- GRAMMY Live
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By Lynne Margolis
Kansas City, Mo.
GRAMMY-nominated Americana singer/songwriter John Fullbright drew the most buzz at the 26th Annual International Folk Alliance Conference, held Feb. 19–23 in Kansas City, Mo., but veteran folk rockers such as Graham Nash, Tom Rush and even '70s duo Brewer & Shipley provided perspective and inspiration to those following in their footsteps.
Of course, the memory of late GRAMMY winner Pete Seeger — who was awarded the inaugural Woody Guthrie Prize from the GRAMMY Museum and the Woody Guthrie Center in New York on Feb. 22 — was invoked repeatedly during several tributes at the gathering, which attracted musicians, concert promoters, radio programmers, booking agents, record label representatives, and instrument makers from around the world.
Fullbright, who hails from just outside of Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Okla., was everywhere at this gathering, which took over the Westin Crown Center Hotel (and much of the adjoining Sheraton) for panel discussions, intimate showcases and even more intimate hotel room performances. Held on three dedicated "music" floors in the Westin, these private concerts — once called "guerilla" showcases — sometimes lasted past 4 a.m.
Like wandering troubadours, players traveled from room to room, carrying everything from harmonicas to hallway-filling double basses and even a tuba or two. If it made noise and was at all portable, chances are somebody had one — and stayed busy using it. At one point, a wait for an elevator turned into a spontaneous singalong of the Beach Boys' classic "Don't Worry Baby" — complete with percussion and spot-on harmonies.
And the stage performances were equally as surprising. Two-time GRAMMY winner Jim Lauderdale delivered an a cappella version of his song "Shadowfall," after which singer/songwriter Bruce Robison buttonholed him to praise his songwriting. GRAMMY-winning guitarist Redd Volkaert and pal Bill Kirchen drew crowds repeatedly for their playing and humor. In the popular Oklahoma room, Fullbright performed songs by fellow Okies including Hoyt Axton; Tim Easton regaled audiences in Steve Poltz and Andrew Pressman's Sanctuary of Jamz room, where GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter Kim Richey jammed with the SHEL sisters.
Many renowned artists played official showcases, including Red House Records' 30th anniversary celebration and the BMI showcase headlined by recent GRAMMY nominee Sarah Jarosz. Kansas City natives Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley, who received one of several Spirit of Folk awards for Brewer & Shipley, noted they were "the only guys in the entire universe" who could claim to have the same song performed by both Lawrence Welk and Jerry Garcia. That song, which also earned them "subversive" labeling by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, was the hit "One Toke Over The Line," on which their Everly-like sweet harmonies still mesh beautifully.
Former Vice President Al Gore invoked the power of folk music during his lengthy, yet engrossing, climate-change presentation. It's up to folk singers, said Gore, to "write a song about what is right and what is wrong. And then sing it all over this land."
Keynote speaker Nash underlined the same point, saying folk singers have a duty "to speak truth to power."
Before signing copies of his autobiography, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, Nash sang a song he co-wrote about Levon Helm, along with Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)" and the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classic "Teach Your Children."
"Long may our freak flag fly," Nash pronounced, echoing the sentiment espoused by Brewer & Shipley, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and others whose music helped propel the '60s and '70s counterculture.
But it was Willie Nile who tied past, present and future together with his rousing "One Guitar," which was written for Seeger. "I still believe in the power of song to help change the world," he said.
Among these brothers and sisters, that message rang loud and clear.
(Austin-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis contributes regularly to print, broadcast and online media including American Songwriter and Lone Star Music magazines. Outlets also have included the Christian Science Monitor, Paste, Rollingstone.com and NPR affiliates. A contributing editor to the encyclopedia, The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, she also writes bios for new and established artists.)