After the cold wind and snow of New York, it was nice to feel the sunshine on my face as I arrived at Kansas City Airport. My friend Doris picked me up. After a cup of coffee at her house in Independence, Missouri, we headed in to KC itself, to my favourite Barbecue joint – Bryant’s. Their burnt ends are to die for!
I met up with my friends Matt and Kevin and we spent the evening travelling round several bars including Johnnie’s (mentioned in my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go – head barman D-Rock very kindly had it playing on the jukebox as I entered the bar.
Next morning, Matt and I were up early. We drove over the State line from Missouri into a small town in Kansas. At a rather non-descript house, we met a man who had driven up from Biloxi, Mississippi with live crabs, shrimps and crawdaddies. Matt was cooking up a ‘Louisiana boil’ in my honour.
Most of the day was spent preparing for this sumptuous meal that would bring together lots of people I had met during my past visits to KC. The cook-up and subsequent party with poker, pool, and a jam session took place at Matt’s 7th floor loft apartment in a converted warehouse. By 3am the party showed no signs of slowing down…
It was decided that the only way to start a post-party Sunday was with a champagne breakfast. This was followed by liquid lunch at my favourite restaurant – The Genessee Royale.
We were on a roll, so a few more bars were visited until eventually we ended up at one of my favourite KC watering holes – The Dubliner. This was somewhat fortuitous as I had a show there that evening. There was a great crowd in – some who remembered me from previous shows and I picked up some new friends too. This was also my first chance to road test songs from the new album and they went down well.
The night ended at a party for the forthcoming Mardi Gras in a covered market.
My first visit to Kansas City, Missouri was as part of my US tour in 2015. During my time there someone mentioned the Folk Alliance International Conference and said: “You should go! You’d love it!” Again, when I was there in 2016 promoting the release of my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go, several musicians, 2 radio hosts, and a TV reporter all recommended I attend the yearly get-together. So I booked a place as a delegate at the 2017 conference.
The mission of Folk Alliance International is “to nurture, engage, and empower the international folk music community -traditional and contemporary, amateur and professional – through education, advocacy and performance”. Sounds good to me.
The event is held in the Westin Crown Hotel. For just under a week, this typically corporate-looking, soulless structure becomes a vibrant, colourful hotbed of acoustic music activity. It is somewhat incongruous to walk into the lobby of a building which you would expect to be wall to wall with corporate suits to find people playing banjos and fiddles and singing in sweet harmony.
The theme of this year’s conference was Forbidden Folk – putting the spotlight on the history of the protest song. One of the highlights for me was seeing Kris Kristofferson perform at the opening ceremony. His voice is now little more than a husky growl but I got chills hearing him sing Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.
The conference consists of workshops and panels during the day and then gigs during the evening. Many of the workshops were instrument-based such as ‘the Basics of Bluegrass Banjo’ and ‘Intro to Flatpicking’; others less so but still musical-themed such as ‘Songwriting – Getting Unstuck’ and ‘Finding Your Inner Groove – Rhythm Class for all Musicians’.
The panel discussions ranged from the more business oriented such as ‘Diversifying Income Sources’ and ‘PR Power’ to the more culturally embracing such as ‘Women in Music’ and ‘Global Roots’.
What the FAI is more than anything is a chance to network with people in the industry who you would never get to meet in normal circumstances. The place is teeming with managers, booking agents, radio DJs, labels and of course, like-minded musicians and artists.
Prior to leaving for KC I had contacted several industry figures with a cheery email saying “Hi, I’m going to be at FAI. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brains for 10 minutes?” Most came back in the affirmative.
I was at the conference as part of the British Underground – a collection of UK-based acts who displayed a brilliant camaraderie throughout the conference, supporting one another at shows and at play. They were the nicest bunch of people you could wish to meet. And so, so talented! Because of my own commitments, it was impossible to catch them all performing but those I did included Jack Harris, Bella Hardy, Blair Dunlop, Kirsty McGhee, Sam Kelly, Gwyneth Herbert, Ben Savage & Hannah Sanders, Emily Mae Winters, Gilmore & Roberts, and the Jellyman’s Daughter. All worth checking out!
We were looked after by Crispin Parry from British Underground and Neil Pearson from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The pair were constantly around and available for advice, comfort, and tea and biscuits. I have no idea when they slept.
The early evening gigs are held in the various conference suites. These are the ‘Official Showcases’. One of my favourites was seeing Texan singer-songwriter Darden Smith. It was a master class in how to engage an audience and put across your songs. Another was Kortchmar, Postell & Navarro which features guitarist Danny Kortchmar – famous for his work with Linda Rondstadt, James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Neil young, and most famously – Carole King (checkout the solo on It’s Too Late from Tapestry).
For many people, though, the magic of Folk Alliance happens after 10pm when the rooms of 3 floors of the hotel become boutique venues. Some rooms just have the bed pushed to one side and an artist performs in the space; some of the bigger suites will have lights and a small PA. My first show was in The First Timer’s Room. It was something of a shock to find that I was to play to people sitting on the bed and a few chairs. But what the heck, it was nice of them to turn out, so you just give it your best.
My favourite gig was playing in the British Underground Suite (with PA and Lights). Sets are only 25 minutes long so you don’t really have time to settle in – you’ve got to go for it straight off the bat. With so much music to check out, it’s not uncommon for people to pop in, check out a few songs and then pop out again. Crispin and Neil had warned us all that this would happen and not to take it personally. Always remember, you never know who might be watching you. It might be just the person you need in your life right now.
One evening, when I was rushing from one room to another, down the hallway, coming towards me, I saw the aforementioned Danny Kortchmar. Play it cool, I thought. But then I lost it and took my first (and hopefully my last) celebrity selfie!
On the final night of the conference, guest speaker Billy Bragg gave a rousing speech to a packed auditorium, reminding us that with recent political events in the US and elsewhere “we need folk music more than ever. We need people to stand up and tell the truth about what is happening in society. Folk music has always done that”.
I had two days left in KC. On the penultimate day (a Sunday) I played an afternoon show at Johnnie’s Bar. The place was packed with just about everyone I knew from the city. However, four 18 hour days spent in the recycled air of the Westin Hotel plus shows at one o’clock in morning and some serious partying were starting to take their toll on my voice. Thankfully, someone suggested I drink whisky, honey and lemon. It got me through the gig and I now have a new favourite drink.
Matt and I spent my last day in KC canoeing on the Missouri River. It was quite windy but the sun shone and I found it extremely relaxing. Apart from when we moored up on the riverbank and shot at empty beer cans with an old Remington Colt revolver. But that was fun, too.
The next day I hired a car and drove down to Nashville…