Written by James Killen
So, just what is a SWARFA? The short answer is the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance, a regional conference affiliated with the Folk Alliance International. For the attendees, however, it’s a once a year rejuvenating experience with fellow singer-songwriters, venue hosts and media folk. It’s a convention and a music festival and church camp all rolled into one.
I feel comfortable in saying that 2/3 of the participants are singer-songwriters and another 25% are venue owners, house concert hosts, agents and record producers. The remainder are staff members and media types. This is an event for folk music insiders, professional and serious amateurs, to see and be seen and the vibe is oh so positive.
A few of the folks showed up Wednesday night at the Holiday Inn in Northeast Austin and descend on Threadgill’s for a musical soiree. Houston Music Review and the majority of the participants didn’t make it until Thursday afternoon in time for a deli meat supper and the initial open mic. Forty-six performers’ names were drawn from the jar to present one of their best songs. That was followed by the Alternates Showcase for seven acts that were seriously considered for one of the Official Showcases. In short, the weekend kicked off with six great hours of original music from a host of singer-songwriters.
First timers grab a few hours of sleep and rise for the First Timers’ Advice seminar presented by Paul Barker and Hilary Adamson, telling newbies how to get the most out of the conference and a few hints as to how to be well accepted by potential industry contacts. Immediately following this is the first of a series of seminars. The three of us from HMR sat in on a showing of “The Shopkeeper” (which I will be discussing in detail in a later article) regarding the nature of the music business with cheaper recording technology and streaming sites like “Spotify”.
After lunch, there were more seminars, but they ran concurrent to the First Timers’ Showcases. Three hotel rooms on the ninth floor were turned into little venues, hosted by house concert hosts, artist managers and recording studio owners. As you can imagine, a hotel room will only hold twelve to twenty people and there are no PA systems, so this is music in the raw, up close and personal. Each new comer to SWRFA gets the opportunity to play three or four songs before the next artist takes his place. The observers generally have made a list based on the Thursday’s open mic, hallway tips from the artists and others and previous listening experience. It is a great chance for a lot of artists to get exposed to people that can help them in their careers.
At 3:30PM the hotel room showcases expand from three to ten and repeat performers are eligible to participate and so the music continues. At 5Pm there is a reception happy hour and a chance for performers to interact with media types like DJ’s and music reviewers, like myself. This is not only an opportunity to get the musician’s work in front of influential personalities, but an opportunity to learn how to approach influential personalities with a bit more impunity as there is safety in numbers. As a reviewer, I was handed nearly thirty CD’s in the period of 45 minutes. It is impossible to give each of those artists the attention that their work deserves, but I was able to speak with them about what I could realistically review and let them know that if I did not publish a review of their work, it was not a rejection. It might be that what they did was outside of my realm of taste or that they were on the right track but could use a little more growth and development. I feel that it was a great experience for many of the artists just to practice self-promotion. I can tell you though that I will pick several of my favorite offerings to write a review on, and again there are far too many worthy productions to properly review them all.
After dinner was the Friday night main showcase in the hotel ballroom. Featured were The Whispering Tree, George Ensle, Angela Parrish, Andy Corwin, Cosy Sheridan, Hardened and Tempered, Winona Wilde and Ordinary Elephant. After the Official Showcase let out, attendees went back to the hotel room showcases which now have expanded from ten to thirteen and performers moved from room to room followed by other attendees until finally “officially” closing shop at 2:20AM. I’m not certain how long unofficial jam sessions and discussions continued, but they went on well past my bed time.
Saturday morning offered more options for seminars. I chose to attend one conducted by singer-songwriter and Boston Berklee College teacher of songwriting, Susan Cattaneo. The title was “Writer’s Block: tips and tools to overcoming creative paralysis”. I was amazed at the number of ideas and examples that Susan was able to cram into an hour and a half of instruction. Lunch was next, but already impromptu jam sessions were erupting in the hotel’s numerous lobbies. After lunch, the HMR bunch attended the “Wisdom of the Elders” seminar conducted by Rich Warren and featuring insights by Ronny Cox (singer-songwriter and actor [Deliverance]), Bill Kirchen (founding member of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen) and Chris Gage (of Albert and Gage). After many anecdotes, the essential wisdom came down to aspiring singer-songwriters as “be on time’, “don’t do cocaine or metha-amphetamines” and “put yourself out there and try not to suck”. The Saturday seminars were followed by a poolside open mice to give a couple of dozen more performers the chance to present their best.
Dinner followed the open mic and was in turn followed by Saturday’s Official Showcase, featuring the Heather Pierson Acoustic Trio, Bethel Steele, Daniel Pelletier, Laura Zucker, Warren Hood, Terry Klein, American Dreamer and Emily Herring & the FM trio. The Official Showcase spilled out the attendees to enjoy the Saturday Night In-room Showcases, which have expanded from thirteen to fourteen and have music scheduled until 2:30AM. In the words of The Who, More Music, More Music, More Music….
I attended the showcases until after 2:00AM and still woke up to jamming in the lobby at 5:45AM. Just like the last day of summer church camp, the attendees were not ready to let the feeling of comradery go. Unfortunately, go we must. The only activities scheduled for Sunday were the 11:00AM brunch and the performance of the song assignments (songs written during the weekend in response to prompts that had been drawn by willing participants upon arrival).
I found SWRFA to be a most exhilarating experience, even though I am not a singer, nor am I a songwriter. When one of the performers invited the audience to sing along on a chorus, you could not imagine the difference it makes having the audience full of singer-songwriters. The love and comradery were insurmountable. The entire environment was quite likely the most positive and loving environment that I have ever experienced.
There is indeed, a pragmatic reason for an aspiring singer-songwriter to attend this gathering. There are all kinds of insider tips being shared as well as opportunities to make valuable contacts, but there are spiritual experiences to be had as well. This is an unforgettable opportunity to find oneself in the realm of music and folk musicians should consider attending with the greatest expectations.
The HMR Baker’s Dozen
Every year after SWRFA the HMR team picks their top thirteen acts from all of the amazing talent that we had the good fortune to have seen. This year the event was attended by Eddie Ferranti, James Klassen and myself. We put our heads together and though some of the choices were tough, we came up with this list.
The Heather Pierson Acoustic Trio- Heather’s solid, but beautiful vocals and instrumentals, backed up by brilliant multi-instrumentalist, Davy Sturtevant, along with steady Shawn Nadeau on double bass make one entertaining group. Their diverse offerings cover the gamut of country, bluegrass, folk and Dixieland.
Sweet Shine and Honey- San Antonio’s musical Laven family’s prodigy, Rachel Laven leads this band with her decidedly country voice and smoking hot lyrics. The rest of the band, Steven Sellars (guitars, banjo, and mandolin), Addison Freeman (fiddle) and Sam Snavely (bass) round out this rocking bluegrass bunch.
Warren Hood- Champ’s own prodigy, one of the busiest musicians in Austin made his SWRFA debut on Saturday night’s Official Showcase and with his sweet voice and amazing fiddle work, left no doubt as to why he is one of the busiest musicians in Austin.
Grifters and Shills- John and Rebecca Stolls have a marriage of country/bluegrass (Rebecca) and rock (John) that just eschews Americana. Rebecca’s sweet voice and John’s high energy and string instrumentals add up to huge entertainment.
Pushing Chain- Boyd Blomberg on lead vocals and guitar along with Adam Moe on fiddle and backing vocals are Pushing Chain all the way down from Minnesota. Together they played high energy folk and acoustic honky-tonk in a fashion that would have been right in line with the set of Deadwood.
Hope Dunbar- hailing from Utica, Nebraska, Hope sings loud and proud about real human issues and real light hearted fun. She dispels any rumor that intelligence and creativity are unique to large urban centers.
Ordinary Elephant- Crystal Hariu on vocals and guitar and Peter Damore on banjo take bluegrass to the folk world. If you can’t keep up with the fast paced traditional bluegrass without being left behind, you would likely be able to listen to the meaningful lyrics and gentler tempo of Ordinary Elephant all day.
Mark Abrahams- Talk about a sleeper! His delivery is quiet and pensive, but the songs that Mark writes take up a strong position someplace between Malcom Holcombe, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt. So very observant, so very real.
The Great Trumpet- Chris Shotiff, Sarah Haug and Andrew Smythe combine to form an Americana band with rhythm. Songs inspired by Sarah’s mother along with completely original tunes played on acoustic guitar and accompanied by washboard and beat box achieve a unique and compelling sound.
Libby Koch- This fine lady belts out original songs in a country blues style that raises images of pioneer women blazing trails through the wilderness with families in tow. She is an amazing songwriter and performer.
Terry Klein- This guy deserves recognition if for no other reason than that he is getting country music’s toes out of the water and butt out of the sand. He writes about real life issues like the grief of miscarriage, memories of an outspoken grandmother, and clinical depression.
The Flying A’s- Hilary and Stuart Adamson are another marriage of styles that equate to great Folk/ Americana music. Stuart’s guitar work and Hilary’s undoubtable energy and exuberance are legendary at SWRFA.
Several of the other amazing acts the HMR team found worthy of an honorable mention were Langham and Gill for their creativity and steadfast traditional folk stylings, George Ensle for resurrecting the cosmic cowboy spirit, Eric Gerber for his country blues and down home lyrics, Christina Cavazos for writing songs with and old soul well beyond her 17 years, Mia Rose Lynne for opening her heart to the crowd, and Claudia Gibson for her beautiful voice and thoughtful lyrics.
While HMR is passing out kudos, let’s not forget Dalis Allen, Butch Morgan, Charlie Stewart, John Whipple and all of the SWRFA staff that made this event possible. This wasn’t a competition. It was an exhibition of wonderful talent and there were no losers here. Thank you Dalis and company for creating the environment where this could be.