Road Music, Chapter Three: Kansas City, Missouri

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Road Music, Chapter Three: Kansas City, Missouri

For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. Third stop: Kansas City, Missouri.

Proportions matter. The experience of listening to live music is always shaped by the size of the venue and one’s distance from the performer. Standing in the middle of a huge crowd in a basketball arena and getting caught up in the contagious mass reaction to Bruce Springsteen or Beyonce is one kind of thrilling experience. And hearing a great songwriter like Robbie Fulks in a hotel room so small that he dispenses with all amplification can be just as rewarding though in a very different way.

There’s no better opportunity for experiencing a great performer in a tiny space than the annual Folk Alliance International conference. It was on the first night of this year’s edition in Kansas City that I encountered Fulks in Room 621 of the Westin Hotel. The extremely tall singer with a blue-and-white checkered shirt stood with his spectacular hillbilly fiddler Shad Cobb on the carpet by the window. The tiny audience sat in folding chairs where the hotel bed had sat the day before. Chattering latecomers crowded in the doorway, but Fulks silenced them—not by playing louder than usual but by playing softer.


Fulks is a treat in any circumstances, but to hear him from five feet away without microphones or risers was to get closer to the music emotionally as well as physically. “It’s long I ride for the little I gain,” he sang. It was an apt motto not only for the drifter in the song but also for most touring musicians, but Cobb eased the disappointment with a lively bluegrass fiddle solo. Fulks described the opposite fate of getting stuck in a small town when he sang, “I dwell where I fell.”

In such close quarters, it was no problem to hear that song’s soft, whistling solo. Nor did requests have to be shouted; they could be offered as conversational suggestions. “Do you have any songs about theology?” someone in the front row asked. Fulks chuckled and played “God Isn’t Real.” But he also played his heartfelt tribute to Buck Owens: “The Buck Starts Here.” Up close one could detect the pain behind the pun in this song about the way country music can assuage romantic disappointment.

The Folk Alliance conference has the usual ingredients of most music gatherings: daytime panel discussions about the perilous state of the music business, exhibitors in a trade show, keynote addresses (by Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg in this case) and official showcases in hotel meeting rooms. But what makes this event unique are the private showcases in attendees’ hotel rooms.


After the official showcases ended at 10:30, most of the rooms on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors of the Westin Hotel were transformed into miniature nightclubs. The rooms were often decorated with Christmas lights and posters with snacks and beverages on the desk. Sometimes the beds were removed, but sometimes the beds remained in place—for audiences to sit on and for hosts to sleep on at 4 am, when the action finally slowed down.

Thus, for five hours on each of the conference’s four nights, the famous mixed in with the obscure in a strikingly democratic musical smorgasbord. One could wander up and down the crowded, poster-plastered halls, poking one’s head in the door to see if something caught the ear. You had to be registered at the conference to get access to the floors, but if you did, you were likely to make welcome discoveries (as I did with Gaelynn Lea, described in my previous Road Music post) and to catch up with former favorites that you hadn’t heard in a while.

In the latter category for me were two string-band veterans—banjoist Tony Furtado and fiddler Bruce Molsky—who introduced marvelous new projects that reminded one that they deserve some of the attention lavished so narrowly on Nashville stars like Bela Fleck and Sam Bush. Best of all were the surprise collaborations where artists who don’t usually work together did so because the chance presented itself. This year’s best example was Texas singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson trading phrases with rockabilly guitarist Bill Kirchen.


As some of these examples suggest, the Folk Alliance does not deserve its reputation as a torture chamber of narcissistic, sensitive singer/songwriters. Those characters are on the premises, but they can easily be avoided in favor of better alternatives. Moreover, in recent years, the conference has made great strides in expanding the scope of what it considers folk music.

This time that included Ramy Essam (the Zach de la Rocha of Egypt, arrested, tortured and exiled for his music), Kobo Town (a Toronto-based, Trinidadian calypso band with Kinks-like original songs), the Soul of John Black (ex-Fishbone member John Bingham as an acoustic-guitar-strumming soul singer) and Las Cafeteras (an L.A.-based folk-rock dance band).


The most memorable set, though, came from Sam Baker, a Texas singer/songwriter as laconic as John Prine or Townes Van Zandt. The continuity of the folk-music tradition was never better demonstrated than when Baker sang the first verse and chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees {Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” and then segued into his equally powerful original song, “Migrants,” another tale of illegal immigrants, callousness and needless death.


It was proof that while the world around us may evolve, old problems usually reappear in new guises. When they do, it’s often folk musicians playing in small spaces who provide the best response.

The annual Folk Alliance conference returns to Kansas City in 2018, moves to Toronto in 2019 and lands in city-to-be-determined in 2020.

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