Summer’s just around the corner and for the lucky ones in the Texas Hill Country that means Kerrville time! Dust off that trusted tent and canopy, pull out your river shoes and cooler, and get ready for the good vibes of the 48th Kerrville Folk Festival! After all, how could you go wrong with the endless program of outdoor fun from nature walks and canoe trips to bike rides and yoga to art and music workshops plus beer and wine seminars set around an official music line up to die for? And what’s more, this year’s mild spring tempertures give the optimistic (or perhaps the foolhardy!) real hope for a little less sweat and a little more fest!
Rod Kennedy founded the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1972, and this year’s event marks the five-year anniversary of his passing. Keep an eye and ear out for tribute moments to Kennedy this year for it is his folk music gathering that stands as the longest continuously running music festival in North America – 18 days and nights – and continues to attract hundreds of singer-songwriters from around the globe to take part in its magic -- both on stage and under the stars during late-night (and frequently all night) jam sessions. The festival also serves as the flagship event of the Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation which sponsors other music and culture events year around. For the uninitiated, many consider Kerrville the mecca for singer-songwriters, attested to by the fact that the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie and David Crosby, to name a few, have graced its stage.
The Grassy Hill New Folk Competition is the highlight of the first weekend, if not the entire event. There is a tangible giddiness and excitement around the afternoon event as 32 singer-songwriters out of this year’s more than 500 entries from around the globe perform two songs in the hope of being named one of six winners. In true Kerrville style, the competition is built on mutual respect and admiration, yet there is indeed something to play for. Award winners travel throughout Texas over the course of the year as part of the Kerrville Road Shows, a festival-sponsored tour showcasing the artists. The accolade can even jump start an artist’s career -- past New Folk Award Winners include Lyle Lovett (1982), Robert Earl Keen (1983), Tish Hinojosa (1979), Darden Smith (1985), Hal Ketchum (1986), James McMurtry (1987), Slaid Cleaves (1992) and Lucinda Williams (a participant on several occasions). Win or lose, the event is a good ol’ time if nothing else.
Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26) brings both some big names and some newbies to the festival. “There is a youthful flair running through this year’s program,” said festival director Dalis Allen. “Some first-time visiting artists are bringing new blood to the line-up.” First-timers Crys Matthews and Pushing Chain kick things off on the main stage of Thursday the 23rd. Hailing from North Carolina and now calling Virginia home, Matthews was recently one of 10 finalists out of 5,000 at the New Song Music Competition while the duo Pushing Chain from Minnesota has been at it for over 20 years, playing over 200 shows a year, yet their very first at Kerrville. Austin-based legend Ruthie Foster closes things on Thursday with her eclectic blend of blues, soul, gospel, and folk – sure to raise the roof!
The first weekend is a zinger not to be missed with lots of Girl Power in the air. Founded and fronted by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, the formidable Rising Appalachia sprinkle various world influences into their brand of southern inspired folk-blues. The Smith sisters are preceded by Austin-based trio Nobody’s Girl who brought down the house last year and have only built its following since with their endlessly soaring harmonies. Bettysoo, Grace Pettis, and Rebecca Loebe’s ties go back to a first meeting as individual winners of the New Folk Songwriters a decade ago. Austin’s all female quartet Ley Line plays Kerrville for the first time on Saturday, creating a global soundscape influenced by Brazil, Latin America and West Africa, blended with dynamic harmonies. Multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Payne follows -- best known for fronting the brilliant Elephant Revival who wowed audiences last year at Kerrville. Get ready to get down with washboards, stomp boxes, cellos, flutes and pretty much everything in between when Paine takes the stage! Playing under the moniker of “Three Women and The Truth” Eliza Gilkyson, Mary Gauthier, and Gretchen Peters bring the songwriting craft to the forefront with this Sunday evening song swap. Perhaps a slightly more mature take on the Girl Power theme, the three women have found award-winning success not only on their own but with the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw and many others recording their songs. Songwriting legend Richard Thompson closes out the first weekend. Having won numerous lifetime achievements on both sides of the Atlantic and having had his songs recorded by everyone from Elvis Costello to REM to Los Lobos and David Bryne, to name a few, Thompson was named one of the Top 20 Guitarists Of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Those perhaps preferring a more toned down approach will appreciate the mid-week shows at the smaller Threadgill Theater. Tuesday the 28th is dedicated to Kerrville favorites The Hearnes. Both Bill and Michael Hearne will play before the screening of the documentary film “New Mexico Rain“ on the iconic musical duo of Bill Hearne and his wife Bonnie Hearne who passed away at the end of 2017 at the age of 71. “The Hearnes have been a fixture at Kerrville for years. The film is fitting tribute to Bill and Bonnie,‘ said Allen. Based in Santa Fe, the duo were a regular act at the La Fonda on the Santa Fe square for 25 years. Local favorite Johnny Nicholas plays Thursday the 30th. His Hilltop Cafe outside Fredericksburg hosts and promotes the above-mentioned Kerrville Road Show, and some might recall his rollicking performance last year at the festival with Cindy Cashdollar. The 38th Songwriters School also takes places during the day from Monday the 27th until Thursday the 30th for those wanting to hone their craft!
The second weekend kicks off with local favorite Shinyribs, Kevin Russell’s most recent musical incarnation, pedaling a Cajun mix of country-soul and swamp-fun. Probably best known for co-fronting the legendary Gourds, Russell is eclectic if nothing else and pretty much anything goes at a Shinyribs show. Not to be missed! Terry Hendrix with Lubbock legend Lloyd Maines also play Kerrville on the second weekend. A wonderful tunesmith for over three decades, Hendrix has cranked out nearly an album a year since 1996, visiting Kerrville numerous times and blending a touch of wisdom with her lesson-learned tales of poetic discovery. A classically trained vocalist, Hendrix was recently recognized by Acoustic Guitar magazine as one of Texas’s essential contemporary singer-songwriters. Austin’s legendary sideman Jeff Plankenhorn closes the weekend out with a show of his own. Long regarded as one of the best guitarists in Austin, Plankenhorn epitomizes working man musician, playing weekly at Austin’s Saxon Pub with The Resentments, offering a bluesy take on singer-songwriter Americana.
The second mid-week highlight centers around the screening of Brent Simond’s documentary film “Sweet Dreams Do Come True“, a musical memoir on Nashville songwriter Verlon Thompson, whose songs have been recorded by Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffett, Sam Bush, Kenny Rogers and many others. Thompson will be in attendance and plays prior to the screening of the film. The documentary captures Thompson’s comtemporaries Guy Clark and Sam Bush (among others) in a loving tribute to “a life lived right“.
The third and final weekend features two-time Grammy-winning songwriter Rodney Crowell. Having been flooded out by heavy rains when paired with Emmylou Harris in 2015, Crowell returns to headline the final Friday. Cromwell has penned five number-one songs over his career of more than 50 years and his musicianship was recently complemented by his memoir “Chinaberry Sidewalks“. The “New-to-Kerrville“ theme continues on Saturday night with the excellent Beat Root Revival, featuring the duo of Andrea Mcgee and Ben Jones – Austin transplants via Ireland and England. Having bulit a strong following over the past three years, the band’s foot stomping melodies have blended with heavenly harmonies to move audience around the globe. They follow Kerrville fixtures Trout Fishing in America whose humorous tales of good times and bad have tickled Kerrville kids both young and old on the big stage and smaller Threadgill Theater where their Children’s Concert takes place both Saturday and Sunday mornings. Make sure not to miss Nashville’s Sam Bush, “The Father of Newgrass“, as he closes out Saturday night as Austin Americana stalwarts Wood & Wire who play the final show on Sunday, June 9th before the tribute rendition of the Kerrville anthem “Heal in the Wisdom“ marking its 40th Anniversary.