It's been my fortune to know truly great men and hear the music of the spheres." That's a selection from the last words of Jim Dickinson as quoted by his son Luther in the song "Ain't No Grave." It was also my first impression of the 24th Annual Folk Alliance International Conference, and I couldn't imagine a more perfect benediction as Jimmy Crosthwait scratched a spare rhythm on his washboard. Luther, in unadorned tribute to his father, played a lean country blues and moaned into the microphone: "If I had my way he'd be here today to sit down at the piano and play."
After a fantastic six-year run, FAI is leaving Memphis. It's off to Canada for the 2013 conference then on to a new home base in Kansas City. It's an estimated $2.5 million annual loss for Memphis. But the beat goes on.
Personal conference favorites from last weekend's Memphis finale:
• The Electric Guitar Summit: A jam session with Bill Kirchen (Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen), Chris Scruggs (BR5-49), Colin Linden (T Bone Burnett), Phil Hurley (Gigolo Aunts), and Mark Rubin (Atomic Duo). Highlights included Kirchen's high-octane run-through of "Truck Driving Man" and Scruggs' soulful organ-like steel licks on an even higher octane cover of Fats Domino's "My Girl Josephine," which was also initiated by Kirchen.
• Memphis' Side Street Steppers rang bells, blew kazoos, stomped feet, and performed a lively jug-band rendition of "Elevator Papa and Switchboard Mama," the risqué talker originally recorded by Butter Beans & Susie. The vaudeville-inspired ensemble was the conference's only band to combine Celtic strings, Appalachian foot percussion, and belly dancing. Good show.
• Dale Watson's sound was forged in Texas honky-tonks, but his latest release, The Sun Sessions, is all about Memphis. Watson, a perfect hybrid of Merle Haggard and Dean Martin (with Conway Twitty's gravity-defying pompadour on top) liked recording at Sun and stopped in to record another 13 songs while he was in town for this year's conference. Highlight: "Sorry About the Holes in the Wall" is a black-comic gem about divorce and suicide in the spirit of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.
• Panorama Jazz Band: Best of show in my opinion. With horns and strings and sticks and accordions and no damn electricity, the Panorama Jazz Band bring Dixieland and R&B to bear on traditional Eastern European folk. Thrilling, haunting, hot.
• Atomic Duo: Some Flatt, a little Scruggs, and a whole lot of Gil Scott-Heron. Just when you're comfortable thinking these guys are a slightly irreverent novelty, Silas Lowe and Mark Rubin drop the Smothers Brothers routine and floor you with a song like "Texas City" and stunt picking as reckless as a game of chicken.
• Deering & Down: The Memphis duo is a Folk Alliance favorite. She's got a voice like Loretta Lynn swallowed Rod Stewart. He plays guitar like nobody you've ever heard. Great in a bar. Better in a hotel room. How's that for a pull quote?
• Occupy Folk Alliance: Folk musicians and protest go together like acoustic peanut butter and angry jelly. Naturally, some of the more politically active musicians would want to put on a show for Occupy Memphis campers. Highlight: He wears a white jumpsuit and he's wrapped in the flag. He's both the King and the Boss. He's Elvis Jewstein. You really probably had to be there.
• Sweetness: The Sweetness formed when two Texans and two Canadians met at last year's FAI, jammed, and made instant fans. Somebody responded to a song by calling out, "Sweetness!" True story. I was there. A fan-funded European tour followed. Pretty people. Powerful voices. Great songs.
• Melanie didn't play "Brand New Key," but she did make fun of it a little. And she had the quote of the conference: "Let's face it, this is an audition. And it's a little weird to be auditioning for a part you've already got." She was funny, open, warm and weird, and "Look What They've Done to My Song" never sounded better.
• Sam Baker is one of the best storytellers on the road. Nothing's sacred. And everything is. Hard. Hilarious.
• Ennis: Family harmonies and songs that connect generations. All the way from St. John, Newfoundland.
• The Milk Carton Kids: Simon and Garfunkel meets Dmitri Martin. Breathy harmonies and quirky, deliberately literate songs about places they've been and dogs they've buried. It's easy to see why this likable duo was a conference buzz band. Expect good things.