A Culture 50 Years in the Making: The Kerrville Folk Festival Experience
Life-altering and deep-listening scenes from the oldest music festival in Texas
If Texas is the state with the richest folk songwriting history, the Kerrville Folk Festival could be considered the beating heart of that tradition. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the 18-day marathon of a gathering kicks off May 26 at the Quiet Valley Ranch: a 50-acre spread 9 miles southwest of the city of Kerrville. While the historic campout takes place about 100 miles from Austin, it's remained an essential Austin experience for a half-century.
"People talk about 'old Austin' … Kerrville IS 'old Austin!'" says Mary Muse, the festival's executive director, who also became its producer just in time for COVID to cancel her first lineup. Like many who inhabit it, Muse's life has been dramatically altered by the Kerrville experience. It was there the Amarillo-born musician met her songwriter husband. They both quit high-paying jobs to begin touring the country playing music together. Years later, after booking music for the University of Montana and gaining experience working with nonprofits, she came home to a leadership position at the festival.
In crafting a lineup for the fest's monumental anniversary, Muse and the Kerrville team held nothing back. Performers over three weeks include Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Valerie June, David Ramirez, Jackie Venson, Darrell Scott, Darden Smith, Terri Hendrix with Lloyd Maines, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Good Looks, Mikaela Davis, Possessed by Paul James, Shawn Colvin, Bob Livingston Band, Gina Chavez, Michael Martin Murphey, Eliza Gilkyson, Micky & the Motorcars, Guthrie Girls, and Kimmie Rhodes.
Of course, Kerrville's story hardly starts and ends with what transpires onstage. It's about the people, the experience, the culture.
The Kerrville Folk Fest contains two distinct scenes: the main stage and the campgrounds. The latter – a choose-your-own-adventure of pickin', singing, and listening – is such an attraction that, even though it avoids overlapping schedules with the main stage, there's a detectable air of competition between the two.
As a songwriter who spent five years volunteering at and attending Kerrville, I was deeply impacted by the community and in particular, the camp scene.
The first time I went exploring after hours and found a campground concert, my buddy, the late Conrad Travis, and I stepped carefully through the crowd of people sitting on the ground watching the show until we found a spot for ourselves. We watched and listened for a moment, sipping beers, until I turned to say something to him. No sooner than the first syllable had rolled off my tongue did every single person in the audience turn to me with forefingers pressed vertically against hissing lips, and shushed me with a furious vengeance that momentarily drowned out the music, echoed up through the trees, and energetically fell over the rest of the campground. I was mortified, but I was also learnt – indoctrinated. The Kerrville scene is not fucking around when it comes to shutting up, listening with your full attention, and giving the songwriter performing at that moment the respect they damn well deserve and don't get anywhere else, or at least not to this degree. Kerr-virgins (a colloquialism for first-timers) learn the hard way, like I did, unless they've been pre-schooled by someone in the know.
It's tough love, baby, but it's love … Texas style. And then you're in the club. Welcome home.
Not all camps are music camps and not all music camps are "shush-camps." Probably around half are larger jam-type scenarios where musicians get in the mix and play together in the middle of a big party … and those parties go all night. Every morning at dawn there's a show at Chapel Hill, the highest point on the ranch. It serves as a wind-down for those who have been up all night, or a ritualistic way to start the day for those who wake up early. Bill Davis, an ever-present face at the festival, traditionally plays his song "Last Ones Left" as the sun breaks over the hills.
It's really the goal of the entire festival, the entire culture even, to give performers the best experience they've ever had. The stage crew is directed to not let performers carry any of their own equipment in or out unless otherwise requested. Another crew manages backstage hospitality, keeping the performers fed, hydrated in whatever way they choose, stocked with clean towels, and probably more that I'm not aware of because I've never been a main stage performer. Sniffle. There's even a small greenroom with the almighty amenity of air-conditioning.
Several crews of peacekeepers help attendees check in upon arrival and watch over the parking lots and campground. There's also a water crew that fills all the coolers dispersed around the grounds. Then there's the trash crew, who were met with appreciative cheers when they passed by in an ancient GMC pickup that'd been on the ranch about as long as the festival itself, if not longer.
If volunteers are hurt, sick, or having a bad trip, they can go to Cure-ville for everything from first aid to reiki. If you're hungry in the campground and the Kerr-try Store is closed, you can find Camp Cuisine in the meadow, down at the end of Sesame Street. There's also Fajita Thursday and Corn Dog Day – where camper Davis Ethridge becomes the Corn Dog King and hands out hundreds of corn dogs. And, every year, after a long walk through the campgrounds to alert everyone of the event, a watermelon is sacrificed. The deed is done by longtime Kerrville attendee, songwriter, and multifaceted artist Steve Brooks, who Jimmy LaFave extolled as "a wordsmith of the first order."
The volunteer crews are spelled k-r-e-w and, if you spend enough time at the fest, you might end up with a Kerrville nickname that could stick for life – just ask "Hippie Carl," "Spider," or "Secret Steve." On the ranch, Curtis Clogston – who is presently tour manager, sound engineer, and guest pedal steel player with Kerrville veterans Asleep at the Wheel (also a 50-years-running Texas tradition), is "Kerrtis." He and his sister, Georgia Parker – a young luminary in the Western swing genre as a bandleader and member of Big Cedar Fever – grew up at the festival, attending and then volunteering, until they both took off with their own accomplished music careers.
With roughly 500 volunteers per day working in 60 krews and no obvious hierarchical system, Kerrville runs much like the hillbilly version of the Apple iCloud, about which Steve Jobs famously explained, "It just works." And Kerrville does work, standing amongst the longest-running annual music festivals on the continent. Technically, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, established in 1962, holds the mantle as America's eldest yearly music gathering, but it lasts just four days – a fraction of Kerrville's gargantuan 18 days, the better half of a moon cycle.
Founded by Rod Kennedy in 1972, the earliest Kerrville Folk Festivals were held at the city's Memorial Auditorium. In 1978, Rod's partner Nancylee Kennedy purchased the Quiet Valley Ranch and the festival's been held there ever since. From the jump, Rod implemented a hands-off approach to the campground, allowing it to develop into its own scene.
The solvency of the perennial event hasn't always been a cinch, but a community has refused to let it die. When hit by hard financial times in 2002, it was festival regulars and volunteers who stepped forward to save it, narrowly avoiding foreclosure. Over the course of about six years in the early Aughts, the operating body known as the Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation transitioned into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. According to all accounts, the festival's in a stronger and more stable place today than it's ever been in its half-century history.
In Kerrville's first three years, the now-famous New Folk Contest was not a contest, but rather a New Folk Concert. It could be said that the Flatlanders won the first year. After showing up unannounced, they were not only permitted to play but got immediately added to the night's main stage lineup. Imagine Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore – now internationally recognized amongst the great all-time Texas songsmiths, yet unknown at the time – just showing up and asking to play. Notable New Folk winners include Slaid Cleaves, Ray Bonneville, Jonathan Byrd, and Robert Earl Keen. Lyle Lovett entered New Folk twice, once when Guy Clark was a judge, and didn't win either time.
There have been multiple marriages on the ranch during the festival and at least one death (of natural causes). It's said that a woman once left Kerrville in labor and returned two days later with her newborn baby. Relationships start on the ranch … and end too. There's been countless conceptions.
And, of course, there's the legend of Blaze Foley sneaking into the festival in drag. Apparently – and not surprisingly – there's more than one reason Blaze had been previously banned. As reported by the San Angelo Standard in 1979, Blaze played a short set as part of a festival presentation called 12 Great Hours of Kerrville during which he sang an original titled "Springtime in Uganda." In addition to references to rumored cannibalism by the African republic's notorious dictator, the song contains the lyrics, "Idi Amin should be hung by his balls/ Cut into pieces and tacked to the walls …/ Even his doggy has got syphilis too/ If you were his doggy he'd give it to you." Rod Kennedy was reportedly furious and Blaze became persona non grata at the festival. According to filmmaker Kevin Triplett, Blaze was "not just banned from performing but banned from showing up, maybe because he and Townes Van Zandt backed an RV over the overflowing outdoor toilets, but we never found anyone who witnessed that."
To make matters worse, apparently Rod and Blaze got into an altercation at Emma Joe's in Austin. According to Rod in Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus, Blaze spit on him and the two went to the floor in fisticuffs. By all accounts, neither Blaze nor Rod were anyone you wanted to mess with. Blaze, apparently, would not be deterred: He came to Kerrville some time later, arriving in the middle of the night and claiming to be Van Zandt's guitarist Mickey White. The real White showed up days later to find his pass already gone, but the heat was on Blaze. According to an interview with Kerrville regular Elliot Rogers for Triplett's documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, all volunteers were on lookout and not to let him in under any circumstances. His plan was foiled until a friend on the Trash Krew, Joe Don Chips, came to his rescue and pulled him inside. As security called for backup, Blaze, already intoxicated, disappeared into the campground. In order to stay incognito, some friends dolled him up in a dress, wig, lipstick, makeup, and a bonnet. The disguise didn't work for long and he was finally ejected.
Many volunteers and regular attendees (who refer to themselves as "Kerrverts") view the festival as a tribal gathering. They come to the same place at the same time every year and often camp in the same locations with the same friends and neighbors who inevitably become what many Kerrverts refer to as "chosen family."
Amy Sue Berlin came for the first time when she was 9 years old, the year after her mother, the late Anne Feeney, won New Folk. She's come back every year since and recently realized she has spent a grand total of over two years on the ranch.
"Kerrville changed my life completely. It's why I moved to Texas. It's why I have the friends I have. It's molded me in every way. It's basically the essence of my being," Berlin explains on the patio of Radio Coffee & Beer, an Austin institution owned by songwriter Jack Wilson, who volunteered at Kerrville for many years. Radio's early success was heavily tied to regular patronage from Kerrville family who saw Wilson as one of their own. It was Berlin who launched the folk festival's newest official stage: Moontower. A shush-camp concert series straight out of a fairy tale, Moontower features intimate performances that run from midnight till 3am, from up-and-coming artists, completely unplugged, under a canopy of Christmas lights and Hill Country stars. Seating is provided for the first 100 or so people and there's room for many more with their own chairs and blankets – or ass-to-caliche.
Head sound engineer Chris Jacobs met his wife the first time he came to the fest in 2000. Every year, he drives down from Boulder in his 26-foot box truck, packed to the gills with the entire 100,000-watt PA system.
"In the years I have driven to Texas, I've seen fires and floods, locusts that filled your windshield where you could barely see, rain and fog," Jacobs recalls. "And yet every time I get there, there's a sense of relief."
Jacobs cites Jimmy LaFave & the San Antonio Orchestra as one of his favorite performances he's witnessed at Kerrville. He works for the fest for significantly less money than he makes elsewhere and, most years, he donates part of it to the festival's foundation.
1978 New Folk winner Lindsay Haisley is perhaps best known for being an autoharpist extraordinaire, two words that don't seem to fit together until you hear him play.
"Camp Bayou Love had two bands that were all people who played well with other people and that made all the difference in the world," he recalls of the pickin' scene. "I always called it a rising tide that lifts all boats."
Camp Mocha Verde has been an established camp since the early Eighties, right up by Threadgill next to Camp Calm. The late Slim Richey, known as the most dangerous guitar player in Texas, had a camp that emitted Django jazz all day long. "Slim would kinda direct who would take a lead next," Haisley recalls of the Jitterbug Vipers guitarist.
Instances both amazing and absurd fill the memories of those who've populated Kerrville during the fest's five decades.
Long-serving Kitchen Krew leader Stuart Vexler recalls opening the staff kitchen doors one afternoon to find a band rehearsing before their set. The group, unknown at the time, was called the Dixie Chicks.
One year with particularly hot weather, someone collected the volunteers' unused ice tickets and turned them all in on the last day for about 100 bags of ice and built an igloo.
With all the talk of family, one could begin to think of KFF as cliquey. Quite the contrary, as evidenced by my own experience and countless other tales of openhearted inclusion. Accordionist and vocalist Joanna Howerton recalls the first time she pulled into the campground: "There had been a flood and we drove into the meadow until we realized we couldn't go any farther pulling our popup without getting stuck. We looked to our right and see Camp Bayou Love. We rolled down our window and asked if we could park there. They jumped into action and rolled us into the spot, and there we've stayed for the last … I don't know … 30 years."
Veteran Kerrvert Brian "QTN" Cutean spent three years collecting over 100 stories about the festival, now published in his book Uncurtailed Kerrtales: Myths, Legends, and Spontanacities, which will be available at the festival.
Eventually the 18th day rolls around. People tend to get sad and nostalgic, even though they're fighting burnout. Like a subliminal dinner bell, Kerrverts head to the main stage on the last night of the fest to "sway." Every Kerrville ends with a performance of "Heal in the Wisdom." Bobby Bridger penned the song as a tribute to two friends who had recently passed away. Prior to its first public performance, Rod Kennedy heard Bridger rehearsing it backstage and designated the song as the festival's official anthem, calling on him to come back and play it every year to close out Kerrville.
A line of bodies snakes through the pavilion with arms locked over shoulders and so on. They sway, loosely on rhythm, and sing together: "There is a reason, there is a rhyme, there is a season, there is a time, there is a purpose, there is a plan/ One day together we'll heal in the wisdom and we'll understand."
The 50th Annual Kerrville Folk Festival at Quiet Valley Ranch runs May 26-June 12, 2022. Single-day tickets – ranging from $30 to $50 – and an 18-day full festival and camping package ($657) can be purchased at kerrvillefolkfestival.org. There you will also find a rundown of the fest’s epic schedule of performances.
The May 20 feature covering the Kerrville Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary contained a misspelling. The camp referred to as "Mocha Verde" is actually Camp "Moco Verde." It’s green snot, not green coffee. The Austin Chronicle offers its sincere apologies to Camp Moco Verde and the late John Albert.