What the Folk is Going On?
Photographs by Laura Brown
The 2009 International Folk Alliance, in its 21st year, was held this past weekend in Memphis, Tenn. The conference presents an interesting look at folk and traditional music from a historical/academic perspective, as well as a networking opportunity for many up and coming artists, particularly singer-songwriters. Bigger names like Roger McGuinn (keynote address) and James Burton were on the bill; and Albert Lee could be found haunting up and down the halls of the downtown Marriott.
American Songwriter got a late start on Thursday but made it in time for one of our favorites Randall Bramblett, New West recording artist. Randall’s a jack of all trades, a staple on the Athens, Ga. music scene, who can sometimes be found playing sax with Widespread Panic or his old buddy Chuck Leavell. Seeing Randall solo – on acoustic guitar and vocals – is a treat not to miss though. Bramblett has a sincere and natural charm when he performs and hearing him do his own songs takes you straight back to a summer afternoon, sitting on a long porch under a big oak somewhere in Georgia, sipping your sweet tea.
The Folk Alliance has a peculiar tradition of moving the party up to the 17th, 18th and 19th floors for individual room showcases from about 10:30PM stretching into the wee hours of the night. The three floors of the Marriott turn into a dorm party with people knocking each other over, running from room to room, up and down the stairs and elevator, trying to make the gig they booked for every 30 minute time slot. Amid the confusion and laughable overzealousness, we stumbled on the sublime art of Ana Egge. Egge is a damn good guitar player, with strong and forceful chops, balanced by an ethereal voice which gets almost drowned out by her guitar rhythm – all part of the show. For her last tune she did a pitch-perfect slide rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on her National resonator.
Friday kicked off with a quick Memphis biscuit-and-country-ham breakfast at a mom and pop shop on Front Street. Feeling good, we caught a few panels, including an interesting discussion on folk institutions – Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Philadelphia Folk Festival, among others – in “mid-life crisis.” We feel strongly that these institutions will prosper on as they continue to make folk music relevant to a younger audience through their programming and administration.
The major performances go down after the convention center and panel discussions end, around 6PM. In the early slot were a number of artists we were eager to catch, which resulted in some hopping around. Pierce Pettis, the transcendent Alabama singer-songwriter, played cuts from his recent Compass Records release That Kind of Love. (Look for the upcoming contest to win a co-writing/recording session with Pierce through American Songspace.)
Next up we got a chance to see a throw-back to the early origin of African-American string-band music with The Ebony Hillbillies. We are kind of obsessed with early black string ensembles like the Mississippi Sheiks, the Baxters and the Altamont recordings of Murph Gribble, and it was incredible to see this modern day homage.
The next day Henrique Prince of The Ebony Hillbillies popped up on a panel discussing the relationship between white and black string band and blues music in the ’20s and ’30s. Tony Russell, the author of Blacks, Whites and Blues, timidly moderated and seemed to bring up the important point that the segregation of the black and white string band music was a construct of the record companies marketing efforts, not so much of the musicians themselves. The other panelists concurred and Prince had some wonderful apocryphal stories including on the origin of the song “Dixie,” which may have been written by one of the daughters of the influential 19th century black musical family the Snowdens.
To chase down the Ebony Hillbillies, we headed over to see a somewhat world weary Alvin Youngblood Hart, who had just driven from Charlotte, and said he needed a beer. Hart is the real fucking deal. Period. He is a rythmic force and a colossal modern blues player. We were astounded by the fluidity of his fingerstyle playing, seamlessly intertwined with his singing. We’re now convinced that there is just no other fingerstyle guitar anymore. This is it. This is as close to the original playing of the original blues players as we are going to get. Still floored.
After the early round of downstairs performances wrapped up, we headed back upstairs to the dorm-nightmare-slumber-party to which we’ve become accustomed to for late nights at the Folk Alliance. Luckily, Devon Sproule provided some needed shelter from the storm. It really is surreal walking by room after room of musicians playing, people sitting on hotel beds. We can’t really describe it. Sproule, a favorite of ours from Charlottesville, VA, previewed some new tunes from the forthcoming Don’t Hurry For Heaven, which we hope comes out soon on Andy Friedman’s NYC-based City Salvage record label. Sproule’s new songs blew us away in almost the same way as seeing Alvin Youngblood Hart manhandle his little Martin guitar. The lyrical depth and movement in the arrangement/melody of Sproule’s new songs show she’s been doing her homework.
All in all, a great weekend of thought-provoking discourse, debauched folkies fiddlin’ in the halls and bigger name acts under one room. If you were there, tell us what you thought…