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Camping in Concert

At this outdoor folk-music festival in rural Texas, you're not a "Kerrvivor" unless you stay till the end

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So is a Chinese-American singer and songwriter whose work sometimes draws on that heritage but also ranges from blues to R&B to romantic ballads. He has acquired a large following at the festival — a process that began long before Saturday night's concert. "This place is all about the campfires," he told me. "That's where you really lay it down," chimed in his friend, singer Stephanie Corby.

With that idea in mind, I headed off into the night on Sunday, with Larry as my guide, going from campfire to campfire. Or gathering to gathering, to be more accurate, for the circles were for the most part lit by kerosene lamps. And they were everywhere. "Hey, will you look at that," Larry said gleefully as we passed a crossroad by the latrines, where a cluster of people stood around the glow of a streetlight. "It's a bleeping jam in the fork in the road."

I was like a kid in a candy store, entranced by all the possibilities and unable to commit to any one choice. At some point, Larry let me go off on my own, and I wandered from campfire to circus tent to tarp, wherever I heard music, staying here for five minutes to hear a woman sing out against corporate greed, and there to hear a folk-circuit elder masterfully pick a tune and then respectfully turn to a young kid who offered a heartfelt, albeit naive, new ballad.

As the night wore on, I tried desperately to find Camp Cuisine and Camp Nashville, the two places that I'd heard attracted the most talented musicians. I was so eager to have a genuine "campfire experience" that I didn't actually experience much at all. I just kept wandering from one thing to another until finally, exhausted, I crawled into my sleeping bag. And then morning came, with Larry's clanking mug.

Monday's schedule was full—from a four-hour blues show, to the daily song-sharing under the Ballad Tree — capped off in the evening by a phenomenal lineup at the Main Stage. Like the night before, and the night before that, the theater area filled up with some 4,500 Kerrverts and other visitors for a six-hour, seven-act concert. At the end, Kerrville stalwart Peter Yarrow took the stage for his annual birthday sing-along. As his set went on, Yarrow kept inviting more and more younger musicians to join him — including Kevin So — until the stage seemed almost as crowded as the audience. In his memoir, Music From The Heart, founder Rod Kennedy recalls an earlier festival: "The evening finale featured Peter Yarrow, reinforcing the togetherness he had helped to build from the beginning.... The audience joined in singing with damp eyes ...almost not believing that this feeling of belonging together could move them so much."

All right, so it's sappy. OK, so I'm a sucker. But when the musicians and kids on that jam-packed stage started swaying and singing "Puff the Magic Dragon," it did my poor heart in.

After the concert, I was all set to hit the campfire circuit once more. But, I learned, that night — the end of the festival's five-day opening rush — was listed on the calendar (the "Kerr-lendar") as the "First Night of Sleep." After Yarrow's set, there was some faint strumming to be heard from far-flung corners of the ranch, but for the most part, by 2 a.m. or so, people had settled in.

Disappointed, I'd begun walking back to my tent when I suddenly heard the familiar voice of Ellis Paul and, sure enough, there he was, surrounded by a few stragglers at the corner Larry had dubbed the "jam in the fork in the road." Among them was Stephanie Corby, Kevin So's friend, singing harmony. Eventually Paul invited a few of us back to his camp, where he promised Stephanie he would do one more number.

So, finally, I got to see Camp Nashville. The night before, this Holy Grail of the campfire scene had doubtless been alive with song, crowded with musicians waiting their turn. Now it was quiet, with only the camp's residents lounging around before heading into their tents.

And then, lit by the moon, before a silhouette backdrop of the Texas hills, Corby joined Paul for one more song—titled, appropriately enough, "Last Call." Their voices floated up through the night sky, clear and sweet and pure. And as I sat there listening — sleep-deprived and beaming — I realized that the Holy Grail had indeed been found. I was now a Kerrvert. There would be no turning back.

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