Kerrville Folk Festival 2022
The mixmaster I’m keen to has eight freeways colliding like rapids on an expedition… where you grip the wheel and grind your teeth as you twist like a bobsled in a corkscrew.
The 50th annual Kerrville Folk Festival has a much more inviting mixmaster, one paved with gravel and steeped in tradition. A passageway to another world with its own ambitions.
Kerrville is a delightful small town deep in the Hill Country. A local storefront proclaims “over three-dozen sold,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to the billions of hamburgers McDonald’s made at its franchises.
I set out on the trail to Camp Mama Tried, an eclectic group of music lovers, artists and down-to-earth hippies that claimed the same land for the past decade. There is a dome tent constructed out of a former trampoline and tarps covering the kitchen next to the custom made after hours stage. Community dinners are the glue that holds each camp together and the kitchens scattered across the grounds would give any restaurant a run for their money.
I set up camp and headed out to the Kennedy Outdoor Theater for the evening’s headliners. There are wooden benches lining the hillside creating a beautiful amphitheater. The sound system is the finest quality I’ve ever heard at a large festival and the attentive audience allows every note to be heard.
Bill Hearne from Santa Fe, New Mexico leads the crowd in a sing-a-long with Guy Clark’s “Rita Ballou” accompanied by acoustic bass and lead guitar. It’s honestly the first time I’ve been in such a respectful and attentive festival audience, and the music absolutely thrives off of the silence.
Hearne performed at the first festival in 1972 and has learned how to interact with the “Kerrverts” like a front porch picking session. Kerrville is the land of unspoken rules and any weathered face with a vintage festival tie dye is happy to put their arm around your shoulder and whisper the terms of engagement.
Bill Hearne performs at the Kennedy Outdoor Theater. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
I ran into Andy Corwin, longtime folkie and attendee that performs with the Limeliters, who gave me a history lesson of the site. Corwin was introduced to founder Ron Kennedy through long time performer Chuck Brodsky at the Folk Alliance and was quickly invited out to Texas.
“This is his baby. He gave birth to this,” Corwin said about Kennedy. “He was there at the table and I went over and said hi to him, and I had met him once before for about nine seconds five years earlier but he pretended he remembered me.”
Kennedy, a race car driver and music promoter and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary came up with the idea to host a small festival for songwriters and purchased the Quiet Valley Ranch in 1972. It initially was a weekend festival and has evolved into a three week camping retreat where musicians can network and build relationships that last a lifetime.
Brodsky recommended that Corwin make the trip to Kerrville and Kennedy put him down as a special guest.
“That very first weekend, memorial day weekend, I was camped down in the lower meadow, at camp synchronicity and they always put up a great sturdy tent with iron, steel pipes, stuff like that,” Corwin said. “It was after midnight, probably close to three in the morning, and there was this righteous, almost biblical thunderstorm going on, and it’s lightning and it’s flashing nearby. It’s like, there’s lightning strikes on the ranch and thunder was deafening, and there were seven or eight or nine of us and we were singing Beatles songs at the top of our lungs trying to be heard over the thunder and at that moment I had this epiphany and said ‘it doesn’t get better than this, this is like more fun than I’ve ever had. These are my people.’”
Corwin has been back for the past twenty years, and arrives early for the “Land Rush,” an exclusive soft opening where attendees stake their campsites.
“It’s a string of moments. Amazing moments,” Corwin said as he told me about the importance of camps claiming the same ground each year, how ashes of fallen folkies have been scattered at camps, how so many children that run around the grounds have birthdays in common, even weddings have taken place at the ranch. “The first place I kissed my girlfriend, I remember where it was exactly,” Corwin said. “You not only remember the events, you remember how you felt at that moment, what you were smelling at that moment, it’s so vivid.”
This year at the Land Rush, a huge thunderstorm rolled through that brought Corwin back to those early days. They played dominos as the lightning flashed and booms filled the air.
“The storm ended… and low and behold there was the biggest, brightest, most vivid rainbow that anybody had ever seen, and it wasn’t a partial, it was a full rainbow right over that hill to the east,” Corwin said. “It lasted for like forty minutes. The light on the landscape was this aqua sky. It was this peaceful, enveloping moment.”
The inspiring atmosphere of the festival influenced the direction of Corwin’s music throughout the years as well.
“The Limeliters today are very much a product of this festival,” Corwin said, “with that sensibility and that kind of approach to music that comes from here.”
The next morning I watched the sunrise at Chapel Hill, a daily gathering of songs and worship on the highest peak of the site. We passed the guitar around and got hydrated for another warm afternoon.
I met Jake Kirbo, who learned how to play multiple instruments from others at the ranch and was attending for the 32nd time. Her neighbor Slim Richie once heard her sing while doing chores and encouraged her to hone her craft.
“I guess one day he heard me singing,” Kirbo said, “ and he handed me a stack of CDs and said ‘do your dishes you’re now going to sing for me.’”
At first, Kirbo camped in the “Kiddie Corral” with Richie’s daughters and was able to overcome being shy through the kindness of the attendees.
“Everybody knows each other here for many, many years,” Kirbo said as a friend stopped by to greet her. “We used to get in trouble out here,” Kirbo said as they both laughed. “We used to have naked parades and stuff.”
I followed the drifting notes as I explored the land and met bassist Ned Mefford at Camp Unicorn.
“I met my wife here thirty years ago,” Mefford said. “We raised two children out here.”
Mefford told me about a scare when he was at the festival, caring for a child with diabetes. Campers came together to share their knowledge and manage the condition.
“Every diabetic on the ranch came to me, and they hugged me, and they counseled me on what I was facing, and I instantly had references and help,” Mefford said.
Mefford worked his way up from a cashier to supervisor throughout the years and became a part of the Kerrville family.
I headed back to the main stage to watch Shake Russell and was introduced to Bill Godfrey, who first attended in 2006.
“I was living in San Marcos with some friends and they brought me out here,” Godfrey said. “I had no idea what it was, or where I was going. I was just an 18 year old kid wanting to fit in with some older kids I was living with. I had no idea it was a celebration of songwriters.”
Godfrey only had one original song under his belt that first year, but he took his guitar and played that one song at every campfire and had an artistic awakening.
“The next year I was really excited to come back with more songs,” Godfrey said. “It’s been rinse and repeat now for the last seventeen years. You can always play someone a song and they’ll appreciate it.”
Attendees can also enter the New Folk Competition for a chance to be selected to perform at the Threadgill Stage. Yarrow is credited with introducing the idea of a songwriting competition and it really bridges the gap between the campers and the performers.
A New Folk Competition finalist performs on the Threadgill Stage. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
As I was packing up my gear I spoke with harmonica player Gary Sapone, who first attended in 1981. It was the perfect opportunity for Sapone to join in the various jam sessions and he quickly networked with artists.
“People were pretty impressed when I first came here, and they were glad to hear harmonica,” Sapone said.
Sapone was able to enter the harmonica blow-off his second year and later went on to play “Puff the Magic Dragon” with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey on the main stage and sing a verse.
“I used to listen to that as a kid,” Sappone said, “and at the end of it they said ‘there you have it.. Peter, Paul and Gary.’”
I watched Sappone perform with Jack Motley and Friends on the Threadgill Stage. It was an entertaining children’s show with frog themed costumes.
Jack Motley and Friends perform on the Threadgill Stage. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
Watching the younger generations grow up throughout the years and continue the traditions of the festival is what means the most to Sappone and so many others I was able to speak with. The youth that fill the grounds have the same appreciation for songwriting that Kennedy did when he set off to place a festival in an unknown Hill Country town.
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