Crafting Stages and Guerrilla Showcases

Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, and folksingers (his troubadour descendants) have also been known to make stages in all sorts of strange places. Pete Seeger likes to say that a good song needs only breath to live, and the great thing about guitars and banjos is that you can pull them out in bars, on boats, in boxcars, and everywhere in between. I’ve heard wonderful musicians make even the most bizarre spaces come alive with music.

As I found out recently at the Folk Alliance conference in Memphis, TN, one can make stages even out of tiny hotel rooms, in which the only available seats are often the beds themselves, and Gideon Bible-toting dresser drawers have to be pushed aside to make way for the performers. Each year, over one thousand folk musicians, deejays, and concert organizers engage in this strange ritual at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Memphis to share music and insights about the folk business.

I’ve been hearing about Folk Alliance for several years now, mostly from the many Folk Alliance musicians who also play frequently on the peninsula: Eric Lewis, Tommy Burroughs, Karen Mal, and Claudia Russell, to name a few. So this year, faced with a cold February weekend in which most of the above-mentioned people would be gathered in Tennessee, I decided to leave Wisconsin and head for Memphis, home of Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum, great barbeque, and even greater music.

Each day of the conference, which lasted from Wednesday, February 18 until Sunday, February 22, began with a broad selection of workshops and panel discussions in the morning and afternoon (topics included how to build a musical career in the present economy, how to work with sound technicians, how to perform political songs in our current era, and many more), followed by showcase performances by a variety of artists in the hotel’s larger conference rooms. Later, there were “guerilla showcases” (performances in the aforementioned upper rooms of the hotel) until the wee hours of the morning, and informal jam sessions all over the hotel until even wee-er hours.

There were big enough names at the Folk Alliance conference to excite mainstream music fans as well as hard-core folkies – the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, for example, delivered the keynote address. But the even more exciting aspect of the conference for me were the lesser-known songwriters who flooded the conference, some of whom I already knew and loved, and many of whom I encountered for the first time that weekend. As someone who would pay good money to see many of these artists in concert, the opportunity to see a dozen or more in one night was thrilling.

My weekend at Folk Alliance was so varied and action-packed that it’s hard to sum it all up in a few cohesive paragraphs, so I think I’ll share a few highlights that have stuck out the most in my mind since my return to Door County.

• Walking down the thoroughfare of performance rooms during the musical rush hour of 7 – 10 pm, hearing strains of folk, bluegrass, and blues pouring out of each room as I passed it. I, like many conference participants, could often be seen hurrying down the corridor with my nose in the performance schedule, trying to fit five or six high-priority performances into a (tragically brief) half-hour time slot.

• On one such jog (this is the closest some folksingers come to a workout all year long), feeling suddenly arrested by the music coming out of one conference room: a clear female voice leading a waltz, accompanied by a single guitar and a soft chorus of audience voices singing along with the song’s sweet, memorable refrain. I found out after the performance that the singer was Lindsay Jane, a songwriter from Canada whose CD I purchased at my earliest convenience and have been enjoying ever since.

• Taking a trip off-campus (via old-fashioned trolley) to the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King’s assassination; rediscovering the power, pain, and bravery of a struggle that is in many ways foundational to the music we were celebrating all weekend.

• Going with my hosts, Eric and Sheila Lewis, to a bar to hear Eric play, entering just in time to hear Jimmy Davis (whom many peninsula residents will remember from his summer concerts at Fishstock) dedicating a song to Door County, a “wonderful little place in Wisconsin.” The next day, seeing Jimmy, Eric, and Tommy Burroughs play in one of the Folk Alliance hotel lounges, thinking fondly of similar nights at the AC Tap and wondering impatiently when summer will reappear.

• Realizing the wonderful tribal quality of the current folk scene; it’s hard to make a living as a folk musician these days, and these musicians cope in part by forming strong bonds with one another and strengthening them whenever possible at gatherings like Folk Alliance. My old Door County friend Karen Mal has introduced me to a number of her friends at gatherings like the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, and I was pleased to see a number of them on my trip to Memphis. (One such friend, Jonathan Byrd, performed at the White Gull Inn on April 1. Jonathan is an astounding songwriter and performer – an act not to be missed.)

• Remembering the collaborative power of folk music through the many cover songs I heard played at the conference. Even the most accomplished songwriters at the conference were quick to pay tribute to other songwriters; Karen Mal, for instance, joined Austin musician Will Taylor for a thoughtful, eclectic revue of Joni Mitchell; Vermont-based songwriter Anais Mitchell (who, for my money, is the most innovative songwriter on the contemporary folk scene) gave voice to a Richard Thompson song I’d listened to before but never truly heard until she brought it to life in a tiny room on the hotel’s nineteenth floor.

I had a great time in Memphis, but I think the real value of Folk Alliance for me was the opportunity it gave me to recharge my creative battery, to rediscover the vibrancy of American roots music and to remember my desire to recreate it here at home. Like the performers I was privileged to hear on their tiny hotel stages, I’m eager to breathe life into old and new songs and watch for opportunities to put them out into the world. And I can’t wait to hear the songs from all the other musicians who craft stages out of this small peninsula where I am lucky enough to make my home.