Hiding Out at the Kerrville Folk Festival

We were somewhere be­tween Fredericksburg and Kerrville whirring past peach stands and clusters of Mexican hat, golden wave, and firewheels. The Hill Country was sucking us in as it did the Johnsons, the Bunions, and everybody since. “You know, white boys can’t con­trol it,” Boy George and Culture Club crooned on the tape. “You know, white boys never hold it.” I thought of settlers bolting into this country across the ninety-eighth meridian. “These were men who fled the furnishing merchant,” Robert Caro has written, “who furnished the farmer with supplies and clothing for the year on credit, and the crop lien, which the merchant took on the farmer’s cotton to make sure he ‘paid out’ the debt. And they fled the eroded, gullied, worn-out, used-up land of the Old South.” In the Hill Country they found lush meadows of stirrup high grass and low mountains rising into a clear, clean, sapphire blue sky.

The lies in your eyes, the depth of your lust

Is more than distraction . . .

You know I’m not crazy. We sped through Kerrville, deeper into the seductive hills and valleys. Then the highway narrowed and rolled off one of the hills, flattening out straight as if in a river valley, and we were there. I pulled off onto the dirt road entrance of Quiet Valley Ranch. The 4 o’clock sun still burned high and hot in the cloudless sky. And though the ranch had opened only six hours earlier, already the hills and valley were patched with multi-colored tents of various shapes and thermo-dynamic theories. I hit the stop button and cut off Boy George mid-sentence:

How am I supposed to throw

questions I cannot answer?

. . . I’ll be gone before you know.

If I cry to be told, give me . . . .

Quiet Valley, a fifty-acre ranch nine miles south of Kerrville on Highway 16, is owned by Rod and Nancylee Kennedy. There each year on the two weekends surrounding Memorial Day, they present the Kerrville Folk Festival, now in its twelfth year as one of the best folk festivals in the United States. Each year Kerrville, as we usually call it, features nationally known folk singers, popular Texas performers, and unknown, fledg­ling singers and songwriters. This year among over sixty acts, the Kennedys presented Peter Yarrow, Bob Gibson, Utah Phillips, and Rosalie Sorrels along with Texas favorites Alvin Crow, Gary P. Nunn, Marcia Ball, Ray Wylie Hub-bard, and Guy Clark. In other years Odetta, Jimmy Driftwood, Mance Lipscomb, Willis Allen Ramsey, Rusty Weir, B. W. Stevenson, Michael Mur-phey, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willie Nelson have played.

At the center of the festival is what Rod Kennedy calls his “Kerrville Fami­ly. ” This family of friends has been with Kerrville for most of its twelve years, many of them going back even further. Included in the family are Yarrow, Nunn, Murphey, Stevenson, along with Bobby Bridger, Allen Damron, Bill and Bonnie Hearne, Nanci Griffith, Steve Fromholz, Carolyn Hester, David Amram, and several others with less familiar names. It also includes scores of volunteers, who year after year donate their time to everything from building fences and sell­ing ice to providing and operating the sound system.

However, it is not only for music that people come to Kerrville. They may, having become city dwellers, be trying to return to their roots or simply are searching for peace and quiet and camaraderie. They are probably reaffirming certain neglected values. For instance, Sue Ferguson of Kerrville, a short, gray-haired nurse, comes because the festival is one place that unabashedly proclaims its idealistic view of a world where peo­ple can be warm, intimate, and compassionate.

Almost everyone who attends becomes a convert, even Kennedy, who began the festival to make money. Because of what the festival came to mean to him, in 1974 he cashed in all his assets from his Austin radio and producing businesses and bought the ranch and persevered through the difficulties of 1975-1977, when six of nine concerts received two to ten inches of rain and put him a couple of hundred thousand dollars in debt. In 1972, a month after the first festival, Kennedy was quoted as saying, “I think people need to get the rust out of their pipes. This festival did that for a lot of people. I learned to love and accept peo­ple through being with great artists like these who try to express their feelings in their work. . . . The sharing and the love . . . brought about the beginning of some genuine human relationships.”

On in the gate, I headed straight to last year’s campsite, high on the hillside, in the rocks, the mesquite, the blooming Texas this­tle, all of which prevent other campers from crowding too close, from criss­crossing tent stakes. It was a choice spot, but two young women from Houston had already claimed it. We reconciled ourselves to a pretty area further up the hill, and, claiming as much ground as possible, we pitched our tent and ten feet away tied our tarp in a cluster of mesquite.

It wasn’t long before the music of Catsby Jones, the first performer, began mixing with the rhythm of tent stakes be­ing coerced into the rocky soil. Another two performers would play before we could cook our tacos on the camp stove, clean up, and walk the five or so acres to the stage. This was a practice we would continue for the remaining seven evening concerts, only two of which would I see in their entirely. Most often I would miss the first performer, who began in the blazing six o’clock heat and the seventh and final performer who often walked on stage after one o’clock.

When one praises Kerrville, one might go on about the Hill Country’s natural beauty and the pure sensual pleasure of guzzling beer in the ninety-plus sun; however, Kerrville is really a nocturnal world. It is in the black of night around two sources of light that Kerrville’s sense of camaraderie grows and its belief that, as Kennedy likes to repeat, music “tears down walls and builds bridges.”

The first is the loud, amplified stage and its bright flood lights. The stage sits at the bottom of a slightly sloped hill. Ris­ing away from the stage and fanning out to the sides are two rows of lawn chairs, followed by forty or so rows of wooden benches. These benches might accom­modate 2,000 people; the remaining members of the audience lie on blankets or sit in lawn chairs further up the hill near the crafts booths that outline the back of the amphitheater.

But the secret to this theater is that this mass of people rolls down this slope and ends, like a wave breaking on a beach, less than eighteen inches from the ground level stage. Several nights I sat in my lawn chair with my feet resting on the stage. This closeness and the energy that grows from this closeness makes for per­formances that show mere entertainment to be a small thing.

For the performers, on a stage that neither crowds nor dwarfs them, it’s like playing for 6,000 friends. On several oc­casions, standing backstage, I saw per­formers high-stepping off stage with broad smiles, shyly but ineffectually restrained, turn to the next performer, saying, “They’re wonderful. God! They’re listening to everything you do.” For performers, this is not just another gig. They come here for the same reasons as the audience: to be rejuvenated, refreshed, reenergized; to be decynical-ized, de-New Yorked, de-L.A.ed; to remember why they started playing so many years ago.

But there are those who say that the stage is the least important place at Kerr­ville. Much more important are the numerous circles of Hill Country stone around which each evening campers and performers gather, playing their songs around a large campfire of cedar, oak, and mesquite. “It’s the eye contact,” says Frank Hill, one of the regulars, who uses his two-week vacation every year to camp and sing at Kerrville. Hill is the writer of one of the most popular camp-fire songs; “Who’s going to pick for the plain folks?” he sings, and everyone always joins in.

On several nights we visited the camp-fires, but for me the first night was the most memorable. The crowd was small and Mike Williams, a Kerrville regular, seemed to be presiding. Only a handful of people were daring to sing this first night. Allen Damron appeared and Williams asked him to sing. Damron bor­rowed a guitar and sang a Mexican song everyone knew. It was a song from his act and he sang it as if he were singing it to thousands, loudly, enthusiastically. Someone else sang a song with a chorus that everyone soon learned: “I tried and tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Luckenbach bridge last Sunday.” Then as the turn moved around again to Williams, someone with a neat­ly trimmed reddish beard and cowboy hat low on his forehead stepped out of the darkness, barely into the fading reaches of the firelight. He began talking and singing a quiet song about bluebonnets and the Brazos River that no one listened to as they continued laughing and talk­ing about Luckenbach. But slowly the talking stopped and attention turned to the quiet singer. His song was one of those about an old timer talking to a younger man, typical in country music, but his delivery, his lyrics, were sincere and honest. He finished to silence, quiet, as those around the fire kept singing his song to themselves. Finally, the young man beside us asked across the fire, “Who is that? Is that Bill Staines over there? When did you get here?” He turned to no one in particular, “Damn, that guy is good!”

Other nights, we skipped the camp-fires, preferring to lie in the tent and fall asleep as the songs from their various sources rose and mingled in the cool night air. “Were you at our campfire last night?” Crow Johnson, one of the per­formers, asked me early one evening, still excited eighteen hours later. “There must have been seventy people there, singing, listening. It took us all night to go around the campfire three times.” I told her I wasn’t. I had awakened around dawn, however, and her voice alone was rising out of the valley, rich and full. I didn’t recognize the song but it may have been her song about the Kerrville camp-fires, “Ring of Stones”:

Somewhere in the Texas hills

There’s a ring of stones

Burn branches of mesquite

Old as some old drifter’s bones.


Somewhere in the Texas hills

The sun knows the song.

We sang it to each other

To celebrate the dawn.

When camping out, your best meal is breakfast. This is especially true at Kerrville. Aside from the usual joys of eating bacon, eggs, and coffee cooked on an open fire, there is cool and there is quiet. With over half of the campers staying up past 2, mornings begin slowly and last long. There is music still, but it is quieter and less communal. One morning I listened to a young man teach an older man Towne’s Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” Though I tired of the song with the older man endlessly repeating, forget­ting, I enjoyed listening from a distance because I realized that this is about all we have left of the “folk tradition.” And perhaps this was the only way Kerrville was a folk festival.

Not that anyone pretends this is a folk festival in any academic sense. No one talks of ethnic cuisine or wears native clothing. You see no preservers of material culture, much less a back-stoop whittler. When Guy Clark finished sing­ing his popular “L.A. Freeway,” he said in a quiet voice, “Bet you didn’t know that was a folk song?” Utah Phillips, a folk singer who once rode the rails, would have caught it. A week later after playing several original tunes, he said, “Now I don’t want to scare you, to sit you back, but I’m going to sing a folk song. I’ve been noticing that the posters advertise this thing in big letters as a folk festival, and I thought I ought to play one out of respect.”

Rod Kennedy knows what his festival has become. Noting the difference in this year’s lineup and the first year’s, which included John Lomax, Jr., Robert Shaw, and Mance Lipscomb, he said, “We started as a folk festival and slowly have become a songwriter’s festival.” It’s not a development that saddens him, however. In 1976 he said, “There are two different types of escapism in music today. One is traditional, and the other is drug-and booze-oriented.”

Most of Kennedy’s performers would agree. First, most of them play their own compositions. Second, few of those who play folksongs that have been passed down through folk culture feel any duty to preserve the way they once were played. Grimalkin and Eaglebone Whis­tle, for example, play traditional English and Irish music. The latter also plays bluegrass. Yet Grimalkin uses electric in­struments including synthesizer, while Eaglebone Whistle turns even hammered dulcimer tunes into their own blend of rock and roll, jazz, and bluegrass. Jane Gillman, guitarist of Eaglebone Whistle, says that she rarely tries to duplicate tunes she has heard, whether pop or tradi­tional. “You have to let the music grow,” she says. “It has to mean something to the performer; then it will mean something to the audience.” It is her way of redefining folk music as music based on the close relationship of the performer and audience. Many other performers at Kerrville indulge in the same kind of redefining. Lisa Gilkyson, who played her punk-influenced rock on electric guitar backed by the jazz group Passenger, told John T. Davis of the Austin Statesman that one could call her music folk music because she considered folk music to be “music that’s indigenous to the times.”

Yet there are those at Kerrville, though most are not regulars, who look upon themselves as preservers of an old music and who learned many of their songs in the oral (folk) tradition, sans radio, sans stereo. Roy Bookbinder, for instance, studied under Pink Anderson and Rev. Gary Davis and tries to play their songs in exactly the way they played them. He can’t, of course, because his soul and ear have been affected by contemporary, ur­ban music, but he probably comes as close as anyone. Santiago Jimenez of San Antonio and a performer at many other folk festivals deliberately plays conjunto in the style of his father and not in the more rock-influenced style of his brother Flaco. And there is Kurt Van Sickle who straddles the fence, trying to remain in both worlds. As the protege of Navasota blues singer Mance Lipscomb, he is con­sidered the best duplicator of Lipscomb’s music, yet he also writes original songs and is making a career for himself with his own music.

In a sense, Kerrville is a protest. It is a protest of the big city way of produc­ing music festivals. Willie Nelson takes full page ads in the Sunday New York Times for his Fourth of July concert. The US Festival in California attracts hun­dreds of thousands and ends in several deaths. But Rod Kennedy is determined to keep the crowds small and the drunks out. He requires a 3-day ticket to camp, and if crowds keep growing, he will re­quire longer stays and raise the price. In a 1976 interview he said, “I think the people who aren’t interested in freaking out have got to have some place to go, and this is the only place there is.”

In its quiet, unpublicized, non-political way, Kerrville also protests against the cold, insincere, high-tech, urban lifestyle. And it appeals most to the unsettled urbanite — those of us who are always complaining about city life but who haven’t and probably never will buy the forty acres we’ve been talking about for so long. Yet everyone from the last of the Austin hippies to Hill Country businessmen and ranchers finds a home at Kerrville. Most understand Rod Ken­nedy when he says, “I resigned from Rotary and threw away my ties.” It is a line he likes to repeat, as if to say, “I had the courage. How about you?”

Of course, few of us will have the courage or opportunity to thumb our noses at the current arbiters of culture and finance. For that reason, Kerrville becomes all the more important. It is a place to gather and sing along with those of similar sympathies.

There’s Jimmy Gilmore singing his song “Dallas”:

Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes.

And there is the Nigel Russell song, “The White Collar Hollar,” sung by the Canadian Stan Rogers in a rousing a capella, as if shouted by a chain gang:

And it’s Ho, boys, can’t you code it, and program it right?

Nothing ever happens in this life of mine.

I’m hauling up the data on the Xerox line.

And in their turn, nature and things country are praised to kingdom come. Rodney Crowell sings, “On the Banks of the Old Bandera”; Bill Staines sings “Sweet Wyoming Home”; Allen Damron sings Michael Murphey’s song, “A Boy From the Country.” My favorite is Guy Clark’s “Home-Grown Tomatoes,” which gets to the point, if a big indirectly:


Home-grown tomatoes, home-grown tomatoes,

What would I be without home-grown tomatoes?

Only two things that money can’t buy,

And that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.


Yet even as a protest, Kerrville is an anachronism. Kerrville’s roots are in Austin’s “cosmic cowboy” movement of the early 70’s, which in turn had its roots in the Cambridge folk movement. But now the American counter-culture is very much urban, even sophisticated. As an “in” protest, Kerrville has been passed by. Its innocent belief that people can “come together now” to share love, peace, and goodwill has been replaced by a cynical acceptance that our lives are ir­revocably mechanized, computerized.

And Kerrville is a schizophrenic anachronism, for its foundations are also urban and technological while it pretends they are rural. Those performers includ­ed in the Kerrville family come from cities, large and small, and learned their “folk music” and folk styles from recordings by Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger or maybe Woody Guthrie, none of whom remained folk in any literal way. In essence, Kerrville is two generations from the folk. As William A. Owens in­timates in the “Coda” to his recent Tell me a story, sing me a song, World War II marked the end of “the folk” as a sociological or even political entity. Kerr­ville regular Steve Fromholz notes something similar in his beautiful “Texas Trilogy”:


I wonder why it is you never see any young folks around Kopperl?

Seems like as soon as the last day of May rolls around

and all the seniors graduate, they go runnin’ off to Clebume

and Fort Worth and get ’em a good job, you know.


Shortly after midnight, just as Ray Wylie Hubbard stepped on stage as the last per­former at the 1983 Kerrville Folk Festival, we pulled out of Quiet Valley Ranch and headed home. Having to be at work at 8 that morning, we drank cups of coffee and sped our way out of the Hill Country, passing closed-up peach stands and shadowy clumps of wild flowers. For a while we tried to hold on to Kerrville, listening to Allen Damron on the ghetto blaster sing John Ims’ “Two of a Kind”:


Another midnight on the highway, Houston in the distance.

Seems like I’m always leaving love behind.

Singing along with someone whose soul is on the radio.

Sounds like me and the good ol’ boy are two of a kind.


We were leaving Kerrville behind un­til next year. In the city I wouldn’t have time for eight evenings of music, early morning campfires, leisurely breakfasts, afternoons asleep on a river bank. Kerr­ville is a seductive Hill Country dreamland, but it is also a vacation, a retreat, a temporary hideout from the fur­nishing merchant. But one can’t stay there. So we passed through Johnson City and replaced Allen Damron with the English new-wave band, A Flock of Seagulls, and listened to their electric guitars and synthesizers all the way home:


She’s an automatic

He’s a cosmic man . . .

Where young love’s forbidden,

You have to keep it hidden.

Modern love is automatic.

Modern love is automatic.

Modern love is automatic.


This essay was originally published in The Texas Observer, in the early 1980’s.