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Almost Woodstock — Kerrville

Columns From Behind the Pine Curtain

Almost Woodstock — Kerrville

Well I came across a child of God, he was walking along the road!

And I asked him tell where are you going, this he told me:!

Well, I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock and roll band.!

Got to get back to the land, set my soul free.!

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,!

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.!

                                  — “Woodstock” written by Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell wrote the song “Woodstock” from what she had heard from then-boyfriend, Graham Nash, about the festival. She had not been there herself, since she was told by a manager that it would be more advantageous for her to appear on The Dick Cavett Show.

She wrote this song in a hotel room in New York City, watching televised reports of the festival. “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock,” she told an interviewer shortly after the event. It was later released on her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, in 1970, on her Shadows and Light album, and again in 1996 on her Hits album. The song later went on to be a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, the latter reaching #1 on the UK singles chart for three weeks in October 1970, and the former reaching #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

If you can believe it, a significant part of that spirit lives on today in the Texas hill country; The Kerrville Folk Festival (KFF).

Truth be told, though old enough, I was not at Woodstock. In fact, I don’t remember even hearing about it until the movie came out. But, since 1994 I have been attending a festival with many of the same attributes in little old Kerrville, Texas. Every year on the Thursday before Memorial Day (except, of course 2020 and 2021), the Kerrville folk festival (KFF) cranks up for 18 days of music in the Texas Hill Country’s heat, dust and sometimes mud. Most years I go for a week though I have stayed for the entire 18 days a couple of times. At first glimpse it would appear to the outside observer that the festival is a Mecca for old burnt out hippies. There is that contingent as well as the younger “tribe”. I do love those folks and some might even include me in the old hippie group but honestly I go for the music, connections and the spirit that pervades the whole place.

KFF has wonderful music and many folks who go to the festival, stay in a Motel in nearby Kerrville and go to the shows in the evenings. The main-stage shows are wonderful through the years I have heard the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and Nancy Griffith to name but a few.

But the REAL Festival occurs in the campground next to the main-stage area. Several thousand folks camp there every year, setting up camps of widely varying complexity some complete with water towers, full bars, and more. This is where the magic happens around the clock. Anytime, from breakfast to 5am there is most likely a group of songwriters huddled up under a tarp or around a campfire sharing their songs.

If you want to learn very quickly what makes a great song then simply hang out for a while. You will hear jaw-dropping songs with regularity from folks you have never heard of or you may sit in a circle with Nashville greats like Steve Seskin or Alan Shamblin with strings of number 1 hits under their belts. But unlike the “real world” where such wunderkind would never be seen or heard in the presence of mere mortal songwriters such as myself. KFF throws that all away all pretense and magic happens.

All songwriters are created equal at KFF. You will be welcome in most any circle provided you follow the unwritten rules. Wait to be asked to sit down and share and when you are there open your ears and heart and listen. Don’t spend your time trying to figure out how to impress. Just be there and listen. Listening at KFF is magical experience. I have had my hair stand up on end at 3am by a simple song. I have wept like a small child in full view of everyone at the power of a well crafted piece. The art form is worshiped by attendees and a great song will make you an overnight legend. But remember also that everyone that opens up a guitar case has a song that will awe you. So go to share, not to impress. As they say pride goes before the fall.

While good advice for the world in general, I cannot stress too much, at KFF never, never, never judge a song by its presenter. Real songwriters don’t match the glamorous pics you see in the entertainment rags and on TV. Many write the songs you hear on the radio but judging from appearances you would never know. I have a dear friend who by appearances would never be judged as an artist. Yet she has written more than 8000 songs, many have been covered by country, pop and rock artists. She cannot play an instrument but when she sings her songs, I hear an orchestra. This could hardly happen anywhere else but at KFF it happens every day.

In its 50th year this year, it may well be the largest, longest running intentional community in the world. Every year for 18 days it re-creates itself in the arid hill country and then disappears as quickly as it came. If you are a songwriter and have any desire to meet other songwriters this is where you should go. I promise you will be energized and humbled at that same time. Most of the magic happens either 1-on-1 or in that hallowed tradition of the song circle. A song circle is a group of 3 or more songwriters playing their compositions for each other and any one else who cares to listen. Many circles take place in established camps. But others spring up spontaneously in the middle of the road in the campground in the wee hours of the morning.  KFF is a all about spontaneity, creation and sharing.

Founded by Rod Kennedy in 1972, who passed away in 2014, hopefully KFF will continue for many years to come simply because of the impact it has had on the lives of simple struggling artists such as myself. It is a magical event in an often daunting environment. I have experienced sixty MPH straight line winds, scorpions, centipedes (6 inchers), torrential rain and 100+ temps. Now may sound scary but the travails only increase the camaraderie of the place. The hardships are hardly noticed amidst the wonderful spirit of sharing.

The best part of the spirit of Woodstock lives on here. One of my fondest memories happened about 12 years ago. When we experienced a 12 hour rain of biblical proportions (9 inches if I recall correctly. There wasn’t a dry sleeping bag or tent in the whole place but when about 2pm a single ray of sunlight broke through the clouds more than a thousand people cheered at once. The roads were flowing like rivers but instead of packing up to go folks by the hundreds whipped out lawn chairs and sat in the temporary rivers like it was a party. A magical moment for sure.

I promise you, if you attend Kerrville Folk Festival with an open mind, a humble heart and a sharing spirit you will be moved beyond your wildest dreams artistically. The connections and friends you make there will totally change your life. Some of my greatest friendships and professional connections came about either directly or indirectly here. It is a magical place, a place of acceptance and to the songwriter it is home. In fact the entrance has a sign that simply says, “Welcome Home”. That is also the first greeting you are apt to get upon arriving. I know it sounds a tad sappy but I assure you it is honestly and heartfelt in its delivery.

The spirit of Woodstock lives on each year for 18 days with a joyous celebration of music and the human spirit. I encourage you to grab a tent, some cool clothes and your most accepting spirit and you will not be disappointed. To paraphrase Joni, it can set your creative soul free. Heck, I’m going again this year anyway. So if you are afraid to go by yourself then shoot me an email and I will be happy to be your tour guide. Until next time…

Find more about Kerrville Folk Festival, here: https://www.kerrvillefolkfestival.org

Randy Lewis Brown is a full-time singer/songwriter living in East Texas and has been involved with many sides of the music business over the years, from being a sideman, a sound man, touring songwriter, producer, operating a venue, and a recording studio owner/engineer. He wasn’t at Woodstock but experiences oceans of tie-dye in a patchouli scented desert every year. He thinks that almost counts.

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