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Grand Ole Folk Alliance Conference 2003
Jessica Papkoff Tells Us All About Her Experiences At Grand Ole Folk Alliance Conference 2003

By: Jessica Papkoff
Photos By: M. L. Naden

Nashville, Tennessee, known as "Music City, U.S.A.", home of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame was this year's host city for the 15th annual North American Folk Alliance Conference held this past February 6-9, 2003. Founded in 1989, the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance was created to raise public awareness of the artistic and cultural importance of traditional and contemporary folk music and dance. The goals of the organization are to promote and foster education, networking, advocacy, field and professional development amongst individuals and organizations associated with folk music and dance.

The annual Folk Alliance Conference is focused on music and attracts individuals and organizations from every facet of the music industry that is involved and interested in traditional and contemporary folk music of all types including country, bluegrass, Celtic, blues, Cajun, etc. The conference offers a vast array of business and educational seminars, music performance showcases and an exhibit hall featuring over 200 businesses from artist management agencies and music magazine publishers to record labels, guitar companies and CD duplication services.

This year, several thousand people attended the conference that was held at the Nashville Convention Center and Renaissance Hotel in the heart of the downtown area and just across the street from the famous Ryman Auditorium where Nashville's finest musicians play each week.

During the conference, the several hundred performing musicians have the opportunity to perform for and network with booking agents, radio hosts, record label representatives, writers, record producers and others associated with the various aspects of the folk music world.

The music showcases are what Folk Alliance is best known for and for the four days of the conference there is live music on a variety of stages and hotel rooms until 3am. If you've never attended a big music conference like this it's an overwhelming amount of music and little or no sleep but an awful lot of fun. It's like having a non-stop music festival squeezed into a hotel combined with summer camp and a large college dormitory but with more comfortable beds.

My journey to Nashville started off with a midnight flight from Seattle and a plane change in Dallas sometime between 3:30am and 5:30am. I arrived in Nashville at 8:30am already sleep deprived and from that point on it was non-stop showcase listening and note-taking for the next few days. What little down time I had was spent deciding which performers to go hear and figuring out a schedule that would be efficient in terms of having to travel up and down 24 floors of hotel rooms plus the main stage performances in the Grand Ballroom on the hotel's main floor.

By the time I arrived at the hotel, every bulletin board and horizontal surface was already plastered with flyers of every size, shape and color, advertising each performer's showcases. With so many musicians and performances all happening simultaneously, there's a huge amount of competition to get people to come to the showcases. It was amusing to see who came up with the most elaborate, interesting or noticeable promotional materials, such as the three-dimensional box dioramas and the nice silk-screened posters, many of which were taken home as souvenirs.

The conference had a special kickoff lunch banquet that featured a presentation by the First Amendment Center called "Freedom Sings" narrated by Ken Paulson and joined by a troupe of Nashville musicians including Bill Lloyd, Jonnell Mosser and Don Henry. Using live music and video clips, the presentation gave us an entertaining and informative look at the connection between music, our right to the freedom of expression and various historical censorship cases in America from 1735 to the present.

After lunch it was time to visit the showcases and seminars. There are two types of showcases at the conference. There are the "official" Folk Alliance showcases comprised of performers that a Folk Alliance committee selects via an application/audition process earlier in the year and these performers play on the evening concert series on the big main stage in the Grand Ballroom. All of the other showcases are "private" or "unofficial" and take place in the various hotel meeting rooms and individual hotel rooms before and after the evening main stage Folk Alliance showcase concert. The smaller showcases are sponsored by various organizations such as ASCAP, Gibson Musical Instruments, Fox Run House Concerts, Indiegrrl, plus a myriad of other showcase presenters that included booking agencies, record labels or groups of musicians from a geographic area or genre that organized to create a showcase group.

Of the hundreds of music showcases and scores of seminars, the reality is that you can only attend a small fraction of the offerings and if you manage to see 40-50 different performers out of the hundreds on the schedule and attend a few seminars you're doing pretty well.

As it turned out I saw a lot of women singer-songwriters in the private showcases and caught a few of the Folk Alliance main stage performances which were all excellent, it's easy to see why they were chosen for the official showcases.

Oasis CD Duplication and Just sponsored the first hotel room showcase I attended. This showcase featured Kerri Powers, Jubilant Bridge, Billy Jonas and twin sisters, Chris and Meredith Thompson. Kerri Powers impressed me with her strong, bluesy, gutsy voice and nice guitar accompaniment. Some of her newer material is more country influenced and hopefully I will get a chance to hear her again someday. Next up was a folk trio from Colorado called Jubilant Bridge whose angelic three-part harmonies were accompanied with guitar and dulcimer. Billy Jonas, known for his cleverly whimsical and energetic performances on found percussive objects such as plastic buckets, treated us to some very fun material with the audience gladly participating. Billy is quite the entertaining showman for adults and kids alike and his lyrics are immensely humorous. Last in this group was Chris and Meredith Thompson whose twin sister harmonies could not have been a better match. Accompanying themselves with guitar, hand drum and flute, their lyrical and thoughtful music encompassed a variety of community and global issues.

Next on my list of "must hears" was Ellen Rosner from Chicago. Ellen is a powerhouse singer-songwriter and guitarist whose range from tenderly quiet to rocking out and intense makes for a very colorful study in contrasts and variety. Her deep voice covers a wide lyrical range and her inventive use of the guitar from intricate to highly percussive adds even greater depth and interest to her energetic performances.

Performing on the showcase were the Wailin' Jennys from Winnipeg, Canada, which featured three talented and already established women songwriters, Nicky Mehta, Cara Luft, and Ruth Moody. With three big guitars and solid, tight harmonies backing their folk and gospel style songs, this trio played to many new fans at the conference. Of particular note is Nicky Mehta whom I had a chance to hear several years ago at the Folk Alliance conference in Vancouver, B. C. I was excited to hear her again later in the week for a short solo set and grab a copy of her recent CD. Nicky has a knack for writing songs we can all relate to that have memorable lyrics and beautiful simple guitar accompaniments that make good on her theme of hopefulness delivered with clear, kind vocals.

Ruthie Foster and Cyd Cassone treated us to some wonderful blues and gospel songs with Ruthie on guitar and lead vocals and Cyd accompanying her on hand drum and harmonies. Ruthie has a great voice and together these two create music that really touches their audience. This duo also performed on the Folk Alliance main stage showcase and is one of the best duos of this genre on the folk festival circuit today.

The next day was Friday and I started off the morning by attending a panel seminar entitled "Roadmap to Career Success" sponsored by Performing Songwriter Magazine. The panelists were from various aspects of the music business and included Amy Curland (owner of the famous Bluebird Caf? in Nashville), Catie Curtis (singer-songwriter from Boston), John Beiter (music business attorney), Janis Ian (Grammy-winning songwriter, performer and advice giver), Beverly Bartsch (business manager), and Fett (technology editor, Performing Songwriter Magazine). The panelists discussed the evolution of the business aspects of music from the basic beginnings where one does everything themselves to the decision points at which one may consider hiring others to help with the business tasks and advice about hiring people to work for you. Several nuggets of good advice surfaced such as the importance of always retaining your publishing rights, the importance of trust when hiring a lawyer or business manager and even very basic things such as maintaining a mailing list, perform a lot, always be professional and nice to the people you deal with.

Later that same evening I went on a short field trip by taxi to the Douglas Corner Caf? to hear a songwriter circle that included Catie Curtis, Mary Gauthier, Bonnie Baker and Angelo. Although this was not part of the conference it was one of the highlights of the weekend as all four of these musicians are well-established songwriters and their craft really does shine. Angelo is a Nashville songwriter who has worked with many well-known artists such as Kim Richey. Catie Curtis, from Boston, is one of the best performing songwriters around. Mary Gauthier is a transplant from Boston to Nashville who writes country themed tunes and Bonnie Baker has been part of the Nashville songwriter scene for quite a while. All four treated us to some fine music in a wonderfully intimate setting. Amusingly, this songwriter circle was exactly that with all four seated around a floor lamp in the center of the caf? with the audience sitting around the outside of them.

Even later that same evening I caught part of the Folk Alliance main stage showcase which featured The McDades from Edmonton, Canada, whose blend of Celtic, world beat and jazz highlighted with some hot fiddle playing and great instrumentals really put on an exciting show that made you want to get up and dance. Next up was Martyn Joseph from the U.K. who shared with us his passionate and sometimes political songs balanced with a sense of humor in others. Martyn Joseph is a commanding presence with his big voice, range of emotions and fine guitar playing. I found his performance mesmerizing, as did most of the audience.

As the night was still young (in Folk Alliance hours), it was now time to brave the evening rush hour at the elevators and make my way upstairs to catch Melissa Ferrick who had been drawing some big crowds in the various hotel room showcases with lines out the door waiting to get in and hear her. Melissa has a big following and I think people are naturally drawn to her high-energy performances, percussive guitar work and interesting use of her vocals, sometimes doing some scat-like techniques. Her songs are often darkly brooding and deal with the hard stuff of life. What struck me most about Ferrick is how completely immersed and emotionally possessed she is while performing. Audiences love it when they see and hear a performer like this who doesn't hold anything back and gives it their all.

One of my favorite Boston singer-songwriters is Jenny Reynolds who is that rare combination of good solid songwriting, strong guitar playing and a great set of vocal cords. Yup, this gal has got one enviable set of pipes! Jenny's songs offer a nice palette from driving and intense to quiet and reflective, often with a hint of country and blues. Her guitar playing is often very rhythmic with some interesting right-hand strumming techniques. Jenny connects well with her audiences through her sense of humor and often an interesting story or two and delivers her songs with a great deal of conviction and emotion.

I believe it was around this time that I got separated from my photographer for this article so she filled me in on a few great performances I missed. Carla Ryder and her band rocked the house with her catchy folk-pop sound. Colleen Sexton turned in a fine set of jazzy themed songs. Trina Hamlin received exuberant praise as being one of the best harmonica players ever. Amelia White, who recently moved from Boston to Nashville, shared her country-folk blend of Americana and there's already a bit of a buzz about her in Nashville these days. Erika Luckett, whose jazzy style and great guitar playing are always impressive, recently released a new CD called "The New Orleans Sessions". This is a barebones guitar and vocals recording and a very nice, intimate disc.

After hearing about Meg Hutchinson for the past few years, I was determined to see her and eventually found myself in the front row of her showcase. Still in her early twenties, Meg has already won several major songwriting contests and after hearing her it was easy to see why. Meg's style is slightly edgy and her good energy, open guitar tunings and nice chord progressions are a wonderful backdrop to her great lyrics. The imagery she conjures up paints a very clear picture for the listener and really connects us to the people, places and situations she describes in her beautiful contemporary folk songs.

After a few days of schlepping from floor-to-floor and room-to-room listening to an endless stream of singer-songwriters, it was a welcome auditory relief to hear some bluegrass bands in the hotel lobby while I was passing through to yet another showcase. Heartstrings is a five piece all-women bluegrass band from Nashville and the Mike and Amy Finders Band from Iowa both added some fine music to the bustling lobby locale.

Saturday was my last night to do the showcase rounds starting with a brief visit to the Cake Records room to hear Jen Cass, Skip Peri and Kym Tuvim all of whom are winners in my book. Kym and Skip are two of Seattle's most popular songwriters and are always a treat to hear.

Zipping downstairs to the Folk Alliance main stage I heard Lennie Gallant from Eastern Canada, who gave us some great danceable music with guitar, bass, and electric violin. I unfortunately missed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden and Tom Wilson) who performed before Lennie but I caught up with them later for just a song or two in one of the smaller showcase rooms. From what I heard, these guys from Canada are great. With their dark twang sound and matching outfits, (black formal western wear embroidered with white notes, stars, skulls and a few obligatory sparkly sequins); I'm looking forward to hearing them perform again in the future.

Back up twenty floors via the one remaining elevator that was still working, found me at the tail end of Edie Carey's showcase. Edie Carey has a beautiful, gentle, clear voice and her style reminded me a little of Jennifer Kimball. Edie was joined by Julie Wolfe on accordion and Teddy Goldstein on harmonica for this fine set.

Finally back on track to the schedule I had marked out for myself that evening, I arrived in good time to get a precious square foot of standing room space in a very stuffy, oxygen depleted room to see Kris Delmhorst, another great songwriter from Boston. Kris was joined by Julie Wolfe on keyboard, accordion and harmony vocals and this was absolutely one of the best showcases I heard. Some of Delmhorst's new songs seem to be pointing in a slightly new direction of more pop and edge and a little less folk plus some quiet intimate songs as well. The packed room loved this showcase. Bravo Kris!

By this time it was around 2am and I happened to run into Jenn Adams from Montana who was on her way upstairs to play her last showcase of the conference. I wandered up and joined the two other audience members in the calm, quiet room that was illuminated with some strands of small lights. This was just the perfect thing after being in the other over-crowded rooms all evening. Jenn is a very versatile songwriter and musician who is equally at home playing blues, contemporary folk or jazz. An excellent and inventive guitarist with a lyrical voice to match, Jenn is a very down to earth performer who connects easily with her audience and delivers a nice variety of songs.

Finally, I made it to the very last showcase on my list, which was at the Indiegrrl room featuring Lynn Deeves, Leslie Berry, Natalia Zukerman, and Nadine Goellner. Lynn Deeves gave us a solo gospel song and later a comical country style song about some of her best friends who are straight (gasp!). Leslie Berry treated us to some unusual songs on keyboard and vocals that were somewhat classical in style but also dramatic like a movie score. Leslie has a sweet voice and the interesting keyboard textures made for a sound that was different than the usual acoustic folk sound.

A wonderful discovery and surprise for me was hearing Natalia Zukerman and Nadine Goellner for the first time. I had no idea what to expect and was thrilled to find two young women doing some excellent original jazz and bossa nova styled material with sexy vocals and some really strong and interesting guitar playing. It was so refreshing to hear these two gals exploring the intricacies of the guitar while trading solo riffs and likewise on the vocal improvisations. Their style and sound really stood out from much of what I had heard the previous few days so I was very happy that I stayed up until 3am to hear them. Nadine and Natalia are from the New York City area and perform there often. So go see them and buy their CDs, they are both immensely talented and I can't think of a better way to have concluded my time at the Folk Alliance Conference this year.

Folk Alliance has something for everyone whether you are a performer, an avid listener, or associated with any aspect of the music industry. It's a great way to hear a lot of performers, make new friends, connect with people in the industry and have a lot of fun in the process. Next year's conference will be in San Diego, California and there are also smaller regional conferences that occur during the year.

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