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Hear & Obey

A selective listening diary from FAI.



7:30 p.m.: I arrive at the Marriott and bump into Memphis filmmaker Nicki Newburger, who's taping showcases for the Live from Memphis website. "Isn't this what Memphis should always look like?" she asks, standing near the top of an escalator and looking down into the lobby, where hundreds of newly arrived musicians mill about, carrying their instrument cases.

8:45 p.m.: Ohio's Over the Rhine may be headlining, but Wednesday night is still about Memphis artists. Nancy Apple, while hosting a "picking party" in the Marriott's Trolley Stop lounge, describes herself as a musical ambassador and then silences a rowdy crowd with a lovely rendition of her song, "Moon Over Memphis."

8:50 p.m.: Memphis transplant Dan Montgomery re-imagines schoolhouse rock by singing about some important things happening in his hometown, Philadelphia. Montgomery, who has participated in Folk Alliance conferences since 2007, describes the conference as "the speed dating of showcasing."

"People watch for two or three songs at a time, jot little things down, and then run down the hall, because Rodney Crowell is playing," he says. Montgomery says that kind of casual sampling used to bother him, but he's gotten used to it. "I can say that the best-paying gigs I've gotten have been from people who booked me after seeing me at Folk Alliance," he says. "In my experience, it's always been well worth it."

9:10 p.m.: The Bo-Keys play a famous movie theme song for a happy audience. Skip Pitts, who played guitar on the original recording, jokingly tells the audience that Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for the song, but the rest of the band "got the shaft."

9:40 p.m.: In spite of some technical difficulties, Amy LaVere wows the crowd with groove-laden songs about longing and loving.

10:15 p.m.: Over the Rhine's Karen Bergquist talks about recording at Sun Studio, then sings "Undamned," a gorgeous ballad referencing the old gospel song "Just As I Am."

Midnight: I end the night listening to the eclectic Memphis duo Deering & Down, whose narrative songs play out like gritty Denis Johnson short stories.

Thursday, February 17th

11:40 a.m.: Keynote speaker David Bromberg leads a packed auditorium through a few verses of "Wooly Bully," the classic novelty rocker by Memphis' Sam the Sham.

12:20 p.m.: Music journalist Dave Marsh interviews Elektra records founder Jac Holzman, who says he pulled his car over to the side of the road and cried the first time he heard one of his label's songs being played on AM radio. The song was "My Little Red Book" by Memphis rocker Arthur Lee and his band Love.

7 p.m.: Gary Morris is a countrypolitan vocalist who first put the song "Wind Beneath My Wings" on the charts in 1983, then left the recording industry to take over the role of Jean Valjean in the Broadway production of Les Miserables. He plays to a half-empty room. Morris is friendly, sharing personal stories and singing songs that showed off his vocal and emotional range.

7:15 p.m.: Bluegrass meets girl power in Harpeth Rising. The Nashville-based band sings about life on the road — camping in a tent on the Las Vegas Strip, to be more specific.

7:30 p.m.: Canada's fantastic Magnificent Sevens fuses bluegrass and rockabilly in what has to be one of the conference's most high-energy shows.

8 p.m.: The cameras won't stop clicking. Apparently, photographers like taking pictures of Memphis singer/songwriter Valerie June. Sadly, the clicking doesn't stop, even when she strums her ukulele banjo and sings "Love Me Tenderly," an achingly beautiful song dedicated to Memphis ukulele player Little Laura Dukes and the Memphis Jug Band.

8:30 p.m.: Webb Wilder, the clown prince of "swampadelic" music, reminds listeners that "one taste of the bait is worth the pain of the hook."

8:50 p.m.: The Chapin Sisters, nieces of "Cats in the Cradle" songwriter Harry Chapin, do their uncle proud with smart songs and tight sibling harmonies.

9:20 p.m.: The four sisters comprising SHEL (ages 17 to 23) may look like rejects from Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" video, but don't let the top hats fool you. The family act's impressive musicianship, harmonies, and songwriting make them more like a post-Goth version of the Cowsills.

10 p.m.: Abigail Washburn is a virtuoso banjo player who specializes in being adorable, whether she's clogging her way through a gospel tune or attempting a Chinese folk song.

11 p.m.: Fresh off their Grammy win for best traditional folk album, the Carolina Chocolate Drops describe the Folk Alliance Conference as a "launching pad" for their career.

Friday, February 18th

5 p.m.: A group of sacred steel players conduct a workshop for students at the Stax Academy that ends in a wild improvisational gospel jam with the students.

9 p.m.: Texas songwriter Sam Baker sings about a Mexican Mennonite who finds something resembling love in a sketchy Texas bar.

9:30 p.m.: North Dakota-born singer Ana Egge quotes from a bumper sticker: "If you're in a folk song, don't go near the river."

9:35 p.m.: Western swing vocalist Carolyn Martin croons swinging songs about food (with the aid of Memphian Eric Lewis).

12:30 a.m.: Atomic Duo plays some ragtime and promotes their Saturday gig.

1 a.m.: Ballads, jigs, reels: If it's Irish, the Nuala Kennedy Trio does it beautifully.

1:30 a.m.: Ron Sexsmith covers Elvis Costello's "Everyday I Write the Book."


Saturday, February 19th

1:30 p.m.: Atomic Duo members Silas Lowe and Mark Rubin lead a discussion about protest music and why it seems to be missing from today's discourse. Hint: It may have something to do with the fragmenting of traditional production and distribution systems.

3:30 p.m.: I visit with Boo Mitchell at Royal Studios. Mitchell is hosting a listening party for new recordings by Folk Alliance regulars Deering & Down. Mitchell, who will also record several of the Folk Alliance's sacred steel players, describes the conference as the music industry's "best-kept secret."

6:45 p.m.: Elliot, Rose, and da Costa: cuteness, cleverness, and talent. This trio makes slyly political songs that are melody forward.

7:30 p.m.: Dehlia Low shows off one of the most beautiful voices (and hottest bands) in traditional country music.

7:40 p.m.: Memphis' own Brandon O'Bailey introduces his audience to the concept of harp-boxing. (Beat-boxing and playing harmonica at the same time.)

8 p.m.: I have to see Atomic Duo again to finally hear some of their original left-wing protest songs.

10:50 p.m.: Chloe Charles brings some R&B to the table.

11:30 p.m.: When the Brooklyn-based Dixieland band Roosevelt Dime are scolded for playing too loud, they respond with a soft, gorgeous sing-along version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me."

Midnight: In the spirit of a midnight ramble, Blind Boy Paxton, a songster from Brooklyn, recites an X-rated version of the standard "Stack O'Lee."

12:30 a.m.: It was time to go home.

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