Folk Alliance Really Is International

Folk Alliance Really Is International

Written by Wayne Robins

Five Days and Nights of Intimate Global Music, Part One

One afternoon last weekend during the Folk Alliance International (FAI) 36th annual conference in Kansas City, Missouri, one of the few civilians at the Westin Crown Center hotel asked in a crowded elevator: "What kind of folk music is this, anyway? I saw a list with hundreds of names and I never heard of any of them!"

The man had good reason to be curious. To be honest, I had never heard of 98 percent of the artists either. (I did say hi to Tom Paxton, also in an elevator.) Which was exactly why I wanted to go. I felt the air getting stale in my room in Queens. I almost never go out to shows anymore, and rarely get exposed to new music outside my rock/pop safe zone. I craved travel and fresh sounds. I saw more live music in four days than I have in the last 25 years.

A few months ago, I got a press release announcing the FAI 2024 confab, February 21 – 25 in Kansas City. My longtime acquaintance Nick Loss-Eaton, who I hardly ever see, and which is too often the way of the world these days, was handling the publicity. I asked if he could get me a press pass. He could. I checked my teaching calendar at St. John's: I would only have to cancel one class (Feb. 22), so I didn't have to jump back right away. I checked my Delta SkyMiles, and because I never fly anywhere anymore, I had enough to fly to KC first-class round trip. It was a go. (I paid for my hotel and meals; no junkets are still my rule.)

But household names? FAI is a very large, necessary niche in the "folk world," and which emphasizes the American roots and international variations. The broad, distinctive definition of FAI might be "music played by folks." It's not a genre. It's a community of mutually supporting artists, folk music DJs (mostly on specialty shows: shout-out to New York radio veteran John Platt, who I was happy to meet), small indie labels, venues, promoters, musical instrument and microphone designers, manufacturers, services for touring musicians; the whole support system.

At the International Folk Music Awards (winners in bold), the Artist of the Year nominees were: Billy Strings, Digging Roots, Gaby Moreno, Madi Diaz, and Nickel Creek. I've heard of Mr. Strings and Nickel Creek; unfamiliar with the others. The Album of the Year nominees were by artists Tinariwen; Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway; Lankum; William Prince; and Rainbow Girls. I knew of Tinariwen, Tuareg musicians from Mali. But that's all. (Tuttle's group had won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album a few weeks ago.)

Tracy Chapman got a lifetime achievement award; the pop and country crossover hit of her 1988 song "Fast Car" by Luke Combs in 2023 is an optimal aspiration for many FAI artists. The best known, by me, of the award winners, was Iris DeMent, who took Song of the Year for "Workin' on a World."

Victor Jara, the Chilean singer, poet, and activist murdered in 1973 during the military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet, received a posthumous award, and his life is kind of the lodestar of the political leanings of some FAI musicians. The People's Voice Award recipient, "goes to an individual who unabashedly embraces social and political commentary in their creative work and public careers." This year's winner, Alynda Segarra, is leader of the rock band Hurray for the Riff Raff.

FAI, which also took place at the adjacent Sheraton Crown Center, is beyond a doubt as LGBTQ+ friendly, multiracial, multinational, and multicultural as possible, and honors the historic truth that "all of its activities and that of its member organizations take place on Indigenous lands. FAI's office is located on the land on the Kansa/Kaw, Osage, Kickago, and Ochethi Sakowin nations.” (The latter is a confederation of seven nations, sometimes known under the umbrella of the Sioux Nation, that speaks three different dialects: Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota, and basically constitutes most of what we call the "Midwest.") Where I am from, Queens and Long Island, the specific places I grew up are on the indigenous lands of the Canarsie, Rockaways, and Merrick tribes. Almost all of the place names on Long Island are named after such tribes: Do you think some European white dude named his home town "Massapequa?"

As a cisgender male, on the mostly heteronormative spectrum (though I have dabbled outside the boundaries), I was always made to feel welcome. And with my press pass tagged with a "first-timer" ribbon, people often stopped me to ask how I was enjoying my virgin year at FAI. And was asked follow-up questions. That includes current executive director Jennifer Roe. And occasionally, I mistook one musician for another, but that was OK; that person stopped to talk to me anyway. Musicians welcomed direct contact after their sets; just mosey up and chat.

I was hooked by the 6 p.m. opening night party, which featured a band and a guest leader playing in celebration of long anniversaries of Smithsonian Folkways, and of TRO-Essex Music Group, which handles the rights to the songs of Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, aka Lead Belly. Also the late Oscar Brand, who was a neighbor and warm acquaintance of mine in Great Neck, New York. The TRO-Essex Music Group Facebook page posted that the Canadian-American Brand's "Something to Sing About," a patriotic song, is now out as a single. Check your favorite streamer.

Guthrie and Leadbelly provided the source of this roots music, the springs that evolved into a vast ocean of song from all over the world. FAI is dedicated to "saving these songs from cultural erasure," a valuable mission if there ever was one.

The opening party reinforced this, with stunning background singers including L.A.-based Alice Howe and the ubiquitous (because I kept running into her) Shanna Who Wears a Dress, with an effervescent personality, a spring water-clear voice, and this self-description: "quirky folk pop from a clever millennial who sucks at dating." Among the players was Dan Navarro, who is now one of FAI's "elders," as a panel on which he appeared was called. He had been in a group called Lowen & Navarro (Eric Lowen died after a long battle with ALS at age 60, in 2012). The house band for FAI 2024 was Virginia's Steel Wheels.

Do you remember the last article [in Issue 204] when I posted about turning my grandson on to Raffi? There's a Raffi song that goes: "a peanut butter sandwich made with jam/one for me and one for David Amram." This is a little joke for musically aware parents, because David Amram is one of the most prolific American composers of the last 70 years: operas, chamber music, Jewish roots music, Latin, jazz, folk...I met him a few times when I wrote about his non-classical stuff in Newsday; he was friendly with some of our Greenwich Village denizens in the early days of the New York office going back to when I started in 1975.


David Amram, live at the opening night tribute, jamming the real folk blues. Courtesy of FAI.

Amram, wearing his denim The Village Trip jacket, sang and led the band opening night, and I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. Amram was seated at a Roland RD-88 keyboard, playing wild-ass blues and boogie, and long jams on Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" and Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" that would make you weep and jump for joy. I said hello to Amram after his set; at 93, he is spry, musically solid, but slightly distractible. He recalled my Newsday colleagues Dennis Duggan and Sheila McKenna, old Village friends of his, and dug into his bag to give me a CD: A jazz album, David Amram Live in Germany: 1954 – 2013, the latter from a 60th anniversary tour honoring the original 1954 sessions for Armed Forces Radio, a period when Amram was drafted and stationed in Germany.

The conference had focused panel discussions for those who needed career advice, including health care, investing, and retirement: this is not a rich person's game, nor one with a path towards great wealth. There were instead "affinity groups," in which people in, say, the "Publicity and Media" event took place in a small conference room, no podium, chairs in a wide circle. It was like the AA meetings one sees in TV shows like Loudermilk, a streaming "comedy" which I find, after three episodes, so utterly cringe that it is unwatchable, though many people find this show, about a former Seattle rock critic-turned-recovery counselor quite funny. God bless you. People think it may be my sweet spot. It is, as I say, cringe, and the behavior of Loudermilk (played by Ron Livingston), whose cruelty made for laughs is disturbing for me to watch. FAI did feature a daily "Friends of Bill" meeting at 5 p.m., and I did make one. At that time on Saturday, I was invited to a private showcase for the singer-songwriter Xanthe Alexis, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a few other places as well, who was recording a three-song video for No Depression magazine. I am one of the five people who will be heard clapping. I am now the spiritual leader of her fan club.

Otherwise, I was napping at that time.  

Napping is essential at FAI, which had 2,500 registered guests. Beginning around 6 or 7 p.m. each night were 150 official showcase acts. Many of these were multiple artist sets, many by international musicians, sponsored by their government arts entities. There were, for example, about two dozen Australian artists, sponsored by Sounds Australia. I swooned for Kerryn Fields, who is at least six feet tall with talent that surpasses her stature, and Alana Wilkinson, and the Weeping Willows duo.


Kerryn Fields, in the wee hours, playing as if she was headlining 100,00 seat Melbourne Cricket Ground. Courtesy of Wayne Robins.

Ireland, Estonia, Catalan Arts (Barcelona) were all represented. English-speaking Ontario, French-speaking Quebec, and the speak-a-bit-of-everything Atlantic provinces (Canadian Music East Coast style; think Prince Edward Island, where they build strong mussels) supported showcases. The Nordic Folk Alliance was there, as well as states and cities that are themselves self-contained cultural musiclands: Texas, Louisiana, Memphis, and more.

All these artists and more could be found in the private showcases, which started around 10 p.m. and lasted until the final showtime slot, which I kid you not, was 2:30 or 2:40 a.m. Bruce Sudano, reemerging as a singer-songwriter after the 2012 passing of his wife, Donna Summer, did a 2:30 a.m. Wednesday night (I skipped that, but had lunch with him the next day), and I knew I'd be able to catch him at an official showcase, 8:30 p.m. on Friday night. His new album, “Talkin’ Ugly Truth, Tellin’ Pretty Lies” was released on March 1, but you really need to hear him do the solo acoustic guitar version of "Bad Girls," the disco hit he and Summer wrote together. It has strong bones.

The private showcases took place in the hotel on the fifth through eighth floors. Every room. All doors were open, with signage that looked like college dorms inhabited by music fiends. I tried to count through the 64-page, small-print private showcase schedule book, and came up with around 800 different performers in hotel rooms over four nights. Let's look at the low-end estimate and say each artist did three showcases any given night: That would be 2,400 showcases from 10 a.m to 3 a.m. It was crazy fun. The schedule booklet warned on each page: "Take care of your body and mind. Remember Water and Rest."

Each player, picker, singer, songwriter and occasional multi-instrumentalist played half a dozen or more 20 minute solo sets or 30 – 40 minute "guitar pulls," with three artists alternating up to four or five songs each. Each hotel room, beds included, was set up with a few chairs, and maybe snacks.

Most were well-designed, with copasetic acts. But one night I pushed through the hallway crowds to see one of Bianca De Leon's 10 private showcases (she had three that night). De Leon, an Austin troubadour who plays a lot in Europe, who ran with Townes Van Zandt and and the other Texas bad boys in their self-destructive prime, was squeezed between a pop singer from Michigan with a large electric keyboard that cramped her elbow room, and a straight mainstream Nashville songwriter (an anomaly here). We were starting to get to know each other, so we made eye contact and occasional eye rolls; she sang "I Sang Patsy Cline." That tune was about the time her plane from Medellín, Colombia, to Panama City was canceled because the dictator Manuel Noriega was being overthrown that night. There were maybe five people in the room listening, but every artist gave it their all.


In Part Two: some artists that stood out, entertained, and inspired.

This article originally appeared in Wayne Robins’ Substack and is used here by permission. Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the Critical Conditions Substack,


Back to Copper home page

1 of 2