Last weekend, dozens of musicians from Colorado, including myself, traveled to Kansas City for the 2016 Folk Alliance International. Currently in its 28th year, the conference and festival draws more than 2,000 artists and industry people from all over the world. It is five days of performances, classes, lectures, panels and networking events, all housed inside the massive, 85-acre Westin Hotel complex.
If you're an artist who attended this year's Folk Alliance International in Kansas City and you didn't leave completely inspired to take your craft to the next level, then you clearly weren't paying attention.
While the term "folk" is broad here — the conference features everything from bluegrass to indie to Tex-Mex — the majority of participating musicians, regardless of genre, are highly trained, intensely talented and seeking to stand out from the others. Some artists, like Massachusetts quartet Darlingside, who were named the conference's "Artist of the Year," achieved the acclaim they deserved, while many other artists struggled to make headway.
My involvement with the festival was threefold: to write this article, to perform as an artist with my group Andy Thomas' Dust Heart, and to host, sponsor and facilitate a showcase room. The program I manage, IMTour, along with five other Colorado-based music-industry organizations (Greater Than Collective/Illegal Pete's, JTM Management, Levitt Pavilion Denver, Sweetwine Entertainment Group and Swallow Hill Music), got together to host the Colorado and Friends Room (full schedule below), which showcased Colorado acts and "friends" from all over the World.
As a facilitator and sponsor, I was ecstatic to watch Colorado contemporaries like R.L. Cole, Brent Cowles, Chris Dismuke, the Changing Colors and others perform alongside national acts like Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Hot Buttered Rum, Micah Schnabel and Darlingside. I was in awe of my friends' talent and enamored of new artists that I was just discovering.
As an artist, I was intimidated and scared to perform. I too closely compared myself with all of the other artists' talent and wondered where mine lacked. I wished I could harmonize like the Haunted Windchimes. I wished I had the visceral emotion of Possessed by Paul James. I wished I had a lot of things that Darlingside had (once again, they were incredible). I played an in-the-round with Phillips and Cole, and my hands shook.
This feeling of intimidation continued throughout the weekend. The Colorado and Friends room was next to the Oklahoma Room, which featured amazing country crooners like Wink Burchum, who, like John Moreland, may be the next Okie to break out. Throughout the hallways and staircases, artists warmed up, and beautiful music echoed in every nook and cranny. Downstairs "official" showcases featured the likes of Los Texmaniacs, New Zealand's Delany Davidson and Colorado's own Judy Collins! It was an incredible collection of talent, and I stayed up until 6 a.m. some nights, soaking it all in.
While I still feel that I played well and had an amazing time, I look back on it now and shake my head with how far I have to go. As an artist, you have to be confident, and you have to believe in the music you are playing, but you should always know you can get better.
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No other festival or conference has made me feel so ready to improve, so determined to become a better musician. If there's an inclination deep in your gut that tells you there's more to be learned and more to be gained, I'm telling you that sometimes all you have to do is look around you for motivation.