Reports from Kerrville 2000

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Camping In Concert

By Minna Morse

At this outdoor folk-music festival in rural Texas, you're not a "Kerrvivor"
unless you stay till the end

I had just fallen into a deep slumber when my friend Larry clanked a metal
coffee mug against the corner of a nearby trailer. "Rise and shine,
sleepyhead," he chirped to me in his resonant Texas twang. I thought about
burrowing deeper into my sleeping bag. I fantasized about clanking that mug
upside Larry's head. Then I gave in and, on only a few hours' rest, crawled
out of my tent into a brand-new day of song.

Shielding my eyes from the glaring Texas sun, I wondered how the regulars
here survived night after night of playing music round the campfires. All
that kept me from crawling back into my tent was the smell of coffee brewing
at the makeshift country store across the road, the faint strumming from a
few musicians already gathering at the picnic tables there and the fear that
Larry might clank his mug once more. Instead, he brought me a cup of joe.

This was morning at the annual Kerrville Folk Festival, an 18-day
celebration in the rolling hill country of Texas. While by no means the
largest event of its kind or the best known, Kerrville runs the longest and,
among the musicians who play there, is the most beloved. On three outdoor
stages, it showcases the talents of more than 75 featured performers and
groups, offering as many as four concerts a day. In the 28 years since it
was founded by former race-car driver and radio host Rod Kennedy, it has
grown from a three-day affair to a marathon that draws tens of thousands of
fans from all over the country.

Set on a 50-acre ranch nine miles from the town of Kerrville, a little more
than an hour's drive northwest of San Antonio, the festival has become a
coveted venue for established stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Peter
Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. But it also provides a temporary village for
a tightly knit community of more than 3,000 devotees who camp out and make
music - or just listen - pretty much round the clock. For the aspiring
musicians among them, it offers a chance to schmooze and jam with some of
the country's best.

About 550 of those making camp here are volunteer staff members, working to
earn their meals and tickets. There are cooks and crafts vendors, stage
crews and latrine cleaners. There's Happy Jack, the camp embroiderer, and
Cookie, who'll sharpen your knives. There's even a squad of massage
therapists who offer daily rubdowns to tired personnel. And then there's
Larry, who works security with his mom, Lenore, stepdad, Vern, and their
camp neighbor, a former clown named Sticky Paul.

Vern, a baker and talented woodworker, and Lenore, a philosophy professor,
met at Kerrville and were married here under the Ballad Tree up on Chapel
Hill. An abbreviated version of their joint moniker, LeVern, is displayed on
the license plates of their motor home, which occupied the dusty patch of
ground where I stood drinking my coffee. "This here," Vern told me proudly,
referring to his vehicle and several other trailers and tents clustered
nearby, "is Camp Peace of Mind." Scattered across the landscape were
hundreds of similar "camps" with all sorts of shelters, from three-walled
"cabins" to the full-sized tepees that go up each year down in the meadow.

A sprightly guy with a full white beard and rainbow-colored beret, Vern
seemed to have endless reserves of energy. Though he really needed to run
off somewhere, he took the time to explain Kerrville's lexicon to me, from
"Kerrgins" (first-timers) to "Kerrverts" (converts to the musical and
spiritual high that is Kerrville) to "Kerrvivors" (anyone who stays the
whole three weeks, as he and Lenore do). Never, I noted - fighting off a
sleepy yawn - did he mention "Kerrfew."

I would be there only a few nights - a lengthy stay at most music festivals,
perhaps, but an unusually brief one for Kerrville. I had always loved folk
music - from political rally-cries, like those of Woody Guthrie or Bob
Dylan, to romantic ballads; from country-blues to "world beat" - but I'd
never become a regular on the folk circuit. I'd never hung out. But this
time, I resolved to do just that.

I'd arrived on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of the
festival, in time to see some of my favorites play at the evening Main Stage
concert. The Four Bitchin' Babes were on the program, as was Ellis Paul, an
artist I had discovered four years earlier, during my only other visit to
Kerrville. A Boston-based musician who writes songs that, says Mike Joyce of
the Washington Post, "draw you in just as surely as a whispered secret,"
Paul had been on the Main Stage for the first time that year. The year
before, in 1994, he'd won the Kerrville New Folk competition, an event that
helped launch the careers of such popular performers as Lyle Lovett and
Nanci Griffith. At each festival, the New Folk competition features
singer-songwriters from across the country who may have local followings but
are not yet nationally known.

This time around, I encountered Kevin So, another artist who'd gone from New
Folk to Main Stage performer - though, unlike Paul, he hadn't won the award.
He had come to Kerrville for the first time in 1996, "with absolutely no
dough," and worked selling festival merchandise. After he was invited to be
in the New Folk competition the following year, many of the volunteer staff
showed up to root for him. Just two years later, he was featured on the Main
Stage on Saturday night of the festival's opening weekend. He was still
revved from his crowd-pleasing performance when we spoke backstage.

So is a Chinese-American singer and songwriter whose work sometimes draws on
that heritage but also ranges from blues to R&B to romantic ballads. He has
acquired a large following at the festival - a process that began long
before Saturday night's concert. "This place is all about the campfires," he
told me. "That's where you really lay it down," chimed in his friend, singer
Stephanie Corby.

With that idea in mind, I headed off into the night on Sunday, with Larry as
my guide, going from campfire to campfire. Or gathering to gathering, to be
more accurate, for the circles were for the most part lit by kerosene lamps.
And they were everywhere. "Hey, will you look at that," Larry said gleefully
as we passed a crossroad by the latrines, where a cluster of people stood
around the glow of a streetlight. "It's a bleeping jam in the fork in the

I was like a kid in a candy store, entranced by all the possibilities and
unable to commit to any one choice. At some point, Larry let me go off on my
own, and I wandered from campfire to circus tent to tarp, wherever I heard
music, staying here for five minutes to hear a woman sing out against
corporate greed, and there to hear a folk-circuit elder masterfully pick a
tune and then respectfully turn to a young kid who offered a heartfelt,
albeit naive, new ballad.

As the night wore on, I tried desperately to find Camp Cuisine and Camp
Nashville, the two places that I'd heard attracted the most talented
musicians. I was so eager to have a genuine "campfire experience" that I
didn't actually experience much at all. I just kept wandering from one thing
to another until finally, exhausted, I crawled into my sleeping bag. And
then morning came, with Larry's clanking mug.

Monday's schedule was full-from a four-hour blues show, to the daily
song-sharing under the Ballad Tree - capped off in the evening by a
phenomenal lineup at the Main Stage. Like the night before, and the night
before that, the theater area filled up with some 4,500 Kerrverts and other
visitors for a six-hour, seven-act concert. At the end, Kerrville stalwart
Peter Yarrow took the stage for his annual birthday sing-along. As his set
went on, Yarrow kept inviting more and more younger musicians to join him -
including Kevin So - until the stage seemed almost as crowded as the
audience. In his memoir, Music From The Heart, founder Rod Kennedy recalls
an earlier festival: "The evening finale featured Peter Yarrow, reinforcing
the togetherness he had helped to build from the beginning.... The audience
joined in singing with damp eyes ...almost not believing that this feeling
of belonging together could move them so much." All right, so it's sappy.
OK, so I'm a sucker. But when the musicians and kids on that jam-packed
stage started swaying and singing "Puff the Magic Dragon," it did my poor
heart in.

After the concert, I was all set to hit the campfire circuit once more. But,
I learned, that night - the end of the festival's five-day opening rush -
was listed on the calendar (the "Kerr-lendar") as the "First Night of
Sleep." After Yarrow's set, there was some faint strumming to be heard from
far-flung corners of the ranch, but for the most part, by 2 a.m. or so,
people had settled in.

Disappointed, I'd begun walking back to my tent when I suddenly heard the
familiar voice of Ellis Paul and, sure enough, there he was, surrounded by a
few stragglers at the corner Larry had dubbed the "jam in the fork in the
road." Among them was Stephanie Corby, Kevin So's friend, singing harmony.
Eventually Paul invited a few of us back to his camp, where he promised
Stephanie he would do one more number.

So, finally, I got to see Camp Nashville. The night before, this Holy Grail
of the campfire scene had doubtless been alive with song, crowded with
musicians waiting their turn. Now it was quiet, with only the camp's
residents lounging around before heading into their tents.

And then, lit by the moon, before a silhouette backdrop of the Texas hills,
Corby joined Paul for one more song-titled, appropriately enough, "Last
Call." Their voices floated up through the night sky, clear and sweet and
pure. And as I sat there listening - sleep-deprived and beaming - I realized
that the Holy Grail had indeed been found. I was now a Kerrvert. There would
be no turning back.

By Minna Morse