I had just fallen into a deep slumber when my friend Larry clanked a metal coffee mug against the corner of a nearby trailer. "Rise and shine, sleepyhead," he chirped to me in his resonant Texas twang. I thought about burrowing deeper into my sleeping bag. I fantasized about clanking that mug upside Larry's head. Then I gave in and, on only a few hours' rest, crawled out of my tent into a brand-new day of song.
Shielding my eyes from the glaring Texas sun, I wondered how the regulars here survived night after night of playing music round the campfires. All that kept me from crawling back into my tent was the smell of coffee brewing at the makeshift country store across the road, the faint strumming from a few musicians already gathering at the picnic tables there and the fear that Larry might clank his mug once more. Instead, he brought me a cup of joe.
This was morning at the annual Kerrville Folk Festival, an 18-day celebration in the rolling hill country of Texas. While by no means the largest event of its kind or the best known, Kerrville runs the longest and, among the musicians who play there, is the most beloved. On three outdoor stages, it showcases the talents of more than 75 featured performers and groups, offering as many as four concerts a day. In the 28 years since it was founded by former race-car driver and radio host Rod Kennedy, it has grown from a three-day affair to a marathon that draws tens of thousands of fans from all over the country.
Set on a 50-acre ranch nine miles from the town of Kerrville, a little more than an hour's drive northwest of San Antonio, the festival has become a coveted venue for established stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. But it also provides a temporary village for a tightly knit community of more than 3,000 devotees who camp out and make music — or just listen — pretty much round the clock. For the aspiring musicians among them, it offers a chance to schmooze and jam with some of the country's best.
About 550 of those making camp here are volunteer staff members, working to earn their meals and tickets. There are cooks and crafts vendors, stage crews and latrine cleaners. There's Happy Jack, the camp embroiderer, and Cookie, who'll sharpen your knives. There's even a squad of massage therapists who offer daily rubdowns to tired personnel. And then there's Larry, who works security with his mom, Lenore, stepdad, Vern, and their camp neighbor, a former clown named Sticky Paul.
Vern, a baker and talented woodworker, and Lenore, a philosophy professor, met at Kerrville and were married here under the Ballad Tree up on Chapel Hill. An abbreviated version of their joint moniker, LeVern, is displayed on the license plates of their motor home, which occupied the dusty patch of ground where I stood drinking my coffee. "This here," Vern told me proudly, referring to his vehicle and several other trailers and tents clustered nearby, "is Camp Peace of Mind." Scattered across the landscape were hundreds of similar "camps" with all sorts of shelters, from three-walled "cabins" to the full-sized tepees that go up each year down in the meadow.
A sprightly guy with a full white beard and rainbow-colored beret, Vern seemed to have endless reserves of energy. Though he really needed to run off somewhere, he took the time to explain Kerrville's lexicon to me, from "Kerrgins" (first-timers) to "Kerrverts" (converts to the musical and spiritual high that is Kerrville) to "Kerrvivors" (anyone who stays the whole three weeks, as he and Lenore do). Never, I noted — fighting off a sleepy yawn — did he mention "Kerrfew."
I would be there only a few nights — a lengthy stay at most music festivals, perhaps, but an unusually brief one for Kerrville. I had always loved folk music — from political rally-cries, like those of Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan, to romantic ballads; from country-blues to "world beat" — but I'd never become a regular on the folk circuit. I'd never hung out. But this time, I resolved to do just that.
I'd arrived on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of the festival, in time to see some of my favorites play at the evening Main Stage concert. The Four Bitchin' Babes were on the program, as was Ellis Paul, an artist I had discovered four years earlier, during my only other visit to Kerrville. A Boston-based musician who writes songs that, says Mike Joyce of the Washington Post, "draw you in just as surely as a whispered secret," Paul had been on the Main Stage for the first time that year. The year before, in 1994, he'd won the Kerrville New Folk competition, an event that helped launch the careers of such popular performers as Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. At each festival, the New Folk competition features singer-songwriters from across the country who may have local followings but are not yet nationally known.
This time around, I encountered Kevin So, another artist who'd gone from New Folk to Main Stage performer — though, unlike Paul, he hadn't won the award. He had come to Kerrville for the first time in 1996, "with absolutely no dough," and worked selling festival merchandise. After he was invited to be in the New Folk competition the following year, many of the volunteer staff showed up to root for him. Just two years later, he was featured on the Main Stage on Saturday night of the festival's opening weekend. He was still revved from his crowd-pleasing performance when we spoke backstage.