Greetings from Memphis, TN. It’s February 21st and the sun has just set. The sky is clearing after a day of light rain and an orange glow is settling over the Mississippi River to the west, far below this 19th floor Marriot Hotel balcony. It’s 37 degrees and day two for the Hawks here at the massive Folk Alliance national conference. We are I See Hawks In L.A., LLC. We are executives of Western Seeds Records. We are here to play music and make contacts. The first we can do. The second is a tall order for Rob Waller and Paul L. Rob is a moody semi-recluse and Paul L is a semi-kempt hippie who loathes any self promoting tendencies in his elitist soul. Paul M is a balanced and well adjusted human, but there’s only so much one man can do. And yet we breathe deep the Marriot beige recycled air. Paul L is wolfing down a hardened slice of buffet pizza that is screaming a warning. We are building a career here.
Yesterday: we woke well before dawn in L.A., argued our baggage and guitars onto the dismal Delta flight and made our way across the country by uneventful jet plane. Mild turbulence, no food, free water. Safe landing. Then it was down to the Marriott, and five showcases between 3 PM and 2 AM. Quite a day.
Good friend and director of 120 volunteers at the Folk Alliance extravaganza, Laura Barnaby has greased the wheels here for the Hawks. On arrival, she guides us through registration, provides us with a comfy hang in an obscure corporate meeting room, beer, coffee and exotic varieties of Red Bull, and attends each of our shows. She shows us the ropes and we get our bearings. There are hundreds of guitar cases and guitarists, side men and women, stand up bassists, and thoughtful song writers, eager young folk singers belting out American Idolized vocals, dazzling soloes on fiddles and guitars at every escalator and echoing high ceilinged foyer. Posters and flyers and free CDs cover every table and wall. We wander packed hallways, rubbing shoulders with legends of folk and country, past cases of the ubiquitous Red Bull and the kids to drink them. There’s a new wave of young folkers entering the scene and that’s exciting. There’s Japanese folk singers, Canadian accordionists, Texas swing bands, veteran bluesmen, zydeco queens. It’s quite a scene. We are bedazzled.
But with each showcase set we’re a little more connected to the rhythms of the house. We play a small showcase room to a small but responsive crowd. In the front row watching us stolidly is Guy Carawan, a legend of 60’s folk. Damn. We’re acoustic, no mics, so our vocals are at their best blend. Everything is all right. We exit the small room and resume our wander, lugging our cases through the sea of aspirants. It’s an erratic and jumpy rhythm but we’re catching the groove. The 17th, 18th, and 19th Marriot floors are literally hundreds of rooms filled with folk music, some too loud with amplification, some delicate flowers on the verge of being crushed by the sonic onslaught. We return often to the balconies to breathe outside air. The river far below is swollen with winter rains, snows, and ices. It has a powerful gravitational pull, we’re never out of its reach. Rob W spent his childhood near the river and feels at home back in its watershed.
But back to the folk scene. James Burton, Albert Lee, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rodney Crowell, Charlie Louvin, Roger McGuinn. There’s some real baddasses hanging around the lobby. We check our guitars and start to mingle. How is this done? Well, not very well. We approach no famous or powerful people with our CDs. We meet our peers, and lots of people come up to us, so our group agoraphobia is blissfully buried. We swim the sea of folk humanity. We hear very bad songs, well played and sung. A few good songs. Rodney Crowell plays in a conference room, singing Emmy Lou Harris vintage tunes, backed up by James Burton and Albert Lee. Our good buddy Dan Montgomery’s new band, with Robert Mache (ex Continental Drifters) on guitar and Andrew Simons on upright bass, is soulful, subtle, and the perfect vehicle for his great new batch of tunes. This is very, very good.
Everyone is gently but relentlessly on the make. Singers and players wander in and out of rooms, check out their peers/competition, ever roving. Interwoven with wide eyed ambition is a wild enthusiasm for playing. People are jamming everywhere, in intensely focused small circles in every corner of the Marriot. Paul L sat in with Julie Christensen and Kenny Edwards, a big treat for him. Our five showcases went well. Lisa Haley sat in with us on mesmerizing fiddle, bless her heart. Our last showcase was at 2 a.m. We were fried. We staggered out of the Marriot, drove east through Memphis to Rob’s parents. We slept.
We began today, Day 2, in the afternoon at WEVL radio, in funky old downtown Memphis, down the street from a former whorehouse that serviced the railroad trade. Program director Brian Craig greets us, DJ Ron is elegant and genteel, and we do a live acoustic performance that sounds good. There are five or ten truly great radio stations left in America, and this is inarguably one of them. Check out their show schedule and be amazed. We get coffee at a very hip café across the street and Brian regales with his encyclopedic knowledge of early radio and the arcane ways of the FCC. Then it’s back to the Marriot, that bracing stale convention air, and more showcases. Our sleep deprivation has made us mellow, and we do some very good relaxed showcases, no tune repeats. We hung with the gracious Amilia K Spicer in her showcase room, with whiskey and coolness abounding. We saw Randy Weeks and Tony Gilkyson’s high altitude set, hands down the best music we witnessed. Be proud, L.A. Americana. You are second to none. L.A. pals Stephanie Bettman and Luke Halpin sat in with us on our last showcase. What a treat. They sounded so good, and kicked us into high gear. Dan Navarro caught and dug our new Cajun style love song, another big lift, as we have terminal anxiety and need for affirmation when we debut a song. We wandered the halls, got separated, got delirious, many things happened. We did our final stagger out of the Marriot at 3:30 in the morning. Down the dark and somewhat shabby highway to chez Waller.
The collapse of the air travel infrastructure worked in our favor the next day, as we bade farewell to Memphis. Understaffed, Delta Airlines had no one at the gate to keep Tony G, us Hawks, and several other bleary eyed folkies from walking on the plane with our guitars. We took up much of the overhead space, and civilians with their rolling baggage trying to avoid the $15 baggage fee had nowhere to stash. It was a fleeting grim payback for years of airline abuse of guitars and guitarists. We watched stonefaced as the civilians and flight attendants huffed and puffed, and finally retreated, the greedy luggage stuffed below where our guitars normally suffer. Home, you massive gravity defying beast. We have bested you this time.