Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Something's Changed

The Ethos

of the

Kerrville Folk Festival

This week I’d be into heavy packing and meticulous planning for the Kerrville Folk Festival if I were going this year. The 39th annual Kerrville Folk Festival starts its three-weekend, two-week run May 27th, but I won’t be there.

In years past, I’d start thinking about going not long after the first of the year. In a “Kerrville State of Mind” I’d smile at the thought of sitting on the side of a hill with my guitar and a new song. I’d drool and almost smell the delicious fare we’d cook at the camp site, but I’m not going this year.

The sign at the front gate of the Quiet Valley Ranch still says, “Welcome Home”, but the ethos has changed. That’s one of the reasons I won’t be there this year.

In the 1970s, we’d crawl up rutted roads with little bunny trails leading in to the bushes to find a flat spot for my pick up and a canopy. Over time, we settled on a triangular space about half of the way up the hill, close enough to the concert area that you could still hear the music. It was our spot for years.

I was there, sitting on a bench in a rain suit, water dripping off of my hat during a deluge while Riders in Sky played “Ghost Riders In The Sky” when a monstrous bolt of lightning stopped the show. (Memorial Day, 1981). I’ve sat in the sizzling heat listening to the New Folk sets, before they moved them to the now covered Threadgill Theater.

I’ve been there when the violent storm bent the canopy poles and sent them crashing on our site. My elementary school-aged son slept through it all while other children wailed.

Before cell phones, there was one pay phone (Remember pay telephones?) on the premises. Only one. There was always a quarter on top so you could drop it in the slot and make a collect call. When you’d hang up, you would always return the quarter to the top of the phone.

I’ve been there as a reporter in the early ’80s waiting for the KVUE TV helicopter to land with a photographer on board. We’d shoot stories for several days. I’ve just been there alone, alone on purpose for the purpose of contemplation. I wrote a song trying to capture the essence of the place as I tried to decide whether to go back for a second weekend. The lyrics of “I’m Going Back Again” are found on www.mcnabbsongs.com.

Some of the best times were and are between the weekends when the scene becomes peaceful again. I enjoyed three songwriters school over the years, spending one-on-one time with folks from Boston’s Berklee College of music and successful singer-songwriters.

On the weekend I’ve heard incredible music from acts I’d never heard of, acts who became stars, and others who were stars: Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Robert Earl Keen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta, Bob Gibson, Carolyn Hester, Small Potatoes, Uncle Walt’s Band, Eaglebone Whistle, Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Eliza Gilkyson, The Limelighters, The Kingston Trio, Glenn Yarbrough, Steve Fromholz, Asleep at the Wheel, Guy Clark—the list is long. Of course, these are just a few from 30 or so years of evening concerts.

The music lineup is great again this year featuring Indigo Girls, the Austin Lounge Lizards, Sara Hickman, The Burns Sisters, Brave Combo, Trout Fishing in America, Shake Russell and dozens of others, but I won’t hear them.

I just couldn’t get excited this year. This malaise has been growing for the past two or three years, and finally it caused a change in my behavior and a decision to avoid “Big Folk” in 2010.

Sure, 30 years ago, I could tolerate the conditions better. So, some of my problem this year is me, but not all of it.

Nowadays, the air is different at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Just a few years ago when we all set up the same kind of camps with canopies and tents, there were no chalk-line boundaries for camping space. We shared the space. Now, RVs rule the hill and tent campers must hike elsewhere. Our little triangle was long ago carved away to create an RV hook-up. Nowadays, people seem to keep to themselves more.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for improvements. The arrival of electricity was a welcomed change. Fans could create a breeze when there was none.

Yes, the KFF experience may still be the same down in the valley where people never sleep. I sampled the valley area a few times, each time coming away saying, “I must return to the hill!”

I will not, however, be returning to the hill in the spring of 2010 to push the limits of the chalk line and intrude on the RV campers’ cliques. Maybe I need an RV too. First, I’d need money.

The sign at the gate where you exit Quiet Valley Ranch says, “It Can Always Be This Way”. I love the sentiment, but while the Kerrville Folk Festival has matured and continued growing, some of the ambience, the ethos, the KFF experience has been lost as campers become faces in the crowd.

I’m not ruling out a trip to “Little Folk” (the Kerrville Wine and Music Festival, formerly the Kerrville Blue Grass Festival) this Labor Day. Yes, it’s often hot, but the crowds are smaller, the RVs are fewer, and it feels more like the festival that I’ve loved for more than 30 years.

© Jim McNabb
(Photos by Wade McNabb, KFF 2009)


Lance said...

"Something's changed". It's also a metaphor for Austin, and the original music scene. Rod Kennedy found a fertile field, and a ready market in 1972, and launched the KFF with a volunteer staff of 3. The Armadillo World Headquarters and beer garden rocked nightly, while KRMH-"Good Karma" ripped up over the horizon from Buda with 100Kw of the great music of the time. The creeks ran cold and clean, and the people were friendly. You could drive the length of Lamar at 9 at night and see only one or two other cars. Austin actually was the paradise you hear about in the old stories.
Yeah, it sure has changed. Isn't that keen?
What interests me is the lingering global image this time in Austin has. As an Amateur Radio Operator, people from London to Tokyo to Sydney still ask about the Festival, ACL, and the Armadillo as if they still exist in the early 70's form.
"Do you still go down to the river in the twilight and eat Nachos?" Does Willie ever drop by the table and play a song?" "Do they still swim naked at that big lake?"
The image is still a magnet, and a good part of why the town outgrew itself.

Katherine said...

In a world full of regulation and rules one of the appeals the KFF offered was more freedom, more generosity of trust. I remember the day when a kid could load a red Flyer wagon up with sacks of ice and become his own entrepreneur on the hill, selling cool to tennants of sweltering campsites. I remmeber flaming marshmallows and "check-in policies" vs. "no kids unattended" policies. I understand the financial issues involved but harbor an RV resentment regardless. I'll go back but, sigh, things are indeed changing.