Near the top of the list of dos and don'ts that all music-industry professionals should adhere to should be this: Don't sit on a panel with Memphis producer Jim Dickinson. Unless, of course, you want to blend into the background. Saturday afternoon at the 19th Annual International Folk Alliance Conference, held at the downtown Marriott hotel and Cook Convention Center, Dickinson sat in on a panel called "Meet the Producers."
The panel was moderated by folk artist/producer Wendy Waldman and included renowned producer Joe Boyd (a featured guest at the conference and famous for his work with Brit folkies Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, among others), two well-mannered pros from Nashville, and Dickinson, who arrived late, banging on the side door with Memphis International label owner David Less in tow. Dickinson waddled up to the table, took his seat, and proceeded to do what he always does: dominate and delight without effort.
He spouted music-biz aphorisms ("An engineer makes a recording; a producer makes a record"), took unpredictable turns ("Analog purists are kidding themselves. You're making a CD. It's going to be digitized. I like to digitize it as soon as possible so I'll know how bad it sounds"), and provoked guffaws (asked about producing his sons, Dickinson's heart-warming reply: "It's perfectly hellish").
I started to feel bad for the other panelists, minus Boyd, who emerged as Dickinson's suave, erudite partner in crime. Not long after Waldman talked about her dedication to "pre-production," including, she said, three years of pre-production for an album by ex-New Grass Revival member John Cowan, Dickinson scoffed, gently and without malice: "I don't believe in pre-production. It's like pre-sex. It is or it isn't." Meanwhile, one of the Nashville cats on the panel was talking about how he likes to see the "goal structure" artists have planned for their next five years before he'll work with them and said, in complete monotone, that, for him, it's "all about the passion."
Asked about the importance of a "comfortable" relationship between producer and artist, Dickinson hooted: "I don't care if I can have dinner with them or not. Comfortable? They should have looked Sam Phillips in the face!"
A Sam Phillips acolyte, Dickinson was basically giving the conference attendees in the room a taste of the colorful, contrary flavor of Memphis -- a dynamic that emerged as a happy development as the Folk Alliance held its first conference in Memphis since relocating to the city last year. The conference will return to Memphis for the next three years, at least, before potentially moving to Canada for a year.
The Folk Alliance conference is, in part, a self-contained event that brings a couple thousand musicians and industry types together to showcase their wares, but over the course of the five-day conference, it also emerged as a showcase for the Memphis music community.
Most Memphians attending the event seemed to marvel at it and what it could mean for the city's own scene. Mark McKinney, of MADJACK Records and the folk/bluegrass Tennessee Boltsmokers, was manning a booth in the exhibit hall, prepared after attending the conference last year in Austin at the behest of Folk Alliance director Louis Jay Meyers.
McKinney recounted having a discussion at the MADJACK booth with Canadian duo Twilight Hotel about the prospect of recording in Memphis when Ardent studio manager Jody Stephens happened to stroll buy. McKinney made an introduction, and, moments later, the Canadian duo had booked some studio time.
Hooking up visiting musicians with local studios and other industry resources was something Meyers pressed before the event, and last weekend seemed to be the first step of what could emerge as a major symbiotic relationship.
"Sun was booked every night, I believe," Meyers said after the festival wrapped on Sunday. "We ended up doing a studio tour and took people around. We'll really expand on that for next year. All it'll take next year is one e-mail to artists with numbers and contacts for local producers [to get that relationship going]."
Memphis was well represented in the exhibit hall, with Goner Records, MADJACK, the Blues Foundation, the Recording Academy, WEVL, Soulsville, the Beale Street Merchants Association, and local songwriter Keith Sykes, among others, manning booths. During the day, Shangri-La Projects' Sherman Willmott could be seen ferrying attendees in his Rock 'n' Roll Tours van, while other trips were arranged for attendees to Graceland and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Some attendees even got a special dose of local culture. At the producers' panel, Boyd cited his meeting with Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell at his Royal Studio as a high point of the trip after passing up a chance to go to Sun or Stax. "That's what I want to do," Boyd said about the option of meeting Mitchell. "That's not a museum. It was like meeting the pope or Buddha."
Meanwhile, over at the convention center, plenty of Memphians were making the rounds as performers and attendees. "It's been fabulous," Susan Marshall said of the conference. "But it's going to be even better next year. We'll be prepared for it."
James Manning, who books folk and roots-music acts at Otherlands Coffee Bar in Midtown, was devouring it all, with a cheat-sheet of acts he wanted to see. Manning said he had plans to book many of the festival's acts for subsequent visits to Memphis.
Manning had also teamed with McKinney and others to produce an 18-track showcase CD of local songwriters performing at the conference. Among these was Valerie June, who performed as part of a Memphis showcase Saturday night.
"There's a bunch of awesome folks playing tonight, and they're all tucked away in these rooms," June said before she started playing. "If you're lucky, you'll be in the right place at the right time to hear something good."
And it turned out that June herself was something good that some conference attendees lucked into, with a captivating first song that incorporated elements of the spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" and referenced folk matriarch Maybelle Carter.
There were plenty of Memphians making waves Saturday night: Sid Selvidge playing "The Long Black Veil"; Holly Cole referencing Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine"; Ron Franklin picking through "Lula Walls"; Alvin Youngblood Hart joining Colorado bluesman Otis Taylor for a set called "Recapturing the Banjo."
Hart has apparently joined Taylor and other blues players (Corey Harris, Keb' Mo', Guy Davis, Don Vappie) for an upcoming banjo record. Earlier in the day, Hart shook his head and said: "Man, if I never have to play the banjo again, it'll be too soon." And he extended his cheerfully sour mood to the stage that night, joking about how "somebody broke into my van and left two banjos."
Hart played slide guitar instead, with Taylor and Vappie on banjo, Taylor's daughter on bass, and a young man on some kind of hand-held percussion. Collectively, they worked up a deep, delicate groove that was a highlight of the night.
The Memphis presence also helped expand the notion of "folk" even further. One Saturday-night showcase, organized by the Center for Southern Folklore's Judy Peiser, began with the Millennium Madness Drill Team and Drum Line, whose raucous beats and colorful moves lit up the convention hall.
All of this Memphis activity fit in nicely with an event that would have been over-flowing with music anywhere. In addition to the dozens of official showcases around the convention center and hotel each night and private showcases in hotel rooms, there were impromptu jam sessions, day and night: in hotel lounges, hallways, street corners. Saturday night, four young bearded guys (pictured, page 27) with two acoustic guitars, an upright bass, and mandolin commanded the Marriott's second-floor lounge for much of the night.
As if the conference itself didn't provide colorful enough people-watching, one happy accident of the weekend was that the conference shared hotel and convention-center space with the "World Wide Spirit Association Cheer & Dance Event," which made for the amusing spectacle of 13-year-old girls in cheerleader outfits milling about the folk conference amid bearded aging hippies hauling acoustic guitars.
Saturday's featured concert came from New York sister act the Roches, whose eponymous 1979 debut album is widely considered a modern folk classic. Looking sassy and girly in a sparkly black hat, black miniskirt, and black tights, Suzzy, the youngest of the sisters, said, "This conference is amazing. Everyone you run into is from the same planet as you."
Then, Suzzy and her sisters gave the audience a taste of what life on that planet might be like with a set that was irreverent, pleasingly vulgar, and totally charming, highlighted by a couple of songs from their latest album, Moonswept.
After the Roches' set, I wandered upon a group that seemed to be the Roches' spiritual younger sisters, a Los Angeles four-piece band called Raining Jane, who played funny, friendly folk rock on guitar, acoustic bass, cello, and a big wooden box.
At one point, the drummer announced they were going to play "folk gone freaky," and the band leapt into a rendition of Missy Elliott's ribald hip-hop hit "Work It." What made it work was that the band didn't seem overly pleased with themselves for doing a folk version of hip-hop. They were playing Missy Elliott because they really like Missy Elliott and, well, why wouldn't they? Toward the end of the song, in an oh-so-happy coincidence, some of the kids from the Millennium Madness group started singing along at probably the only song they heard all week at the conference that they actually knew.
Other highlights of the night included the aforementioned Twilight Hotel with their blend of accordion and spaghetti-western guitars, and Uncle Monk, a bluegrass duo led by Tommy Ramone on mandolin.
Recovering Monday morning from his first Memphis-held conference, Meyers was pleased at the results and even happier that a permanent home will give him a chance to make improvements.
"It was beyond my expectations in about 90 percent [of the conference] and under my expectations in 10 percent," Meyers says. "We'll have the ability to fix [any problems] next year. Most conference veterans told us it was the best one they've been to."