Imagine a hotel filled with banjos, dulcimers, acoustic guitars, upright basses, percussion instruments, lap steels, mandolins and harmonicas, 4 elevators with only 1 of them working by Saturday night, Red Bull and Bloody Mary stations, constant activity around the clock, no sleep, swapping songs, saying hello in hallways whilst running to the next 20 minute showcase in a small bedroom on the 19th floor with the beds pushed up against the wall and makeshift decorations, new friends and old friends and people you want to jam with and people you want to impress and musicians who make you want to put the guitar down and start all over again and musicians at the beginning who are just figuring it out and you want to lead them to the Wine & Nut Room to go hear Bill Kirchen jam at 4am.... Memphis, 2010. Thursday through Sunday. About 6 years ago someone heard me playing at Makor Club in NYC and literally demanded I go to a Folk Alliance Conference. Pretty much paid my way and I had no idea what I was getting into. The doors of the hotel room that day opened and it was a barrage of constant fiddling and picking and it was completely overwhelming, terrifying and exhilarating all at once, and I felt like I'd been invited into this not-so-little community that, until then, had been hidden from me. I've been back almost every year since. Now, I have to admit a love/hate relationship with conferences and "all things industry". I love the music. I love reconnecting (even briefly) with friends. I hate the chasing of the golden ring part of it. Over the years, I've developed little strategies of my own to push through, knowing that there will be great moments of joy and great moments of insecurity. Who wouldn't when surrounded by extraordinary talent at each turn. I usually dread the whole thing the day before I get there. There's a Home Depot thing that happens to me when stuck in a hotel room with that much energy and buzz. Its like you go into Home Depot for one thing, a shovel, perhaps, or a can of white paint. And you get in there and the lights and the high ceilings and the orange banners and aprons get to your eyes and then you are wandering in a daze, seduced by rakes and lightbulbs and wood blinds and 2x4's and you've forgotten what you came for in the first place. This is Folk Alliance to me. You need to be in Room 1924 at midnight but along the way, all these things just distract. I wouldn't be surprised to see Alice and the Rabbit at one of these things, holding out their "Drink Me" potions in the Red Bull cans....
But I have to say, this year was incredible. Maybe the best so far. Still a frenzy, but I felt calm and centered and I had a lot of shows to do, but I had time to hear new artists and I have to say, I was floored. Here's what I loved:
My roommate for the conference, Ana Egge blew me away. A quiet confidence, deep deep deep stuff, sensual badass guitar player, she moves like water, tall and loose, with a voice barely above a whisper. Words that betray a depth beyond their complete simplicity.
Anais Mitchell. Of whom I am always in awe. Her brain scares me. But it was her heart this time that poked a whole in my calm. I heard "The Shepherd" and maybe I had deep wells of something bubbling and didn't realize it, but I left the room and ran into Nels Andrews and started to weep. I had to go play my own showcase after that and I felt out of my own body, still affected by the beauty of that song. She makes me want to start over again. Or dig deeper.
Martyn Joseph, who I'd been hearing about for a year was a powerhouse of passion. Beautiful voice and playing, his songs slayed me. Richard Thompson-ish, tall and gorgeous and Welsh.
Danny Schmidt. See "Anais Mitchell". Same thing. I feel like someone slipped me into the cool club by allowing me to be on the same booking roster as incredible writers like Danny and Jonathan Byrd.
Others who I've known but loved again and again: Jonathan Byrd (as always), Sally Barris, Sally Spring, Jack Williams, Anthony DaCosta, Shelly King, Raina Rose, The Bowmans, StoneHoney, Dan Navarro, Kenny White, Doug & Telisha Williams.
A few of my favorite moments... My own showcase in the round with Sally Barris and Jonathan Byrd with John Abbey on upright bass was downright magical. I'm not sure what spell was in the room, that was packed but silent, but we stayed in a mood and let it carry us and I felt transformed by that show and I can't even claim my part in it because I'm sure it was Sally and Jonathan and I was just allowed to be there in the same musical space as them..... A quiet glass of wine with WFUV's John Platt, a longtime supporter of mine, where we stole away and got to know each other beyond music a bit more, which was just a lovely lovely thing .... An impossibly stolen moment with Rachel Klein from Ralph Jaccodine Management-- a REAL moment of connection with chaos swirling about us and we held strong as if in the center of the storm, determined to have a true conversation and we did....getting to hear a bit of Charlie Faye's showcase in the Wine & Nut Room, popping my head in for one Jim Boggia song, Ray Wylie Hubbard's formal showcase...Jon Vezner's showcase of all new songs with Dirje on cello playing beautifully....drinks and fun with Mary Granata and Joan Kornbluth....lunch at Cozy Corner BBQ with Sid Selvidge and Ward Archer and John Laird...swapping songs with Chuck Mead, Sid and Anais at the Center for Southern Folklore....actually getting 6 hours of sleep on Saturday night, emerging from my shower at 7am to have Ana and Melissa Greener and AJ Roach and Nels come in from their night that was still continuing, missing all the fun, but knowing I'd made the right decision for my health....
It makes me so happy to be able to have this wonderful world of whatever the hell FOLK means as my community. Especially in a world where everyone argues over genre distinctions and what this means and what this doesn't mean, its so refreshing to be in a place where a Genre can be an umbrella or a net that catches all sorts of stars that fall, from Sacred Steel to Bluegrass to Rock N Roll and to be able to be one little dot on that galactic map, finding my place out there, holding onto the others around me.