Ask most Memphians to define folk music, and they'll immediately conjure up images of rural white Americana, the flipside to Mississippi Delta blues. Appalachian fiddlers, hokum guitar pickers, and longhaired, dulcet-toned groups singing about war: That's the folk-music stereotype.
A more realistic picture will come into sharper focus this week when the International Folk Alliance Conference rolls into town.
"We've got everything from John Black from Fishbone and Jason Ringenberg from Jason & the Scorchers to quite a bit of the quasi-rock elite, including Peter Case from the Plimsouls, punk-rock drummer Tommy Ramone, and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket. It's a nice companion to the up-and-coming songwriters, the classic folk artists like Guy Clark and Jesse Winchester, and the bluesmen like Otis Taylor who are also coming in," explains Louis Meyers, the Folk Alliance's executive director.
"Introducing people to all these things is the exciting part of the conference," says Cash Edwards, the Folk Alliance's Austin-based publicist. "A lot of it is mostly American music, but we have singer-songwriters, bluegrass musicians, Cajun bands, blues, jazz, and Mexican conjunto music as well as musicians coming from as far away as Mali."
From February 21st to 25th, folk enthusiasts, industry insiders, and performers will converge on downtown Memphis, with events centered around the Marriott Hotel and the neighboring Cook Convention Center.
The last time the conference was held in Memphis, in 1998, the Folk Alliance was headquartered in Austin. In the summer of 2005, the non-profit organization relocated to a storefront on South Main Street, and, says Meyers, it's here to stay.
"No other city in the world has what Memphis has, which is a true music history," he says. "Memphis is a music tourism town, whether you're in the business or not."
More than 2,000 registrants are already signed up for the conference -- and many of those folkies will bring an entourage of friends, family, and fans.
"It's not an easy thing to wrap your arms around until you actually see it," Meyers says, adding that "there's a whole generation here that doesn't have the experience of the music industry coming to Memphis en masse. For us, it's important that people from around the world get to see how much Memphis has to offer."
Plenty of Memphians have been tapped to perform at conference showcases, including Sid Selvidge, William Lee Ellis, Robert Belfour, Blair Combest, Jimmy Davis, Keith Sykes, Jed & Kelley, Susan Marshall, Dan Montgomery, Holly Cole, and Giant Bear.
To help local arts organizations spread the word about their mission, the Folk Alliance has offered free space to Celtic music and bluegrass promoters as well as Ballet Memphis and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Judy Peiser, executive director of the Center for Southern Folklore, will be presenting a Memphis-music showcase with the Daddy Mack Blues Band, David Evans & the Last Chance Jug Band, Millennium Madness, the Spirit of Memphis, and others.
Community radio station WEVL 89.9-FM and locally produced public-radio program Beale Street Caravan will benefit from underwriting the Folk Alliance, while students at the Stax Music Academy will participate in a songwriting class. Out-of-town musicians will play free concerts via an outreach program at area hospitals.
"It's a big deal," confirms Memphis International Records co-owner David Less, who scheduled the release of new signee Ron Franklin's album, City Lights, to coincide with the conference.
"We don't go to the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, but we wanted to be a part of this -- not just because it's in Memphis but because of who's gonna be here, like radio people and managers and agents," says Less.
Franklin will perform twice at the conference, along with fellow Memphis International artist Bob Frank. The former Midtowner (Franklin relocated to Los Angeles earlier this month) is also slated to play at the Hi-Tone Café on Thursday, February 22nd, and at Shangri-La Records the following night.
"Roots music of all types is dependent on the buzz generated at events like this. Club owners, booking agents, and festival bookers will be here -- people who can get excited about certain acts and help them along," Less says.
Attendance for the entire event, which features myriad panel discussions, 15 stages of music (including performances from stars such as Chris Smither, Stacey Earle, and Carlene Carter), and, among other special events, a birthday tribute to Pete Seeger and a children's music showcase hosted by Farmer Jason (Ringenberg, in his latest alter ego), starts at $650.
As an alternative, on Saturday, February 24th, the Folk Alliance will present the International Music and Dance Festival, the only event that's open to non-registrants. For just $25 ($20 in advance), music fans can hear name acts such as the Roches, Shannon McNally, and Karla Bonoff and over 150 up-and-comers.
"The economic impact this event will have on the city ought to be obvious," Meyers says. "We're planning to be in Memphis for a long time, and we want everyone to benefit from it."
Next year, he says, every recording studio in town will be booked solid through the conference.
"We're really working hard to make sure that people leave almost overwhelmed with what's available here."