The Hope Star
I packed the car at 3:30am on Wednesday morning. Kissed my wife and son in their beds. Picked up Johnny at home. Georgia Brown barking her head off at the living room window.
Johnny was sick. Somehow we got all our gear and a hand truck in a Chevy Impala. The hand truck would prove essential. I'll get to that.
Four hours later, we got morning coffee in Black Mountain. Then we drove. We got lunch in Nashville and drove. We got ice cream with an old friend in St. Louis, went for dinner, and then drove.
At 10pm we arrived at the Sheraton in Kansas City. Room on the fortieth floor. Car in the parking deck. First win for the hand truck.
We were in town for Folk Alliance International, an annual meeting of most of the people I've ever fallen in love with. I heard there were three thousand DJs, festival managers, venue bookers, managers, agents, producers, and musicians.
What makes the Folk Alliance different from the music business? The artists aren't the only ones in it for love. Most folk DJs are volunteers, as are many of the festival presenters and house concert hosts. There's not a lot of money in folk music- surprise. Maybe you've heard the fable of the boss taking eleven of the dozen cookies on the lunchroom table and then saying to the two employees, "Keep an eye on him. He'll take your cookie." Folkies get together and bake more cookies.
My brain is the consistency of burnt toast right now. We've been running through hallways with gear, taking business cards, hugging strangers, getting our minds blown with talent, and staying up into the wee hours for five days. I feel like that guy in The Martian at the end of the movie. Take me home. But we're not going home. We're going to Nashville. I'll get to that.
Our bellhop's name was Domenico. "I'm a singer too. Country and patriotic songs." He had an elusive accent. He was very interested in our careers. I handed him a bill for his service. "You can hear me on YouTube. I wrote a song for the Kansas City Royals the year they won the World Series. It's called Time to Win It All!" You better believe I looked that up. I'll get to that.
I did about twenty minutes of yoga. All truck stops should rip out the television in the lounge and put a basket full of yoga mats by the door. Print the mats with kitschy ballcap sayings like "my wife left with my dog and I miss him." Rebel flag yoga blankets made in Mexico. Keep it real.
Johnny stayed in the room and slept off his bug. He's never been to a Folk Alliance conference. I'd made too many friends to go to bed. I showered and walked out to the elevator. I looked out from the fortieth floor over the lights of Kansas City washing out on the distant horizon into a dark and rolling prairie. The twelve story Western Auto building below us. The light blue light of the swimming pool. The Gun Show billboard.
The conference was actually happening across the street in the Westin Hotel. There is a walking bridge called The Link from the mezzanine of the Sheraton over to the Westin. It was about a half mile walk for us every time we went over to the Westin, and every time we went back to our room.
Floors 5, 6, and 7 were reserved for music. Every afternoon and evening until the wee hours, people played music in hotel rooms. Some hosts rented chairs and hid beds behind the curtains. Some just left the beds to use as lounges for listeners. Some had PA systems. Posters for artists lined the walls, hung with blue painter's tape. People hung up fairy lights and put out bowls of candy. Pots of coffee. Buckets of beer. The Wisconsin Room had free cheese.
I walked across The Link and took the elevator to the fifth floor. We had arrived too late to pick up our conference badges and I was stopped immediately by security. Folk security, as you can imagine, is pretty tight. They found me a temporary wristband and gave me a hug.
I walked all the way through the fifth floor hugging anyone I knew. I walked the stairs to the sixth floor and did the same. Then the seventh floor. Then my heart was ready to go to bed. I walked The Link back home for the night.
Thursday morning, Johnny and I went to registration and got our official Folk Alliance International badges and totebags, each of which included a pocket copy of the US Constitution. I spent the day introducing Johnny to all my friends and people I'd worked with for years. Our good friend Andrew Pressman came from Austin, Texas and made our conference extra special by playing bass with us all week.
Late Thursday night we played barely four songs in a stuffy hotel room for eight people. Friday night we played a special Official Showcase in a large, sleek dining room on the 20th floor overlooking Kansas City. We followed Tift Merritt and had to carry our gear through hundreds of people to get to the stage, which was sponsored by Merlefest and Yep Roc. Steve Johnson, who books Merlefest- the largest Americana festival in the world- carried my amp and introduced us. See above re: Folk Alliance vs. rest of the music business. Saturday and Saturday night, we played the little hotel room again, but this time you couldn't get in the door.
Getting off the elevator to go to bed each night, I looked out that fortieth floor window as if the lights of Kansas City were a galaxy. More and more I got the feeling we were on some kind of opposite to the Death Star. We were on the Hope Star, hurtling through the heartland of space on a mission to destroy cynicism with song.
I'll tell you the best part of our experience after these tour dates. Tonight we're in Nashville- let's just call it Day 6 of Folk Alliance- with Jon Byrd and Wild Ponies. Then a great house concert in Knoxville to get us home.
FEB 20 - The Family Wash - Nashville TN
Feb 21 - The Betsy House - Rockford TN - email firstname.lastname@example.org for details and RSVP
***Merlefest on the Road tour, sponsored by Window World. We'll be joined by Locust Honey String Band and Mark Bumgarner.***
FEB 23 THU
The Floyd Country Store
FEB 24 FRI
Gaston County Museum of Art & History
FEB 25 SAT
Yadkin Arts Council and Cultural Center
FEB 26 SUN
MAR 2 THU
Isis Music Hall
MAR 3 FRI
The Down Home
Johnson City, TN
MAR 4 SAT
Van Dyke Performance Space
MAR 5 SUN
There has been a lot of publicity around this tour. Please buy your tickets in advance wherever possible.
Now: the best part of Folk Alliance every night was putting our gear away and walking the half mile back to wander the music floors. The Oklahoma Room became our go-to. They are a family. They listen to each other. They promote each other. They play in each other's bands.
John Fullbright is one of the Oklahoma standouts. I told him we were coming to Tulsa in May and he opened his house to us. I hear him every chance I get. Check out "When You're Here."
Lauren Barth and Jesse Aycock sing together like Oklahoma went to California and came back. Graham and Emmylou. Gillian and Dave. They start singing and I can't hear the words for how beautiful their voices are. Here they are in a hotel room breaking your heart. "First and Last."
We did get out of the Oklahoma Room and wander the halls to great success. Tony Furtado is a master picker and a master songwriter. We played a show with him in Athens Georgia last year and he gave me his latest record The Bell. It is one of my favorite records I got last year. I have to steal it back out of my wife's car constantly. Watching him live is the thing though. Master craftsman. Boilermaker. He cruised Folk Alliance with an instrument on his back and two more in his hands. Check out Broken Bell on the cello-banjo.
I've known Joe Newberry since the nineties when I was sitting in Old-Time picking circles around Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Joe takes clawhammer banjo to a high art and sings like a country gentleman. Lately he's teamed up with April Verch, which is bold. April is a tornado with tap shoes and a fiddle. Joe is one of a few pickers who could stand beside her and own his little piece of the stage. Watch this all the way to the end and tell me how many brains she has.
We met Beppe Gambetta in an elevator. He was wearing Italian handmade red leather sneakers. We chatted and parted ways. I said "Johnny, you have to see that guy play." You do too. Fandango per la Bionda
One of the biggest surprises for me was Bill and the Belles from Johnson City. Three-part harmony on a radio show in 1930. A party band for Jay Gatsby. They have many secret weapons, one of which is Kris's right hand on the guitar. "Work Don't Bother Me"
In 2007, I was a judge for the New Folk Competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival. There was this sixteen-year-old kid who sang an ode to the demoted planet called "Poor Poor Pluto" and a second song called "Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner." Everybody was wondering How does this kid even know who Porter Wagoner was? He had to fly home and go to school, and then fly back for the winners' concert. Anthony da Costa has come a long way in a short time. I don't know what to call his music now. He's one of the more fascinating guitarists I know. He plays side for Jimmy Lafave. Aoife O'Donovan. Sarah Jarosz. Here he is singing his own "Feet on the Dashboard"
And last but not least, our bellhop Domenico Nguyen. I honestly enjoyed this video as much as anything I saw this week. Here's "Time to Win it All," written for the Kansas City Royals the year they won the World Series. With fans like Domenico it's easy to see why they won. Talk about destroying cynicism with song!
If you really enjoyed that, you should check out the "Worlds of Fun theme song"
Thanks for reading. Check out our official instagram Monday Report photo. The music spilled out into the lobby, the elevators, and even The Link. That's me in The Link at 3am listening to my friend Matt Stone as he lays down the beautiful truth.