms or hotel rooms. In addition, there are talks, workshops, courses, and panel discussions on topics like “Narrative Songwriting” or “Experimenting with Altered Tunings and Multiple Capos,” “Diversity and Inclusion,” and “Hireability for Private/Corporate Events.”
Nathan Brown, a songwriter and Poet Laureate of Oklahoma in 2013/14, offers a workshop on the question: “People no longer have CD players, what should I sell at the merchandise stand?” It’s a workshop German musicians would also benefit from, as they are likely familiar with the problem of CDs being mostly just expensive business cards these days. Brown, on the other hand, still performs concerts but does make money primarily from his books: “Song lyrics and poems, short stories, or sketches are closely related. A well-made book is at the core of a singer-songwriter’s brand and a valuable keepsake that visitors gladly take home.” He now successfully publishes such artist books for colleagues like Rod Picott, Jonathan Byrd, or Adam Carroll. The most successful is a humorous Charles Bukowski tribute he co-authored with Jon Dee Graham.
Another example of present-day marketing is presented by Aaron Smith, who had his new concept album with the Coal Biters, The Legend Of Sam Davis, produced in Asia as a beautifully made 90-page hardcover book with a CD for six dollars each. He sells it for twenty. Would he go through the trouble again? “It’s worth it if the material allows,” he says. “Fans recognize the added value of meticulously researched content for songs that otherwise are only streamed.” The conclusion they both reach: “Self-publishing is booming, no longer has a bad reputation, opens entirely new doors for artists, and still provides real margins. Not in the mainstream market but in the niches.”
“CDs are mostly just expensive business cards these days.”
Almost all participants gather on Thursday evening at 6:00 PM at the pool of the Holiday Inn Midtown Austin. 63 songwriters have thrown their names into the hat. John Whipple draws and calls out three at a time, and they take the stage one after the other, each playing a song. Presenter, emcee, and stage manager all in one, Whipple takes care of his guests’ well-being by pouring tequila on a cloth and using it to clean the microphone. “Either on the mic or rinse your mouth,” he offers. It’s Texas after all.
Each one plays their best song, Texas songwriter doyen George Ensle watching over them. Some also focus on entertainment and get the audience laughing with humorous songs. Almost all of them perform solo, usually with a guitar, only a few with a banjo, a piano, or some percussion. There’s a lot of country-style storytelling but also excursions into bar jazz and adult pop. Acoustic, handmade music for warm evenings by the pool.
The lyrics cover topics like hard work, cakes, suicide, dogs, feminism, cowboys, and love. It’s life in all its fullness. And here’s another lesson that beginners in Germany can learn from: For those who still don’t understand that business doesn’t run without marketing, a guest raises a sign every time someone forgets to introduce themselves: “What’s your name? Paul Barker wants to know.” It was a big help to folker as well.
Here are a dozen discoveries from the festival for curious folker readers:
Roxi Copland. Just back from a cycling holiday in Bavaria, the exuberant Instagrammer from Austin plays authentic, piano-driven country – “I Come From Crazy.”
Emily Hicks, a hippie hitchhiker type from Utah with a guitar that’s too big for her back. She also has a brand-new top single Carole King would be proud of, “Breathe.”
Natalie Price commands the stage with natural authority, unlike those who rely on attitude. Her new album features guest appearances by David Ramirez (“What We Daydream Now”) and Jaimee Harris.
Rachel Laven. In “Don’t Put Me In A Town,” she makes it clear, “with more churches than bars.” Snappy, clever, accurately observed.
“Don’t Put Me In A Town with more churches than bars.”
Aleksi Campagne. The bilingual son of Canadian folk legend Connie Kaldor. A fiddler and jazzy singer (“Head Above Water”) in one. He always carries with him Canadian maple syrup, which he likes to give to his fans.
Barbara Jarrell, LGBTQI activist (“Not Particularly New”), and Flamy Grant, drag queen (“I Think I See The Island”). Both winners of the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival 2023, following in the footsteps of the likes of Tom Russell, Robert Earl Keen, John Gorka, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, Anaïs Mitchell, and maintaining that level of quality.
Sean Harrison from Northern Arkansas, “where the forests are, not from down south among the cotton fields,” as he emphasizes. He’d “love to play in Germany sometime, let the organizers there know.” Consider it done. You’d hear rocked-up Americana with witty lyrics. His latest single: “Living On Mars Is Really Gonna Suck.”
Sam Robbins, very likable guy. He plays youthful coffeehouse-style new folk and occasionally throws in a Joni Mitchell quote. He talks a little smack about New York and is convinced that things are better and people are nicer here in Texas. “Wouldn’t Change A Thing.” Lots of applause.
Ellerieh Lin: Someone who relies heavily on somewhat stagily effects with a transparent guitar and then goes off the norm with mannered vocals better have really good lyrics to meet expectations. “I’m Gonna Marie Kondo You.” Bam, that really hit the mark.
Antonio Lopez sings “The Future Is Now” and underscores it with a cool, bluesy number that clearly stands out from the traditional format with its contemporary arrangement.
Pam Grisham has brought some support. Her accompanist, Kelly Moore, plays the banjo and sits in a wheelchair. It’s not a big deal (“Without Using Words”).
Inclusion and diversity are generally all over the place: wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, a blind person, everything is just part of the scene. There are probably even more women here than men. All kinds of sexual orientation are openly shown. However, and this is also part of the truth, people of color are very rarely seen on stage and in the audience.
To close the conference, there’s a panel humorously titled “Wisdom of the Elders,” which first took place in 2000 and was originally populated by legends like Oscar Brand, Theodore Bikel, or David Amram. This year’s panel includes Meredith Carson, Rich Warren, Jay Boy Adams, and Dalis Allen.
The latter founded the Southwest Region of the Folk Alliance 23 years ago. She has been attending the International Folk Alliance Conference since 1995. From 2002 to 2019, she was the producer of the Kerrville Music Festival in Texas. However, she began her involvement in the music industry already back in the 1960s when she booked then-unknown artists for the café at the University of Houston. Thanks to her, artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Denver, Judy Collins, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Eric Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and many others found listeners among the Texas student body. Her passion still lies with genuine folk music and those who are still under the market’s radar. A role model that resonates far beyond the southwestern United States.
Official SWRFA website with links to the main artists’ websites: www.swfolkalliance.org
Youtube channel of Gypsy Wagon Studios with numerous videos from the SWRFA 2023: www.youtube.com/@gypsywagonstudios
Playlist with songs from almost all the festival’s artists: https://spotify.link/LMnO4tAWIDb
Website of Nathan Brown’s music book publishing, including an overview of the songwriters he has published: www.mezpress.com/artists