Folk Alliance 2012 Review

Folk Alliance 2012

By Art Menius for 2/28/2012

Last week brought another Folk Alliance International Conference, the last of a six year cycle in Memphis, Tennessee. Next year brings Toronto, then five years in Kansas City, Missouri starting in 2014. I started attending with the formation conference produced by Clark and Elaine Weissman in 1989. This year’s vintage proved one of the best of the 24 so far. See “History of Folk Alliance Conferences” at the end of this article.

I’ll feature the best new music I gleaned from FAI 2012 on “From the Roots” on WMMT-FM 88.7, Whitesburg, KY this Saturday from 11 AM until 2 PM Eastern. Streams live at and on various phone/tablet radio apps. My radio blog lives here.

Adventures in Obligations & Awards

I arrived Tuesday night for the start of many hours of FAI Board meetings that stretched through 4 PM PM on Thursday. Working together, we sorted through some serious matters involving this upcoming transition and the birth in 2014 of an exciting winter music camp. Board work continued on Friday with a celebratory meeting with the FAI Regional leaders marking the consummation of a long awaited formal relationship with the international organization. We enjoyed a delightful reception and conversation on Friday with some potential members of the soon to be formed Advisory Council of Folk Alliance. I was reelected to another year on Ex Comm as Secretary as were incumbents Renee Bodie, President, Michelle Conceison, Veep, and Donald Davidoff, Treas. Chris Frayer joined the Ex Comm team as at large. The board welcomed one new member, Joan Kornblith of Voice of America, and thanked Mike Gormley, Linda Fahey, and Ralph Sutton for their years of service.

FAI directors and regional leaders 2012

Wednesday evening brought the Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards. Scott Alarick again produced fantastic and informative videos for each recipient. As LAA chair, I had the honor of accepting for Harry Belafonte as Living Performer. Most of the LAA videos can be found on here. Pam Michael, current Executive Director, accepted for the Highlander Center. Robert Johnson’s grandsons were there to accept the Legacy LAA and rendered a spirited, electric performance of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Robert Johnson's grandson singing at LAA

An entertaining interruption of board work, following the least controversial Annual General Membership meeting in history, was the key note interview of Bob Lefsetz by board member Wendy Waldman.

Who is Bob Lefsetz?

When one says and writes as much as Bob Lefsetz, especially statements outrageous enough to entertain, the quality remains variable. One can read this article about him from the current Wired Magazine. That said, Lefsetz connects with spot on accuracy some of the time, and always provides something to talk about. Highlights from his keynote Interview included:

“You have to be good enough that agents and labels come to you.”

“Mumford & son broke; the folk ghetto no longer exists.”

“I want to go to Youtube and see you play live.”

“Twitter is information, not self-promotion. Let your personality come out.”

“If you’re in this business for the money, quit.”

Lefsetz raved about Memphis and the Folk Alliance. You can start reading with this one.

Music, Lots of Music

And, of course, we had showcases upon showcases, a Coney Island stretching from the most traditional to the most self-involved singer-songwriter and pretty much everything in between. They ranged from bands together for months to one-time hit makers like Jonathan Edwards and Dale Watson. The big buzz acts included Elizabeth Laprelle, a young traditional ballad singer, the gospel Sojourners, the retro-hipster Milk Carton Boys, and the Dunwells, who are live from Leeds and bring to mind Mumford & Son. Lefsetz loved the Dunwells, read this.

Jon Newlin & Elizabeth Laprelle

 Elizabeth Laprelle proved an astonishing southwest Virgina young traditional singer. At a tender age she has mastered the acclaimed Madison County, NC ballad style (think “Songcatcher” and the soundtrack for “Cold Mountain”) and become a commanding string band lead vocalist. She is the niece of veteran singer and fiddler Jon Newlin, the husband of the outstanding singer/banjo player Amy Davis and member of such groups as the Hushpuppies and the Maudlin Brothers. Jon now anchors Elizabeth’s band The Fruit Dodgers. LaPrelle is blessed with a timeless voice that projects authenticity. She possesses a magic gift that earned her this year’s Mike Seeger scholarship to Folk Alliance. Her latest album, Bird’s Advice, features Jon and Amy, Jim Lloyd, and her mom. Elizabeth Laprelle is real. ‘Nuff said.

L-R Old Man Luedecke, Matt the Electrician, Kaia Kater

Thursday night I saw the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century. She is an 18 year old from Winnipeg named Kaia Kater (Hurst) who has been playing banjo for just 5 years and knows every inch of that long neck. Mitch Podolak was her first teacher. She sings the old songs and composes fascinating new tunes describing her sound as “alternative/crunk/folk.” Find her now, including a Phillip Glass cover, at Banjo playing Canadian singer-songwriter Old Man Lubecke and Austin’s idiosyncratic rising star Matt the Electrician were also terrific on the same set.

The Dust Busters

From Laprelle’s Friday night showcase in one of the trad showcases run by Andy Cohen into the wee hours, meandering led me to a hot set by Brooklyn’s Dustbusters. They gave me an advance on their May CD with John Cohen from the New Lost City Ramblers on Smithsonian-Folkways. These three are clearly eaten up with hard core old-time scouring the old recordings for stuff to fit their high energy, pure trad string band on meth style. The Dustbusters performed at the Country Music Hall of Fame on the way home and opened for Steve Earle and Alison Moorer in early February.

Malcomb Holcombe

Perhaps because of the compressed showcase timeframe, my favorite male singer-songwriter Malcomb Holcombe gave the most focused and effective performance I have ever seen by him in is official showcase on second floor Friday night. FAI president Renee Bodie said he was just as powerful in her room 90 minutes later. I met Malcomb at jam sessions in Asheville in the early 1980s when he was a wild young man with amazing songs. Now, he is a wild acting middle aged married songwriter of extraordinary depth and masterfully economical writing. Seeing Malcomb in these small spaces took me back three decades as did the way Holcombe retains the facial and body contortions that add another layer of expression to his poetry and guitar playing. The St. Louis Room was SRO. It’s reaffirming to see this artist finally getting his due since a glowing profile in the Wall Street Journal. I also enjoyed catching parts of excellent performances by a bunch of other old friends including Kickin’ Grass, Joel Rafael (who presented a big Woody Guthrie tribute show Thursday evening), and Scott Ainslie.

Joel Rafael

Scott Ainslie with diddley bo

Wednesday night I ran into old-time and bluegrass veteran Paul Kovac, one of two people I know from Chardon, Ohio, which would be ripped into the headlines on Monday. Jim Blum from Folk Alley had just given him a CD of one of the two shows he played as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1981. Boy = Girl, Paul’s current effort, is a fun duo with upright bassist Jen Maurer, who also plays in the zydeco-jam band fusion group Mo’ Mojo. They sing romantic duets resembling country and pop styles of a half-century ago, accompanying themselves on banjo and bass. Somehow it ends up sounding more contemporary than atavistic, perhaps because the songs are original.

Atomic Duo

Austin’s Atomic Duo somehow noticed that the 1930s were the highwater marks for both brother duet music and socialism in the USA. So they put the two together. I discovered later than they face paced and hilarious showcase was webcast. “Another Key in the Key Chain” is a brilliant example of masking contemporary commentary with the trappings of the past. Who said we learned nothing from watching “M.A.S.H?” The Atomic Duo offers a compelling reinvention of American folk song.

From the same town, musical time period, and appearing next in the same room were three women who call themselves The Carper Family. Anyone who likes Hot Club of Cowtown will immediately engage with the small ensemble western swing and cowboy sound of the Carper Family. Bass player Melissa Carper has a penned a collection of strong original songs that work perfectly in their take on the retro-hip wave, including “Who R U Texting 2Nite?,” which appears on their Back When CD that features Cindy Cashdollar.

Folk Alliance at Occupy Memphis

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Andy Cohen led a bunch of volunteer musicians two blocks down Main Street to give a public concert in solidarity with Occupy Memphis. The Memphis Mayor’s office helped make it happen.

Workshops and Panels

Board service means that our directors miss all too much of the workshop and panel sessions.

Hazel Dickens Remembered

The session on Hazel Dickens seemed all too short. John Lilly had prepared a nice powerpoint of photos and an informative brochure. Mix of singing and stories from John Lilly, Tracy Schwarz, Ginny Hawker, Bill & Louise Kirchen, and Ken Irwin. The stories covered various aspects of her personality, songwriting, music, wisdom, and the ways she touched our lives. A completed but unreleased album should appear in a few months. Ken has not yet begun going through her many cassettes for what might be hidden there. Bill Kirchen said he regretted that they did not record the honky-tonk album they had discussed. Bill and Louise took Hazel to a John Lilly concerts just days before she passed. They sang all the way back to her apartment. One tale reminded me of how Hazel would always inspect my wife Becky Johnson before the IBMA Awards shows. You can watch the 2002 LAA video for Hazel Dickens here. My obit for the FAI newsletter lives here.

Saturday morning also offered an exemplary conversation about festivals that benefited from the diversity Louis Meyers structured into the panelists. The previous day I made my debut as a Maryland resident in attending the NERFA session rather than my previous home in SERFA.

We had a wonderful conversation that could have gone on forever in the session Pam McMichael and I hosted about the Highlander Center. Wanda Fisher from WAMC radio offered a first person account of frequenting there as a UT student to the consternation of her dorm mother, while Dave Marsh of SiriusXM and Bau Graves from the Old-Town School of Folk Music offered challenging perspectives.

The 2012 FAI Conference provided a blissful last time around in Memphis, arguably the best of our six efforts on the bluffs above the Mississippi. Well see you in Toronto next year and hence in Kansas City.

Jeron Big Boy Paxton fiddling with Dust Busters

History of Folk Alliance Conferences

7 Produced by Louis Jay Meyers, so far

2007 – 2012 – Memphis, TN

2006 – Austin, TX

9 Produced by Phyllis Barney

2005 –  Montreal, PQ

2004 – San Diego, CA

2003 –  Nashville, TN

2002 –  Jacksonville, FL

2001 –  Vancouver, BC

2000 –   Cleveland, OH

1999 –   Albuquerque, NM

1998 – Memphis, TN

1997 –  Toronto, ON

6 Produced by Art Menius & local committees

1996 – Washington, DC

1995 –  Portland, OR

1994 –  Boston, MA

1993 –  Tucson, AZ

1992 – Calgary, AB

1991 –  Chicago, IL

Produced by Philadelphia Folk Song Society & FA Steering Committee

1990 –  Philadelphia, PA

Produced by Clark & Elaine Weissman

1989 –  Malibu, CA


Elizabeth Laprelle

And then we have Elizabeth Laprelle, a southwest Virgina young traditional singer and banjo player. Along with the gospel Sojourners, the retrohip Milk Carton Boys, and the Dunwells, she was one of the buzz, up and coming stars of Folk Alliance 2012. At a tender age she has mastered the Madison  County ballad style and become a strong string band lead vocalist. Niece of Jon Newlin, she is blessed with a timeless voice that projects authenticity. She possess a magic gift that earned her this year’s Mike Seeger scholarship to Folk Alliance. Her latest album, Bird’s Advice, features Jon and Amy Davis. Elizabeth Laprelle is real. ‘Nuff said.


Kaia Kater

I have just seen the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century. She is an 18 year old from Winnipeg named Kaia Kater (Hurst) who has been playing banjo
for just 5 years and knows every inch of that long neck. Mitch Podolak was her first teacher. She sings the old songs and composes fascinating

new tunes describing her sound as alternative/crunk/folk. Find her now, including a Phillip Glass cover, at

Old Man Lubecke, Matt the Electrician, Kaia Kater in the Sweet Beaver Suite at Folk Alliance International Conference 2012

Joe Thompson Passes

Joe Thompson was 93 and he was my friend. Joe Thompson died today, almost 20 years after his banjo playing cousin Odell was killed at MerleFest right in front of Bob Carlin’s eyes on Rt 421.
Joe and his fiddle are silent now. The link gone to a lost world of African American string band music. Joe saw young folks take up the music,  but they never knew Jim Crow or what it was like to be the only black face at a white dance.
Joe Thompson is gone and with him the last living link to the world of my grandparents.

Folk Alliance Conference

I’ll be hosting two workshops at the Folk Alliance International (FAI) Conference in Memphis this Wednesday through Saturday. For the full 411, just go to This is the best music conference of the year. Don’t miss it.

I’m also chair of the Lifetime Achievement Awards which will be presented Wednesday at 6 PM Central to the Harry Belafonte, Robert Johnson, and the Highlander Center.

I’ll look forward to seeing you all there.

STUDY: The Highlander Center (Chattanooga)
For 80 years, the Highlander Center has been a progressive oasis in the
mid-South. As such, the history of the Highlander Center, one of this year’s
LAA recipients, is tied to folk and traditional music. From the outset,
Highlander integrated cultural work into all its programs, helping spread
songs like “We Shall Overcome” from striking tobacco workers in the 1940’s
to civil rights leaders in Nashville in 1960, after which it spread across
the globe. Over the years, Highlander’s work has been central to the union
movement, the civil rights movement, the struggle for economic justice in
Appalachia, the environmental movement, and international struggles against
globalization. And through it all, figures like Zilphia Horton, Guy and
Candie Carawan, and Jane Sapp have used music, drama, dance, and stories to
help empower ordinary people in their work for social justice. The Center
continues to provide education and resources for activists across the South
and around the world.
Hosted by: Art Menius
Pam McMichael, The Highlander Center

Voices from the Cultural Battlefront Session (Chattanooga)
Our Voices from the Cultural Battlefront session continues our work of the
past four years providing a safe space for talking and working together
concerning the meaning of artistic endeavor and the role of artists in
social activism. Voices revolves around the concept that when commerce becomes more important than culture, society atrophies. Hosted by Art Menius Art Menius at your Service

Among many other great sessions Louis has lined up for us this year, I would
also like to point out:
Activism (Heritage 4)
What does it mean to be an activist in today’s society?
Dave Marsh, Journalist (m)
Eliza Gilkyson, Artist

Meanwhile, Andy Cohen is organizing an action in solidarity with Occupy Memphis

Imagining America Call for Proposals

2012 Imagining America National Conference

October 5-7, 2012, New York, NY

Linked Fates and Futures: Communities and Campuses as Equitable Partners?


Co-hosted by Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, Columbia University, New York University,  and The New School

Slashed budgets, debt burdens, speculation unchecked, diminished access, narrowing measures of worth. Without support for a reorientation of values and realignment of priorities, higher education and community organizations committed to a just, equitable, and fully participatory vision of the world face a challenge to their most cherished ideals and in some cases, their very survival. Against these forces of unequal benefit, induced scarcity, and reduced expectation, this is a moment that calls for a bold and ambitious voicing of where our desired future lies and how we will get there.


The 2012 Imagining America conference, to be held in New York City, October 5-7, is an occasion to reflect critically on the shared predicaments of democratically-oriented, cultural work in higher education and community-based organizations; to articulate languages and practices of possibility; and to develop and strengthen cross-sectoral networks committed to moving such work forward. The conference is grounded in approaches and experience of the arts, humanities and design drawn from both academic and community knowledge—which is at once local, national, and global. Our aim is to craft a strategic, mobilizing, and policy-savvy framework for sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships that advances full participation of all constituents in the range of decisions that affect our common future.  Building equitable partnerships among higher education and community organizations into its design, the conference aims to develop and disseminate critical, collaborative, and creative forms of new knowledge and leadership. We seek to enlarge the scope of who participates in learning and knowledge production; how that knowledge is generated, valued, and shared; and how to develop solutions to the dilemmas we face. The work we undertake now will build conditions and relationships that are needed to address the crises facing our communities and institutions and enable us to reimagine and remake our future.


The IA conference will explore where campus and community fates are linked and how theory and practice, aspiration and action can be fruitfully entwined. The over-arching framework of the three day conference brings together New York City-based programming with initiatives taking place around the country. To maximize our work together, we ask all who submit proposals to take this framework into consideration and to place their own work in dialogue with the locally generated themes if possible.

The three days will be structured as follows: The first day begins with plenary sessions that include perspectives on shared visions and challenges from people positioned in higher education, community, and policy, with afternoon sessions taking place at various community sites around New York City. The second day incorporates report-backs from and performances based upon the activities and conversations from the first day and focuses on narratives of possibility and innovation. The concluding day is about identifying implications for institutional sustainability for public-minded campuses and community organizations, IA’s own organizational capacity, and national policy.

Sessions will embody multiple formats for public engagement that integrate different ways of knowing, foregrounding the role of humanities, arts, and design. Integrating insights from community, education, and policy, three large thematic areas will be explored:


1) Full, Equitable Partnerships: All manner of partnerships and collaborations have formed between campuses and communities. What makes for effective and sustainable partnerships between higher education and cultural and community organizations? Who is involved in teaching and learning, hiring, curriculum design? Where and for whom are programs designed, and what is their long term impact? The aim is to develop a partnership framework that could be adopted nationally.

Partnerships also raise the issue of organizational sustainability. While higher education looks to be headed for a tuition and debt bubble, many cultural organizations, community-based and otherwise-situated, face dim prospects of survival. Given constraints in both the for-profit and nonprofit models, what alternative organizational forms are available?  How might resources be pooled and shared more effectively?  How might research and investigative capacities of higher education be channeled to serve the needs of community organizations, and reciprocally, how might community-based expertises be integrated more deliberately in higher ed?


2) Linking Diversity and Engagement: The success and sustainability of initiatives aimed at full participation and public engagement depend upon linking both and building them into the hard-wiring of institutions.  This theme builds on IA’s ongoing Linking project, which asks:

  • How does the goal of increasing institutional diversity and full participation interact with developing the capacity and commitment to address tough problems facing multiple communities? What strategies and frameworks enable these linkages to form and last?
  • How do activities, relationships and resources cluster to become arenas for promoting broader sustainable change? How do change and policy leaders build out systematically from hubs and hot spots at the forefront of change? What can one initiative learn from another about that building out process?
  • How can arts, design, and humanities serve as particular vehicles for linking diversity/ inclusion with public scholarship/ engagement?


3) Arts, Culture, and Community and Economic Development: Higher education institutions and government agencies have long directed their resources and investments in ways that decisively impact surrounding communities. What approaches to equitable community and economic development strengthen local neighborhoods? What kinds of decision-making, policy frameworks and incentives would be productive for under-resourced populations and institutions? What do self determined approaches look like that draw on local community assets? What kinds of organizing and organizational leadership is needed to advance these common goals, and how can the arts and culture contribute?


Imagining America invites you to consider your work in dialogue with one of the above themes, and in the arc of the conference. Running through all of the above we invite sessions that articulate the role of youth. We also welcome a cadre of proposals that do not fit in this framework but nevertheless advance engaged theory and practice through open and critical dialogue with other conference participants. IA is particularly interested in proposals that contribute to ongoing areas of interest to our members, namely engaged practices in humanities, arts, and design as they intersect with: the environment and climate change; public health; incarceration and reentry; feminism and feminist activism;  faith/spirituality; and international engagement.


The submission deadline is Monday, April 23.

Warren Hellman Memorial

By Art Menius, February 19, 2012

Looks like the Warren Hellman Fest has reached its end – Emmy Lou Harris, Kevin Welch and Keiran Kane, Buddy Miller, John Doe, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Robert Earl Keen, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Old Crow Medicine Show and stage for the finale. Earlier Steve Earle, John Doe, Boz Scaggs, and Dry Branch Fire Squad performed.

From the free webcast of the free outdoor festival, I have no way of estimating the size of the audience. People went back as far as he camera could capture. Two stages kept the show moving swiftly to its conclusion with the Go to Hell Man Clan singing “I’ll Fly Away” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” The weather broke sunny, fortunately, for the event at the beach, rather than the rechristened Hellman Hollow where Hardly Strictly will continue each October.