The TV crew is here, so Louis Meyers puts on a smile.
He's a little busy for this latest last-minute interview. It's just a week before the 26th Annual Folk Alliance International Conference and Winter Music Camp gets under way, and Meyers, FAI's executive director, is shoring up the details at FAI headquarters.
Headquarters is the Folk Store, at 509 Delaware — a small River Market music shop whose bright-green walls are lined with dozens of stringed instruments: guitars, banjos, the odd ukulele or dobro. Near the door, show posters and fliers for music lessons compete for space on a community billboard. Meyers leans against a file cabinet and waits for the camera operator to set up.
Meyers, one of South by Southwest's four founders, has been the FAI conference director since July 2005. This year's event marks his final term with the organization. After that, Meyers says, he's retiring. It'll be up to the next FAI executive director, whose appointment will come this summer, to program the four years left on Kansas City's contract. The organization is putting on this and future conferences downtown, at Crown Center.
This year, that means 300 artists booked for showcase performances over four nights, February 19–22. Each subscribes to some form of folk music, but the subgenres are as varied as spices in a cabinet: Grammy nominee and banjo prodigy Sarah Jarosz plays a set Thursday night at the same time that New York's Gangstagrass, in another room, mashes up bluegrass and hip-hop. The next evening, two stages go to Canadian and European imports.
But the point is neither diversity for its own sake nor sheer talent bulk. For Meyers, the conference — and a definition of modern folk — is simpler.
"Folk music is music that can be shared," he says. "Folk music has always been about sharing — songs that people can play together, songs that people can sing together. What I love about folk music is that it always represents the present. It has a historical value — it comes out of tradition — but people sing about their world right now, good or bad. Folk music has always been that way. That's why it's so different to everybody."
Among those representing the present locally are the five up-and-coming acts we're spotlighting here: the local faces of contemporary folk. Each is excited to play the conference. Beyond that, the commonalities and contrasts aren't necessarily what you'd expect. Each does it his or her way. "We need people who are going to move the music forward," Meyers says. These artists are doing just that.
KATY GUILLEN AND THE GIRLS
Katy Guillen never really meant to start a band. But now, looking back a little, the 28-year-old sees that this is where she was always headed. She grew up surrounded by music, with a musician mother who played records by Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bonnie Raitt. Guillen, in fact, recalls the exact moment her career began.
"I was 12 or 13, and I was just playing around on a guitar in a guitar store, and this lady just came up to me. She told me about a jam that her band hosted at Blayney's [now the Union]. My dad took me, and even though I couldn't get in — they were really strict about the age restriction — I knew I wanted to do it."
With her father as a chaperone, young Guillen began plugging herself into blues jams around the city, at Harling's and the now-closed Grand Emporium. She gradually mastered the guitar, and she built a network of connections with local players.