Singer-songwriters like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe Ely are merely the tip of a giant iceberg of Texas talent that rarely ventures this far east. For 15 years the Kerrville Folk Festival in West Texas has nurtured and showcased this talent, and this year 18 regular performers from the festival have gone on tour. They played a free dinnertime concert as part of the Kennedy Center's open house yesterday and introduced Washington to some superb songwriters and musicians.
The biggest revelation was Lubbock's Butch Hancock, who has often written for Ely. Making his first trip to Washington since he was 11 years old, Hancock displayed his graceful melodic side with his cowboy's lament "Fools Fall in Love." He displayed his sharp verbal craft on a sprawling epic about American dreams -- both found and lost. Wearing a string tie and alligator boots, Hancock followed up each well-turned insight with another in his unpolished Dylanesque twang.
South Texas' Guy Clark, who has often written for Walker, is no stranger to Washington, but the big, cragged-faced singer unveiled two sterling new tunes. "I Love the Way It Feels" was an authentic-sounding monologue explaining why a truck driver pursues his difficult profession. Even better was "Grandfather's Immigrant Eyes," a song of knowing, measured patriotism about Clark's granddad, who made a better life here but never forgot his mistreatment at Ellis Island.
Steven Fromholz charmed his way through the cowboy standard "I'd Have to Be Crazy," which he wrote for Nelson. Then the Texas veteran with the blond walrus mustache delivered his much-admired "Texas Trilogy," a telling slice of life from his mother's home town. Another original act from the first Kerrville Folk Fest in 1971 was Bill & Bonnie Hearne, who lent a rousing country-gospel flavor to three folk and honky-tonk tunes. Bill, a nearsighted guitarist, and his wife Bonnie, a blind pianist, enjoyed an enviable rapport.
Before the Kerrville show, an afternoon set showcased a few more Texas singer-songwriters. Lloyd Lovett, whose first album is to be released on MCA this year, was the real find. Playing guitar with a cellist and percussionist, Lovett was enchantingly funny on a song about combining his childhood dreams of becoming a sailor and a cowboy. On other songs, he ruminated on romance, memories and marriage like a Lone Star Tom Waits. Lovett's melodies were strong, his observations sharp and his voice most expressive. Robert Earl Keen Jr. worked in the same vein almost as successfully.
Another revelation was the house band, which introduced some hot pickers to Washington. The tall, thin Paul Glasse was equally adept at snaking blues lines and delicate ballad arpeggios on electric mandolin. Baby-faced Erik Hokannen sneaked inventive passing notes into the phrases that most fiddlers play. The band's guitarist, David Halley, filled in for the ailing Ray Wylie Hubbard with a lively set of acoustic rockabilly originals. Representing the Mexican influence in Texas was Santiago Jiminez Jr., who led his San Antonio trio through a buoyant set of norten o dance tunes.
Less impressive were two original Kerrville acts. Allen Damron mixed shaggy-dog jokes and Spanish songs without much presence or focus. Bobby Bridger oversang his own bland, feel-good "new age" songs. Three veteran folkies -- Carolyn Hester, Bob Gibson and Steve Gillette -- joined in, but their Kingston Trio-type songs had little in common with the evening's distinctive Texas flavor. Gibson and Gillette sing at the Birchmere Wednesday.