however, Kerrville is really a nocturnal world. It is in the black of night around two sources of light that Kerrville’s sense of comraderie 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 decynicalized, 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 campfire songs; “Who’s going to pick for the plain folks?” he sings, and everyone always joins in. On several nights we visited the campfires, 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 campfires, 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 campfires, “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 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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