Like most great festivals, folklore or otherwise, Kerrville is simply a grand, magical experience. Camping, bike rides, canoe trips, river swims, art and music workshops, nature walks, yoga, beer and wine seminars, and gospel Sundays -- truly something for everyone and all wrapped around great camaraderie. And even though the event is made up of so much more than songs and songwriting, in the end music still drives the festival....
Founded in 1972 by Rod Kennedy, the Kerrville Folk Festival, now in its 47th year, is the flagship event of the Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation which also sponsors other music and wine events throughout the year. The longest continuously running music festival in North America – 18 days and nights -- Kerrville is considered a Mecca in the singer-songwriter landscape where over 100 national and international performers not only mingle together on stage but also with locals under the stars during legendary campside jam sessions. Well-known singer-songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Lucinda Williams graced the stage early in their careers while national acts such as Arlo Guthrie, David Crosby and Peter, Paul & Mary also made the trip to this Texas Hill Country gem.
Kicking off May 24 and closing June 10, the festival’s nurturing vibe cannot be denied -- from the “Welcome Home“ greeting to visitors first crossing the camp threshold to the loving, family friendly environment to the warmth shown songwriters of all ages and backgrounds at the annual Grassy Hill New Folk Competition. This two-day singer-songwriter event has long been a highlight of the first weekend, not to mention the entire three-week event. Thirty-two finalists out of over 600 entries from around the world perform two songs in the hopes of being named one of six winners. And though competitive in nature, nowhere else does the Kerrville friendly spirit shine brighter. A good deal of humor and mutual admiration among musicians is on display as the afternoon event creates an electric atmosphere on the first Saturday and Sunday which carries throughout the event.
Memorial Day Weekend (May 24-27) is highlighted on Thursday by Ordinary Elephant -- named 2017 Artist of the Year by Folk Alliance International. Fueled mostly by bango and guitar, the husband and wife duo of Crystal and Pete Damore combine luscious harmonies with clever songwriting in a well-honed package. Friday features the trio Nobody’s Girl, formerly known as Sirens of South Austin (note the change when making plans to attend!). Hailing from Texas, Alabama, and Georgia respectively, Bettysoo, Grace Pettis, and Rebecca Loebe, first met at Kerrville over a decade ago as winners of the New Folk Songwriters. Now neighbors in Austin, the seasoned performers have joined forces with effortless harmonies a la Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton soaring over catchy acoustic ditties. Finding strength in numbers, the collaboration of these critically acclaimed songwriters has been quite the hit in Austin and elsewhere with anticipation running high for this Friday headlining show.
Not to be overlooked! The song swap of Susan Gibson, Walt Wilkins, and Michael O’Connor precedes Nobody’s Girl and will bring out the crowds, too. A favorite at the smaller Threadgill Theatre last year, this in-the-round performance is back by popular demand and should be an interesting, slight departure from the standard set up of bands or solo performers on the main stage. Pierce Pettis, father of Nobody Girl Grace Pettis, plays prior to the Gibson, Wilkins and O’Connor and one has to think he’ll be joining his daughter on the stage before all is said and done. The older Pettis also joins his daughter’s bandmate BettySoo as a judge for the New Folk so there will be plenty of musical crossover and collaboration throughout the weekend!
Festival favorites Trout Fishing in America kick things off mid-morning on Saturday and Sunday with the Children’s Concert at the Threadgill Theater. The annual event focuses on sing-alongs and audience interaction for more than just the Kerrkids! Very much worth the effort, the shows are one more reminder of the nurturing side of Kerrville. The duo later take the main stage on Saturday night after New Braunfels singer-songwriter Drew Kennedy kicks things off. Kennedy has garnered a respectable following around the Hill Country and further afield over the last decade as has Saturday’s headliner, the beloved Johnny Nicholas, over the last 40 years. Nicholas’s Hilltop Café outside Fredericksburg regularly hosts one of the Kerrville Road Shows to promote the upcoming festival – this year’s gig featuring Nicholas, Jaimee Harris, Georgia Parker and Walt Wilkins. Of special note Nicholas welcomes the return of the wonderful Cindy Cashdollar on dobro and steel guitar to Kerrville alongside his Hell Bent band. Having played with everyone from Bob Dylan to Ryan Adams to Van Morrison, Cashdollar is probably best known for her work with Asleep at the Wheel with whom she won five Grammies. The first woman to be inducted into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame (2011), she was also inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2012. Overall, the Saturday Kerrville run through Americana blends folk, swing, blues, blue grass and psychedelic into a rich gumbo of sounds not to be missed.
“We’ve done a lot of new artists this year – new to Kerrville, that is – and maybe even a few more bands than in the past,” said festival director Dalis Allen. “Big Thief, Twisted Pine and The Petersen Brothers to name a few….just more bands somehow this year. Lots of artists we have discovered, just sought out or somehow came across.”
One of those bands’ leaders and front artists is Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief. Her Wednesday night show provides the perfect segue from the first weekend to the second. A New Folk winner of the past, Lenker will be joined by Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek for their blend of hauntingly poetic, edgy folk music before teaming up again on Friday, June 1, with the other members of the group. Big Thief has built a national following with the help of NPR promotion and nonstop touring since the release of their two LPs Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017) on Saddle Creek Records. Before they take the stage, however, Kerrville favorite and two-time Grammy nominated Eliza Gilkyson will no doubt have a good draw as she runs thought her quirky repertoire of folksy-roots originals.
The second Saturday promises a real treat, especially if you are a fan of the Austin / Carolina sound that influenced the likes of Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Joe Ely and others. Austin-based fiddler Warren Hood, son of multi-instrumentalist Champ Hood, plays mid-evening on Saturday with his cousin Marshall Hood sitting in on guitar. In addition to his own band, Warren has played and recorded with an A-to-Z of Austin music including Alejandro Escovedo, Bob Schneider, Jerry Jeff Walker and a slew of others. Hood grew up with his dad Champ’s music, especially that of the legendary Uncle Walt’s Band which included Walter Hyatt, David Ball and the elder Hood. The trio moved from Carolina to Austin in the 1975, bringing “That Carolina Sound” with them.
“Uncle Walt’s Band played music that just simply got into your soul,” Allen said. “As the story goes I think it was Lyle Lovett who coined “That Carolina Sound” in describing this music which influenced him.”
And the name seemingly stuck with David Ball & That Carolina Sound who follow with Warren and Marshall Hood joining in, showcasing tunes from Uncle Walt’s Band to complement Ball’s solo numbers. All in all an event sure to bring back memories of the late, great Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood. Lastly, headliners Patrice Pike & Wayne Sutton are sure to close out the evening on a high note. With the entire band in tow, Pike & Sutton will be one of the more rockin’ outfits to play Kerrville as they blend roots rock with rhythm and blues along with soul and jazz influences.
The final weekend marks the return of two-time Grammy winners Brave Combo as Friday headliners. For three decades the Denton-based band has blended the world music tinged beats of salsa, meringue and more with rock n roll and the blues to create an upbeat dance party of a live show. Few Kerrville bands bend the folk music interpretation further than Brave Combo, having played the festival on numerous occasions. Saturday will be dedicated the memory of the beloved singer and pianist Bonnie Hearne, wife and musical partner of the singer-songwriter Bill Hearne. “This wont be a maudlin evening but more of a loving remembrance and celebration of Bonnie and all the people she touched,” said Allen. “Expect a number of special guests to join her husband Bill on stage.” Having passed away in December 2017, Bonnie met Bill at Kerrville founder Rod Kennedy’s Chequered Flag music club in Austin in the 1960s and soon found themselves at the epicenter of outlaw country, playing with and influencing some of the biggest folk music and country artists of the day such as Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Joined by their nephew Michael Hearne, Shake Russell, Tish Hinojosa, among others, the evening should be a fitting tribute to this legend of folk music and a proper ending to a magical three-week stretch of folk music in the hills.
For more info and lineup, visit www.kerrvillefolkfestival.org
Thanks to Jeffrey Brown for the above review.