Kerrville Folk Festival

Live Shot

Scott Butler and Prescott Christian picking and singing at Camp By-the-Side-of-the-Road
Scott Butler and Prescott Christian picking and singing at "Camp By-the-Side-of-the-Road"

Kerrville Folk Festival

Quiet Valley Ranch, Kerrville, May 25-26 It's 6:25am at the Quiet Valley Ranch in Kerrville. The plywood door to the stall next to mine creaks open, and a pair of mud-soaked pink bunny slippers shuffle in. There's a momentary silence as the little girl decides if she has to go badly enough to mount the wet toilet seat, soaked by the previous night's thunderstorm -- or perhaps something else. She could wipe it off, but the toilet paper is soaked as well. Her jammy bottoms hit the floor and then disappear with the bunny slippers as she climbs onto the wet seat. We are now officially neighbors, temporary residents of a disturbingly ingenious latrine made out of an upturned septic tank with eight holes drilled in the top, fitted with toilet seats, and partitioned with unfinished plywood into eight pie-shaped stalls. This one doesn't yet have a roof. Kerrville staffers refer to these contraptions as the Ims Johns, named after John Ims, the Nashville songwriter who financed their construction. Functionally, they're a work of art, ergonomically tolerable. The girl settles in. It's quiet again except for the sound of one of her slippers falling onto the mud floor. From a stall somewhere behind us, the silence is broken by a high-pitched fart, a long, trilling, mouse-on-a-motorcycle that seems to echo for an eternity in the half-empty tank. Feeling punchy from two hours sleep, I bite my lip and stifle a laugh born of both irony and disgust. It's the morning after the first night of my first trip to the festival. Is it worth this? My mind goes over the night before, searching for some moment of truth and beauty that would justify this rude awakening. The memory forms of a dark-haired girl in a red blouse and a dusty white skirt singing an incredible, soul-stirring song as she stands in the middle of a transfixed circle of seated listeners. It is nearly 3am, and for some reason, these people have convened with their guitars in the middle of the camp's main road. In the distance, there's the rumble of thunder, and as the girl sings, she's silhouetted by intermittent flashes of lightning from an approaching storm. With each phrase, she leans deeper into the ring of listeners, plaintively revealing a beautifully crafted jewel of songwriting. All eyes not glued to the girl look at one another in knowing agreement that this girl and this song and this moment are the real thing: what they came for. Though it's called a folk festival, Kerrville is really a mining camp. For 18 days, 20 acres of hillside in a sleepy little valley becomes a boomtown, a sprawling tent city of scruffy song prospectors searching through the slag for the rare gems that make the trip worthwhile. The diversity of campers is truly inspirational: beer-swilling rednecks; aging hippies; wine-sniffing yuppies; tattooed, pierced alternative types; motorhome-driving fat cats; and the occasional John Walker Lindh look-alike. There are scheduled performers on the stages, but the real action happens after midnight in assorted camps, where circles of songwriters and musicians trade tunes, often until dawn. Perhaps they're staving off the inevitable morning march to the latrine, but more likely, they're looking for that rare, transcendent moment when they discover the musical mother lode.

The Kerrville Folk Festival continues this weekend, June 7-9.

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