Serious Songwriters Converge At Kerrville Folk Fest

For almost three decades, it's been a proving ground for the likes of Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Tish Hinojosa.

The song's the thing at the Kerrville Folk Festival and all 18 days of the central Texas gathering, which began May 25 and runs through

June 11, are devoted, related and structured in some way to allow

people to share their songs.

In years past, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Tish Hinojosa all saw their careers get significant boosts at Kerrville.

They emerged from the pack in one of the traditions of the 29-year-old

festival — its "new folk" contest. The contest features 32

writer/performers (culled from a field of more than 500 entrants)

competing for awards, the chance to perform on the festival's main

stage and a healthy serving of prestige accrued by the winners.

This contest has been held — at the suggestion of

COLOR="#003163">Peter, Paul and Mary's

COLOR="#003163">Peter Yarrow (who is performing at this year's festival, too) — since the first Kerrville gathering in

1972.

This year's six winners represented a range of styles, from

Meg Hutchinson's

urban/folk, Ani DiFranco-like approach, to the humorous songs of Dierdre Flint, which reminded many listeners of Christine Lavin, and the more poetic

ballads of Stephen Cohen. Patty Casey, Scott Carter and Nathan Hamilton rounded out the list.

Kerrville also has a long tradition called the Ballad Tree, where

performers — professional, emerging and unknown — are

invited to put their names in a hat for a chance to share their songs

with the circle. A name performer hosts the event most afternoons.

Level Playing Field

Carolyn Hester, a folk icon who was a leading light of the '60s folk revival and helped start the performing careers of Bob Dylan and Griffith, points out, though, that whatever level of name recognition you might enjoy, "you quickly find out that you are the unimportant part of the event. Maybe you'll open the thing with a song, and maybe close it, but it is mostly the place for these people who may be completely unknown but who feel so passionately about their songs — songs that they share from their hearts."

Off the road for several years while raising her daughters, Hester

credits a Ballad Tree experience with setting her on the path back to

the spotlight. "I was passing my guitar around for these people to use while singing," she recalled, and they were so open, so committed and I thought, 'Where do I get off not sharing the songs I've written, too?' "

This year's kickoff weekend saw a typical Texas early summer combination of sweltering heat and rainstorms. Before the rains came on Friday night, blues artist Ray Bonneville opened up the evening solo, playing guitar and supplying percussion by stamping his feet.

The Montreal artist especially pleased the crowd with two songs from his Prime CD release Rough Luck: "What Was I to Do?"

(RealAudio excerpt) and

"Two Bends in the Road" (RealAudio excerpt). He was followed by Ronny Cox. who, while better known as an actor, is making a side career with original ballad-style songs.

Then Kim and Reggie Harris and the duo Magpie took the stage. Their soaring harmonies and call-and-response-style a cappella vocals drew the crowd in to their traditional folk subjects of social justice — but with a modern twist. They presented the humorous "Passive Restraint," about seatbelts, and took a more serious turn with "Crack in the Wall," a multilayered, thought-provoking commentary on violence in modern life.

Spirits Not Dampened

Then the rains and lightning came, and the performance was suspended — but the foursome returned after the weather passed to delight the crowd with another half-hour of songs linking the past and present traditions of folk music. The funny and satirical 4 Bitchin' Babes followed, and the Celtic band Clandestine had dancers boogying, despite the muddy ground, to close out the evening.

Saturday began with a morning Shabbat service accompanied by music. The afternoon was devoted to sets by the competitors in the new folk contest, Ballad Tree circles and by concerts aimed at children.

"My kids have been coming here since they were in diapers," said

singer/composer Tish Hinojosa of her now 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. "They know everybody, and it's a safe place for them to just run around. Even years when I'm not playing, they insist that we come there at least one weekend to camp out."

Hinojosa will play during the second week of Kerrville, but on Saturday her fellow Austin musicians Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LaFave took center stage through a night again dampened by downpours and threatened by reports of impending hail and severe weather.

Californian Suzanne Buirgy was new to many in the crowd but proved a popular opening act. She was followed by New England folk stalwart Bob Franke, Gilkyson and Western singer/songwriter

COLOR="#003163">Tom Russell. Tight harmonies in a high-energy set from Canada's Wyrd Sisters followed, and LaFave closed out the mainstage evening with his trademark blues/country style.

That didn't end the music, of course. Despite the rain, song circles

and campfires sprang up across the Quiet Valley Ranch grounds.

Sound Advice

Sunday morning held a folk Mass accompanied by music, more new folk and children's events, and an evening mainstage performance from Colorado cowboy songwriter Chuck Pyle.

Pyle, who is known for his onstage aphorisms, at one point advised

the audience, "Spend your time with people who are searching for the truth. Avoid the ones who say they've found it."

Canadian Lynn Miles pleased the crowd with her insightful songs, including several she's not yet recorded. Kevin Welch closed the evening, and as a special treat for the crowd he got LaFave and new folk contestant Eric Gerber onstage to join him for his song "Kickin' Back in Amsterdam," with lyrics reworked to fit the Kerrville location.

Monday saw Kerrverts (as regular attendees of the festival call

themselves) enjoying the 12th annual Blues Project workshop hosted by Arizona's Stephan George, and evening concerts by musicians including reclusive folk writer Steve Young and soulful Texas blues singer Betty Elders.

Upcoming events at Kerrville include a weeklong song school, a music business seminar, performances by the new folk contest winners and concerts by Hinojosa, Terri Hendrix, Trout Fishing in America, Hart Rogue,

Peter Rowan, Stacey Earle and others.

Kerrville is about 90 miles west of San Antonio. Information about

performance schedules can be found online at www.kerrville-music.com.

(Terri Allard contributed to this report.)