There is something about music festival culture that changes the way time works. The days are extended and run into each other. Late-a.m. bedtimes, delayed by jams and the noise of other people’s jams, don’t keep you from getting up at 9 a.m. because of the heat and light in the tent and nearby breakfast noises. Because you’re camping and there’s not so much in the way of electricity, cell phone batteries are conserved and time rationed, computer and Internet access limited. The world narrows to the campground and a couple stages. You feel every change in the dirt and the weather. Three-and-a-half days or so and three nights – That was the duration of our stay at the Kerrville Folk Festival, but it might as well have been a month on a secluded tropical island full of acoustic guitars that people were unwilling to fashion into the ark they surely could have built together, even when the rains threatened to drown us all.
I’ve said it before – I love campground culture. A group of people get out of their typical houses and environments and willingly form small, temporary homes for recreation. Teachers and lawyers become part children, part architects, designing additions to these structures with awnings, tarps, branches and string. The more crowded the campground, the more individualized the homes become so people can distinguish themselves with Christmas lights, signs and even lawn ornaments.
Kerrville , because of its size, annual schedule and its music theme, is on a whole other level. People form communities and enclaves with names like Camp Stupid, Camp Kantigree (Can’t-agree, since they spent so long trying to come up with a name), Camp Coho, Camp Todo Grande, Camp Calm. They maintain advanced rituals like “The Watermelon Sacrifice,” where a song about selling the fruit is sung to an accordion while marching behind a man draped in a picnic-table-cloth cape and wielding a machete, who places the watermelon on the ground, induces Braveheart-esque whoops and hollers from the raise of his blade, and then hacks the fruit to pieces before people converge on the parts like rabid scavengers. They have t-shirts and buttons made, and decorate their sites with mascots. One night, very late, we heard what sounded like stumbling into someone’s tent, and then “mooing.” Turns out the next morning, it was revealed Camp Stupid had raided Camp Kantigree , taken its frog mascot, and replaced it with a garden gnome.
They help form a map of the grounds even when one is not officially provided. I know our tent is about 100 yards beyond the Christmas-light palm tree, next to the camp with the frogs and plastic fish in a blue kiddie pool. If you get to the hippie kids with the huge campfire, you’ve gone too far.
Rob’s already talked about the competition stuff, so I figured I would talk about what happened once all that was over . which was . a little unexpected.
After we found out we didn’t win, we hung out around the main hospitality/merch table to talk to people and see a bit of the Ellis Paul/Vance Gilbert set. I called my parents and gave them the low down. We headed back to the tent to grab the guitars and figure out what song circles we were going to try to hit that night. Because the campsite is so big, it’s not like NewSong, where there might only be three or four different song circles going. There could easily be dozens, and they all have a different character. Walking around we spotted the hippie kids gathered around a campfire, smoking up while one guy played Anti-Bush songs. There was huge group in near-complete darkness, gathered inexplicably in front of a row of outhouses as seems to be a custom at Kerrville , singing covers in thick, chorus harmony. A group of mostly younger people gathered beneath a lone street lamp sang an upbeat song with a chorus like, “Heaven is my home and I’m going there,” and then “Whiskey in the Jar” while jumping up and down to the rhythms of New Folk “combatant” Mike Morris and his fiddle-playing partner, Heather. We walked down one of the incredibly muddy avenues and passed another small song circle before finding the one where most of the New Folk competitors and a few of the winners wound up. We stopped to listen to songs from Justin Roth, Stephanie Corby, Kat hrin Shorr, Tim Burlingame, Beth Wood and Erik Balkey, before giving up on the circle opening up for us.
If we’re going to be really honest here, Rob and I struggled a bit to fit in at Kerrville , despite the amazing kindnesses and friendliness of a good number of people. For one, both of us came to the bizarre realization was that we fell smack in the middle of the wide Kerrville age spectrum both numerically and ideologically. Too young to have the experiences and some of the musical tastes of the older set, too old to be all about the screaming, carefree nature of the early morning partying and dancing in the streets of the younger set. Though the age spread at Kerrville was wide and pretty all-encompassing, the circles and the campsites were fairly segregated by it. As one of the “adults” at Kantigree commented, “We’re old enough not to have our party next to an outhouse.”
So one of the reasons I wanted to be at the New Folk circle was to be around people closer to our age, as most of them were. These writers’ undeniable talent, and also the unique quality of the music were still in the folk tradition but different enough to inspire, and that was also something I wanted to be around. But we didn’t really fit in with them, either. A lot of them knew each other, or knew OF each other the way I knew OF a lot of them, but they did not know me or rob. There was a real feeling of not being part of the club. We weren’t excluded. They just didn’t know us . didn’t know what to make of us maybe.
Anyway, we wandered over to another circle where they welcomed us instantly. The style was on the country and bluegrass side of folk, and the beards and the years were a little longer. I was pleased to see one young kid was playing the same style and breaking the age segregation. We did a couple songs and they mostly liked the energy. It was one of a number of times this trip we’ve heard the specific compliment, “brought the fire on that one.”
It was getting late, and for the first time you could see your breath in the night air. So rob and I trekked back through the mud to see if any space had opened up at the New Folk circle. Just about everyone there had turned in or gone elsewhere, so at what must have been about 3 a.m., I said we should head back over to the very large group that had been gathered in darkness. I thought it would be fun to do “Your Eyes” since we would have such a large and willing chorus that had already been singing covers the last time we passed.
When we walked up, the circle was packed very tight, and you couldn’t distinguish anyone from the clump of shadow. The last song died down, and I asked if it was an open circle. No one really said anything and no one started up a song, so I started playing. Some people sang along, but about half the circle started to wander off. I was ready to head back to the tent, when someone behind me asked for an original. Tired of trying to fit the mold, I told rob to start “Sever,” and when the growing group asked for another, “Hands.” By then, we were ready to be done and started walking away. A couple stopped us and said very enthusiastically: “That was so cool how you just DID that!”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, thinking it was a compliment about the fact that I’d tossed the Eminem rap into “Hands” at a folk festival.
I wouldn’t have done that if it had been light enough to have seen that for myself. I started to feel a little guilty because apparently what I had done was broken up a circle where these folk heavyweights were playing.
Rob said something about it being a shame we hadn’t known because it would have been cool to play “Autobiography of A Pistol” for Ellis Paul, and the woman said he was still standing right there. So I figured might as well not stop halfway. “Hey, Ellis! Mr. Paul?”
I asked if we could play a song for him, and he agreed. When we got far enough into it to be recognized (rob’s rendition, if you don’t know, is VASTLY different), Ellis, Stephanie Corby and the other woman he had been talking to were a mix of amazement, laughter and whoops of approval. Ellis Paul put his arm around me and patted me on the back. When rob said he’d never figured out how to end it, Ellis said he was doing just fine: “Look at all the frets!” It made me feel a little better that the woman he was with jumped in and started going on to him on about our New Folk appearance she’d seen the previous day.
We thanked him a lot for his patience, and snapped a picture with him for proof of our chutzpah. We would have happily walked off, but he asked for an original. So we played “Spiral,” and he hummed a little bit with it in my ear. One good turn deserved another and he obliged my request for an original, apologizing for his mildly sloppy playing of rob’s borrowed blue Takamine thanks to a few drinks. I didn’t recognize the song, but even at that late hour and under the influence of alcohol, the man’s got presence. I find even when the song doesn’t bowl me over, the presence does.
An original from him on the borrowed guitar turned into the same from New Folk Finalist Justin Roth, another from Stephanie Corby and a couple from controversial main stage performer Eric Schwartz, including “Keep Your Jesus Off My Penis.” The delightful vulgarity doesn’t stop the song from being extremely eloquent. I’ve been told he does lovely ballads, though his flailing strangeness would never give it away. I mean, he went after rob’s ass with his teeth .
It was a good moment, and I felt it made up for my unknowing intrusion. At nearly 5 a.m. , we finally headed for Camp ilyAIMY and sleep.
And that was our last few waking hours at the festival, which should give you some idea of how much can happen in three days at Kerrville.