KERRVILLE, TEX. -- From points north and east, the people who call themselves "folkies" wend all manner of vehicles along serpentine hill-country roads toward the 19th annual Kerrville Folk Festival, passing through Johnson City, hometown of President Lyndon B. Johnson, then Fredericksburg, birthplace of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of U.S. Pacific naval forces during World War II.
The estimated 10,000 folk-music fans who will have passed through Kerrville before the 18-day festival ends Sunday are a less-driven breed than the hill country's favorite sons.
"Basically, I'm just hanging out, enjoying myself," Dallas resident Chuck Wallace, 44, said. "I'm gonna drink a lot of beer, lean back and listen to some great music."
One of the country's largest and most prominent folk-music gatherings, the festival takes place on Quiet Valley Ranch near Kerrville, a town of about 15,000 people 96 miles west of Austin. The event clearly has a New Age patina. Its brochure lists these "actual audience responses" from the 1987 festival: "A spiritual renewal," "A loving time away from the city rat race" and "Sharing in a communal environment."
For people interested more in good music than in becoming a whole person, more than 70 diverse acts from Texas and the nation were booked for the event, from contemporary country singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen Jr. to Austin's eclectic rock ensemble, the seven-member Poi Dog Pondering.
In addition to the main stage, the ranch includes a campground that can accommodate 1,500 hard-core folkies who understand the real reason for coming to Kerrville: the post-performance campfires. The numerous fires, accessible only to those who pay extra to pitch their tents, burn from midnight until about 4 a.m., sometimes dawn. It makes no difference whether the performer is professional or amateur. Anyone who can strum a guitar and carry a tune is welcome before these informal campfire groups averaging between 40 and 50 people.
Around one such campfire, crossover folk sensation Michelle Shocked was discovered. In 1986, when Shocked was a Kerrville ticket-taker, a British visitor recorded her performance on his personal tape player. The recording was released abroad as The Campfire Tapes, which reached No. 1 on British pop charts despite the low-quality recording, which included crickets in the background. On the strength of The Campfire Tapes, Shocked eventually landed a major-label recording deal.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, local musical legends and perennial Kerrville performers, have been buddies since high school in Lubbock. They exemplify the campfire spirit of performing for love of music and companionship rather than adulation of the crowd.
The pair first came to prominence as members of the Flatlanders, a West Texas folk group formed in the early 1970s with fellow Lubbock native Joe Ely. Although the Flatlanders play only occasional reunion gigs now, the three members went on to successful solo careers, becoming critical and popular favorites in Texas and abroad. Recent tours have taken Gilmore and Hancock to Australia and Europe.
Although Gilmore was the headlining act here one day recently, he was joined on stage before about 1,500 people by Hancock, Australian didjeridoo master Paul Taylor and a British accordian player introduced only as Slim. Less than an hour later, the quartet was playing around a campfire for an audience of 50. In the intimate setting, personalities that had been swallowed by the big stage and lights began to emerge.
"This is a love song. I don't think it needs any other introduction," said Denver songwriter Jon Ims, who performed here every year from 1979 to 1989. Ims, who met Hancock and Gilmore here several years ago, began to sing and, when he finished, Gilmore led the clapping, saying, "Great song, Jon. I really like that one." Ims beamed. Although nationally known country acts such as The Judds and Reba McEntire have cut Ims's songs, a compliment from the legendary Gilmore goes a long way with the Kerrville crowd.
The lanky Gilmore always has a smile on his face and an encouraging word for songwriters. Hancock's reactions are more muted. Hancock countered the unabashed romanticism of Ims's lyrics with his song, "The Dawg of Intermittent Love," a wry description of how a lover's enthusiasm may be punctured when the dog of inconstancy decides to bite.
Before Hancock's commentary on gooey love songs had time to sink in, a tall man hoisting a large stick suddenly appeared before the fire. Taylor, the Australian, was ready to perform a series of strange sounds on his hollow branch, an aboriginal instrument called the didjeridoo.
Without introduction, the 6-foot-4 Taylor knelt and placed the end of the 5-foot didjeridoo on a rock near the flames. He took several deep breaths and began to blow through the instrument, creating first an oohfff! and then an oohmm! Spectators gasped. Taylor flicked his tongue as he blew, and the sound changed to an undulating ayayayaya. For his finale, he took several more deep breaths and brought forth rapid-fire bursts that sounded like a baby spitting out its dinner. The applause was tremendous.
The clapping roused Slim, who had fallen asleep in a lawn chair near the fire. Clutching the accordian that seemed to be welded to his chest, Slim, whose sideburns curl across his face to the edge of his mouth, grunted and looked up. But the movement was too much for the flimsy chair, and Slim, whose appearance belies his monicker, suddenly dropped to the ground. As he heaved himself up, a voice cried, "Now that you're standing you might as well play us a song, Slim."
Slim nodded. Pumping the accordian, he burst into a rousing version of his own "Is It Love, or Is It Food Poisoning?"
The fans loved it. It was almost 4 a.m., and no one was giving a thought yet to turning in for the night.