What women! Janis Ian, spokeswoman for the American lesbian movement, belabors her little black guitar as if she were conducting an orchestra. Quiet Valley Ranch shakes in awe as the 50-year-old bundle of energy jumps off the stage with her instrument and hurries through the standing ovation to the merch booth, the Pied Piper of Kerrville, a host of fans in her wake. Sara Hickman, Susan Werner and Suzanne Buirgy are hardly inferior to her, again and again tearing the women in the audience to a frenzy of enthusiasm in the middle of the song. “Don’t you want a lover who knows which way is up, when they’re going down down down?”, Buirgy asks her sexually frustrated Texan women in her hymn to aging “Experience – not to be confused with old” and earns orgiastic approval. Show ’em, Suzanne, you’re so right, Sara, thank you, Susan. And Susan takes it up a notch by spreading her middle and ring finger to Spock’s Vulcan salute: “In the name of the vagina!”
The hardliners among the U.S. presidents were governors of the states of California (Nixon, Reagan) and Texas (Bush and Bush) before their tenure in the White House. No wonder that the two musical epicenters of American alternative music developed in these two states: the hippie city of San Francisco – and the songwriter hotbed of Austin, Texas. Pressure creates counterpressure.
Austin has been home to the crème de la crème of alternative U.S. singer-songwriters since the early 1970s and today proudly calls itself the “live music capital of the world.” Artists like Jerry Jeff Walker or Robert Earl Keen, who are largely unknown out of the South, sell up to 50,000 copies of each new CD right off the bat. Without the support of a major label, without wholesale, they distribute their silver discs directly to fans via the Internet or at events that have become cult. In the tradition of the “4th of July Picnic” – once started by legend Willie Nelson to pay off his tax debts – Walker’s “Birthday Weekend” and Keen’s “Texas Uprising” attract five-figure crowds.
The only larger town between Austin and the festival site is Fredericksburg, a tourist stronghold where the streets have German names and there is an “Ausländer Biergarten” and a “Bavarian Inn”. A few more miles through the hills, across the Guadalupe River and soon appears the longed-for sign: “Quiet Valley Ranch”. Welcome home, greets us the driveway to this pilgrimage place of the songwriters. The exit will see us off with the iconic sign: It can be this way always. How true. Kerrville is a haven for songs.
On the festival grounds, the appreciation of simple, honest, handmade songs meets a perfect organization for eighteen days, with 500 volunteers managing over eighty concerts, a three-day songwriting course, a four-day music business seminar, a blues workshop, six children’s concerts, a competition for thirty up-and-coming artists, three canoe trips, yoga in the morning, and, of course, five church services (three Christian, two Jewish).
The list of artists is immense. Organizer Rod Kennedy, a folk music icon since the festival’s founding in 1971, has come up with a lot for the anniversary year, starting with the resurgence of Peter, Paul & Mary. “The next song is by the man who did more for folk music than anyone in the last century,” Mary announces eight days after Dylan’s 60th birthday, “Pete Seeger!” There is long-lasting applause for this, in Kerrville such kind of awareness for tradition is much appreciated. Tom Paxton and David Mallett recall the good old 60s, while the Westcoast softies Poco and Brewer & Shipley reunite to review the 70s. All quite routine, therefore not really touching. Quite different are the local heroes, Texans like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Willis Alan Ramsey. Every song is sung along with. The audience knows each local classic by heart, as well as some interspersed covers (of Townes Van Zandt songs, of course).
But then: the women. Their honesty is rewarded in Kerrville. Honesty that has to do with courage and is not to be confused with the sweaty string strumming of a Springsteen. “I’m an alcoholic.” “I’ve had an abortion.” “I can’t bear Bush.” “I’m against private gun ownership.” The female artists take a stand.
All musicians tread musical paths untrodden by the mainstream. Hawaiian Dennis Kamakahi plays an almost unbelievable slack key guitar. The lively Ruthie Foster, only person of color in the official program, presents a nuanced blues brew and Root 1 teach us the Texas reggae. And then silver fox Ponty Bone celebrates zydeco on his accordion. In the band is a 10-year-old washboard player who seems to be his great-great-grandson. At half past one in the morning the stars dance along under the starlit sky. The old hippies trekking from festival to festival gyrate in their batik gown and shake their floor-length beards, the weather-beaten cowboys from the neighboring farms tap their boots, and a young manager who arrived from the computer city of Austin puts his cool sunglasses back on for the sheer joy of life.
Every other wears “his” Kerrville T-shirt from the year in which he was ennobled from “Kerrvirgin” to “Kerrverted”. No devotional items are seen from the debut year of 1972. Maybe that wasn’t the way with subculture merchandising back then. Janis Joplin had a posthumous world hit that year with “Me and Bobby McGee,” penned by Kris Kristofferson. There’s no better way to sum up the trend of the time than with this “alternative” country song about freedom, music and love, to which a Texas hippie idol lent authenticity through her self-sacrificing passing.
This spirit has remained with the festival. In the cultural melting pot of Quiet Valley Ranch, organizers and guests also see a symbol for a more tolerant world. The jigs and reels of the Irish immigrants, the Cajun of the French and the brass music of the Germans, the gospel and blues of the black slaves, the Texmex of the migrant workers from across the Rio Grande, the spiritual chants of the Native Americans, all mix together without being pigeonholed. Sometimes pressure produces diamonds. Zydeco, bluegrass, western swing, new folk, honky tonk, klezmer, rock, pop and adult contemporary – labels that don’t apply in Kerrville. There is hardly an instrument that doesn’t flow into the mix that American folk music can mean today – dobro and piano, bongos and accordion, fiddle and clarinet, bohdran and steel guitar, crystal-clear throats as well as whiskey-soaked voices.
Steve Gillette, one of the festival directors, has been an authority beyond reproach ever since he was given the great and rare honor of being covered by Townes himself. This great master of his guild has stated in his bible for all Kerrville novices “Songwriting and the Creative Process” that every good song has “a kind of spiritual DNA”. The search for that DNA is what Kerrville is all about. And every year, new strands are discovered.
A wonderful book about Kerrville is: