Kerrville Folk Festival - A Misnomer?

By Bill Ede

Rod and Nancylee Kennedy's dream-come-alive of the last 18 years, the Kerrville Folk Festival, could more aptly be called the Kerrville Song Festival, except that the mention of such a term normally invokes images of concert competition of the fiercest kind. Kerrville's "New Folk" concerts, its one nod to competition, is a much more low-key event than we normally associate with "song festivals." It blends right in with the spirit of the festival as a whole -- one of unrestrained affection and celebration of life in song.

The Kennedy dream took root in 1972 in Texas's "hill country," with the help of festival stalwarts Allen Damron and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary). A recent ex-president, Lyndon Johnson, attended that first gathering, one of two that occurred indoors. A not-yet-famous Willie Nelson is said to have asked to perform at the second of those indoor, now annual, events. Then in 1974, the festival moved to the Quiet Valley Ranch, its present location, attracting 6000 people over a four-day period. The festival has grown over the years to a first-rate festival, mixing established songwriters with the up-and-comers of a newer day. The New Folk concerts, Peter Yarrow's brain child, have helped spawn the careers of past New Folk winners Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Butch Hancock, Lyle Lovett and the soon-to-be-heard-from Darden Smith and Robert Earl Keene, among others. What became Michelle Shocked's Texas Campfire Tapes LP was recorded -- where else? -- at a Kerrville camp fire. But lest one conclude that Kerrville is some sort of celebration of fame, Kerrville's "no-star" system makes it clear that its focus is on the music itself and not on any of its by-products. Though proud of the caliber of performer it attracts, the festival makes no special overtures of a monetary nature to ensure or encourage participation by better-known artists. All main stage performers are paid the same fee, regardless of status in the musical community. A performer, it is said, has to want to play Kerrville, as monetary compensation alone would not constitute sufficient reason. This same spirit of volunteerism is exemplified in Mary Jane Farmer's staff of over 100 workers, who seem to look at Kerrville as a labor of love and a chance to take in a lot of good music.

Included in this year's events is the Bob Gibson Song Writers School, June 6-8, hosted by Bob Gibson, with Peter Yarrow, Rick Beresford, Dick Goodwin and Peter Rowan as faculty.

Kerrville is also hosting a Homespun Tapes Guitar School, May 30-June 1, featuring Happy and Artie Traum, Russ Barenberg and Rory Block.

The 1989 New Folk competition will be held May 27 and 28 at 1:00 p.m., and will feature 20 performer/writers per day competing for six $150 awards. The winners will return Sunday, June 4, to perform 20-minute sets of original songs. The competition is sponsored by Sing Out! Corporation, a national force for original music for 39 years. This year's judges include Shawn Phillips, Patty Larkin and David Wilcox. (Deadline for entries was April 21 -- sorry about that, folks.)

Performers scheduled to grace the main stage this year during the now eighteen-day festival include John Stewart, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Bill Staines, Nanci Griffith, Crow Johnson, Steve Gilette, Butch Hancock, Ronnie Gilbert, Lyle Lovett, Noel Paul Stookey, Carolyn Hester, Shawn Phillips, The Limeliters, Michelle Shocked and Fred Koller. The Kerrville Festival, Too now replaces the Bluegrass Festival on Labor Day weekend, September 1-3, and will reportedly feature the talents of Townes Van Zandt, Tim Henderson and Tom Paxton, among others.

Kerrville, Texas is located 65 miles northwest of San Antonio or 96 miles southwest of Austin. Quiet Valley Ranch, the site of the festival, is about 18 miles from the center of town.

Information on any of the events or camping facilities can be obtained by writing the Kerrville Music Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 1466, Kerrville, Texas 78029, or by calling (512) 257-3600.