What is folk music? It's definitely acoustic, right? Not according to Bill Kirchen, who concluded his Saturday night set at the 22nd International Folk Alliance Conference with a Telecaster strapped to his chest and a mini-history of the rock-and-roll guitar riff that started with Johnny Cash and Duane Eddy and worked its way to the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," with more than a dozen stops in between.
Okay, but folk music is definitely about the primacy of the song. Tell that to Australia's Dardanelles, who launched into a set-opening instrumental with this: "We're going to start out playing a few jigs. Any jig fans out there? This is the only place on earth where I can ask that question and get a response."
Is folk music white? Well, mostly, judging by the conference demographics, but make room for Miami's Lee Boys, a "sacred steel" guitar band that had the crowd literally dancing in the aisles at the end of Saturday's showcase.
Surely, folk music is about "real" instruments. Well, that's mostly true. But this year's Folk Alliance Conference had at least one artist pushing against that notion in the form of Rattlesnake Daddy, whose singer, Ryan Hedgecock, was manning a sampler, looping recorded vocal snippets into a swirl of sound that included live accompaniment from violin, bongos, and a didgeridoo.
The Folk Alliance Conference, which took place February 17th-21st at the downtown Marriott Hotel and Cook Convention Center, with public satellite shows at a variety of local venues, is a gathering of a couple thousand folk/traditional musicians and industry professionals from around the country and abroad (with heavy contingents, in particular, from Canada and Australia). They come together to swap songs and do business under the direction of the Memphis-based Folk Alliance and its executive director, Louis Jay Meyers.
"We do not need to define folk music, because it is something different to each and every one of you," Meyers wrote in his introductory letter. And the variety of sounds at the conference was impressive. The solo-acoustic singer-songwriters most people envision when thinking of the term "folk" were certainly the core style, but surrounding them was all manner of "traditional" music: honky-tonk (Texan James Hand, a ubiquitous presence), Western swing (Nashville's Carolyn Martin, who led a terrific seven-piece band with Memphian Eric Lewis on guitar), gospel (the aforementioned sacred-steelers), blues (young Aussie hotshot Kim Churchill), classic rock (Kirchen), aging punkettes (Sons of the Never Wrong), and so much more.
The Folk Alliance following might not be concerned with definitions, but one emerges: Folk music is rooted in some kind of identifiable, long-standing tradition and is music that can be performed for — or, preferably, with — fans and friends in an intimate setting.
Intimacy is the hallmark of the Folk Alliance Conference, what it has over most other musical gatherings. The conference's official "performance alley" showcase concerts take place in refashioned conference rooms with seating ranging from a couple hundred to a couple dozen. But even more striking are the widely encouraged "private showcases" in the afternoons before and the late nights after the official showcases. These took place in hotel rooms on the 17th-19th floors of the Marriott, with various artists, labels, and other entities sponsoring and booking the rooms. Conference attendees could walk the crowded corridors, music streaming from every open door, all welcome to come in and enjoy the show.
The MPress Records room, up on the 17th floor, on Friday afternoon provides a snapshot as to how these private showcases work: bed shoved against a wall, sheer blue and red sheets tacked to the wall to spruce up the hotel-room interior; two-liter bottles of soda poking out of the bedside table drawer; extra guitars stored in the bathroom; people piled on the bed and lined against the walls as two artists take turns on songs, each giving a very different idea of what "folk" music can be. Amy Speace, wearing jeans and playing an acoustic guitar, putting across sharp songs in a grave, strong vocal style, is in the Lucinda Williams rootsy singer-songwriter mold. Rachel Sage, with two-tone hair and fishnet sleeves, sits at a hand-decorated keyboard stand and plays a moody song with classical overtones. She's alt-folk, with a mix of Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos.
Down the hall, Tangleweed, a five-piece bluegrass band from Chicago, is playing to a room that is otherwise empty until photographer Justin Fox Burks and I poke our heads in. The 5-to-2 performer-to-audience ratio is a little awkward for both parties, but the band plays on. Meanwhile, upstairs, a young Australian quartet, the Little Stevies, led by sisters Sibylla and Bethany, are blending beautiful harmonies into a folk style with potential indie-rock appeal.
Most of the performers at Folk Alliance are names unfamiliar to those outside the subculture, but there's also an interesting subset of performers who have all had their respective "pop moment" outside the folk genre. On Saturday's schedule there was: Raul Malo, of alt-country band the Mavericks, which scored a couple of Top 20 country hits and a Grammy win in the mid-'90s; Jason Ringenberg, whose country-punk band Jason & the Scorchers were kind of a big deal for a brief moment in the mid-'80s; Bill Kirchen, formerly the lead guitarist for the post-hippie, proto-alt-country Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, which went Top 10 in 1972 with their version of "Hot Rod Lincoln"; and Rattlesnake Daddy's Ryan Hedgecock, who was once the lead guitarist for next-big-thing country-rockers Lone Justice in the early '80s.
For most musicians, pop moments never come. And when they do, they tend to be fleeting. But music lasts, and that's what these men were here for.
As a lifelong devotee of pop music, I have a history of demurring at assertions of musical authenticity or the superiority of the "real." But it's hard not to embrace the concept when you're sitting in a small room, a few feet away, while Malo is singing or Kirchen is playing guitar.
Malo played to a small but packed room, and in that setting his voice — Roy Orbison with a Latin tinge — was astounding. He opened with "The Lucky One," the title track from his most recent solo album, and when he leaned into the chorus, the room rippled with disbelieving chuckles, appreciative sighs, and shaking heads. I cared much more about Malo from 10 feet away than I ever have on record.
Ringenberg followed Malo with an energetic, self-deprecating set, noting that the first new Jason & the Scorchers album in a decade-and-a-half would be out this week, while the sticker on his guitar promoting his successful current alter ego, kids' music performer "Farmer Jason," served as a reminder that time moves on.
Kirchen played later, opening with a love song to the Telecaster, "Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods," playing a couple of Commander Cody's trucker/road songs, and peaking with a cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." In concept, that cover choice seemed like a sop to the "folk" setting, but Kirchen's reading was surprisingly fierce, transforming the selection from folkie cliché to living testament, Kirchen's electric solos and riffs embedded in both the melody and the combative thrust of the song.
The success of these artists not only demonstrated how the folk scene puts music first but also suggests that it's an arena that allows artists to age comfortably. But the gathering would suffer without a sense that there's a future to be found as well, and I found it in the form of the Parkington Sisters, a Cape Cod quintet I went to see Saturday night after a tip from Folk Alliance director Meyers, who said they'd been getting great word-of-mouth at the conference.
The Parkington Sisters are actual siblings ("real name, no gimmick," as someone in another genre would put it), ages ranging from 18 to late 20s. They began their set with three playing violin and two acoustic guitar, but cello, banjo, accordion, and piano filtered into the mix on subsequent songs. All five sisters sang, and four of them were fine vocalists. The other, 18-year-old baby sis Lydia, was something more — a great singer, with an unaffected but older-than-her-years voice that carried traces of confessional folk, blues, and jazz. She reminded me a little of a rootsier Fiona Apple, a grittier Zooey Deschanel, a younger, less-damaged Janis Joplin. The sight and sound of her — always sitting, her ever-present smile oscillating between sheepish and mischievous — sinking into a song was easily the most exciting thing I saw at Folk Alliance.
The band — all apparently classically trained but without a hint of stuffiness — cites Joni Mitchell as an influence, but I'd peg a different '70s touchstone, another sister act: Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Their music — swapping instruments and vocals, trading knowing looks and helpless giggles — was swept up in a natural enthusiasm, radiating love — for music, yes, but more so for each other.
I was impressed enough that when honky-tonker James Hand was late for a private showcase set on the 18th floor later that night, I headed down to the 17th to catch the Parkingtons again in their room. When I walked in, Lydia was sitting on the floor, her four sisters playing behind her while she sang "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." Since any friend of the Shirelles is a friend of mine, I found a stray spot on the edge of the bed and crowded in with a dozen or so others to watch the rest of a set every bit as winning as their official showcase earlier in the night.
The Parkington Sisters have apparently yet to release an official album, so who knows where they're headed? But remember that name.