A Chorus for Rod Kennedy

ATX songwriters pen one for the Kerrville Folk Festival founder

A Chorus for Rod Kennedy

Kerrville Folk Festival founder Rod Kennedy, 84, died of natural causes on Monday. We approached local singer-songwriters that knew him and were affected by his vision for thoughts on a man who brought a piece of Texas to the world.

Every young singer-songwriter faces an initial period of rejection, or at least, indifference. Rod Kennedy was one of the precious few encouraging voices early in my career who saw potential in my nascent abilities and gave me the confidence to keep trying – through the self-doubt, the credit card debt, the medical research studies. I still haven’t quite lived up to his faith in me (he predicted a Grammy), but I’ll keep trying.

Besides all the amazing things he did to promote and nurture folk music through the times when it was about the least cool thing you could do with your life – remember John Belushi destroying the folksinger’s guitar in Animal House? – he helped create a very sweet, supportive alternative community that spreads far and wide across this country and the world, and now makes music in a much more favorable climate for the genre. Not that he wasn’t a knucklehead sometimes. Who wasn’t back then? The important thing was that he stayed true to his vision and to us through thick and thin.

Rod was a truly unique personality and it’s amazing to think back on what a huge impact he had on Texas’ (and therefore the world’s) music. I’m grateful for his friendship and all he did for me and so many of my friends. We will miss him greatly. He and I had a somewhat rocky connection that eventually blossomed into a real friendship that I treasure.

I knew Rod, but can’t say I knew him well. However, we would see each other at the festival and he was always welcoming and generous in his encouragement of what we were all doing. He would be there stage side, listening with a nod and a smile. Afterward, he would be so specific in his comments of what he enjoyed and what he didn’t. I appreciated that directness.

He was an ex-Marine and that side of him would show at times for sure. And I loved that duality and contrast. Not to lean too hard on stereotype, but the idea that a Marine was responsible for such an expansive and enduring gathering of folkies is a beautiful thing.

Rod left an indelible, unique mark in his lifetime by building a world’s stage for musicians to bare their souls, and by doing so, he created bonds, families, memories, legacies, camping aficionados, and careers for thousands upon thousands of others. He was a smart man, and he could be shockingly blunt. He loved wine, laughter, travel, the company of fabulous, fun women, but, most of all, he was a visionary – whether as a race car driver or a promoter of a festival – and he left this world all the better by living his life without fear.

As a personal friend, he supported me through some tough times, and he elevated my musical career with one move: he called to put me on the main stage in 1990. He took me on the Kerrville music cruises, and on Kerrville tours. We shared a bond, the kind where you can look across a room at one another and know, “Yes, that’s what I was just thinking.” Politically, we didn’t see eye to eye, but that didn’t hinder our 24-year relationship in the least. If anything, he taught me to stand tall in my own shoes, to be myself, to be fearless, too.

The last time I saw Rod, he winked and blew a kiss as I sang to him. Then I helped him down a flight of stairs to a waiting car. We repeatedly said, “I love you,” to one another and I knew it was our “goodbye,” but I wasn’t sad. I felt grateful, very grateful, to have had dinners, phone conversations, travels and travails with someone so in demand, revered and feared. As they say, he was the Rod father, but in the very, very best sense. Father to a musical legacy he engineered, steered, and set on its way to continue to grow forever and ever, amen.

Welcome home, Rod. See you on the other side with a song on my lips.

I remember standing on the side of the stage, where Rod always sat, watching the rain pour down. It must have been 1987, maybe ’88. We had flown in from England the day before, were supposed to close the show that night, and it was going to be the final show for the trio that I was playing with – Darden Smith & the Big Guns. Rod turned to me and said, “Sorry, Darden, but we can’t do it. The PA would be ruined.” We stood there, looking at all these people crowded up under the merch tent, out of the rain.

I said, “What if we just go up there? Play acoustic.” He laughed and said, “Really? Hell yes. Let’s go!” So Paul Pearcy and I hiked up there. I stood on a table, Paul played drums on anything he could find, and we rocked the place. It was magic. At some point, I looked over at Rod. He had his arm around some cute hippy girl, and he caught my eye, smiled, and gave me two big thumbs up. That meant the world to me. Still does. That was the spirit of Rod: Let’s go make some music, in spite of the odds.

A few weeks ago [current Kerrville Folk Festival producer] Dalis Allen let me know that Rod was slipping away. Because I was leaving for the road soon, I asked David Halley to accompany me to his rest home to give a little concert for Rod and the other residents. Rod was proud to be involved in these presentations. I’m so glad and so honored to have spent that time with him. I owe him a lot.

He came out to hear me while I was a student at San Antonio College in 1978 and advised me to begin writing some songs so I could enter the New Folk competition. He liked my voice, but said I had to be a songwriter to play the festival. I entered my first ever self-penned songs for the 1979 festival and won along with John Ims and was invited to play main stage the next year. Boy! How fun ... and terrifying! I had to write a whole bunch more in order to fill a whole set.

I took on the challenge and became a real songwriter. Something I might never have done had not Rod encouraged it. He remained throughout my career a wonderful friend and mentor.

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Rod Kennedy, Kerrville Folk Festival, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ntahan Hamilton, Sara Hickman, darden Smith, Tish Hinojosa

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