Rod Kennedy's laid-back drawl comes on like a friendly bear hug. It has a lot in common with the way Kennedy, founder of the legendary Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, goes about leading his life--like it's his main squeeze, for better or worse. In his 68 years, he's been a big-band singer, concert impresario, club owner, radio pioneer and vintage sports car driver.
Recently he added "author" to that resume. He'll be in the area this week for numerous events promoting his new prodigiously illustrated memoir from Eakin Press, Music From the Heart.
How does a guy end up doing so many different things with his life? "I can't keep a job," Kennedy says. "And time's moving on. I don't want to waste any of it." He was sixteen when he began fronting jazz combos in 1946, and the move into the administrative side of musicianship began simply as a natural extension of the gig. "Being a singer, I had no instrument to carry, so they started giving me other jobs to do," he says. Before long he was getting the piano tuned and handling booking and publicity duties. From there, it was on to college, with a foot in the door of the burgeoning FM radio boom and a hand in opening a jazz club. Kennedy was off and running.
A lifelong love for speed and machinery led Kennedy in the late '60s to a four-year whirlwind career as a race car driver. He nabbed a winning trophy in the 1970 Sebring International before taking his pedal off the metal. "I lost so many friends who were pro drivers," he says. "I realized I had responsibilities to so many people, including my wife, so I decided I was being self-indulgent and better not do it anymore."
Kennedy still loves cars, but now the music business is his vocation. As well it should be--he's been through the concert-promotion ropes countless times over, booking for clubs, jazz festivals, classical music series and, ultimately, for Kerrville, a 27-year-old national institution that's made the careers of hundreds of folk artists. "I love what I'm doing," he says. "I'm rehumanizing America one song at a time."
Though Kennedy has begun loosening his grip on Kerrville by selling the festival to partners, he retained an option to produce the event for several more years. While in Denver, he'll begin taping a spoken-word version of his book at the studio of local musician Bob Tyler. And he'll be making the rounds at book fairs and music festivals across the country, including next week's Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, one of his favorites. "It's one place where you can take off your shoes and go wading with Ani DiFranco," he says.
Rod Kennedy has seen the world of folk music expand and contract many times over but says he is heartened by the way each wave of new talent seems to pick up the load. "So much of pop culture is repetitious," he says. "We have so little enrichment in our daily lives that's not somehow calculated to get us to buy something. The most human experience I can think of is a young singer-songwriter singing directly from her heart to people who've had little exposure to that kind of compassion."
Rod Kennedy signs Music From the Heart. 7:30 p.m. August 14, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street, Boulder, 447-2074. 3 p.m. August 15, Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street, 436-1070. 7 p.m. August 15, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 71 East Yale Avenue, 777-1003.