A couple of years ago, an organization called Folk Alliance International moved its headquarters from Memphis to Kansas City. Then, last February, 3,000 musicians from around the world came to town for the Folk Alliance’s annual music conference.
Kansas City has good musicians. It’s a solid music community. But when all of those other musicians took over the Westin Crown Center, it was a shock to the system.
“We looked around and went, ‘Wow,’” says Erin McGrane, the “Penny” in the popular Kansas City band Victor and Penny. “This is the best 'fill-in-the-blank' I’ve ever heard, and I don’t even know who they are. So we began to see how insulated we might be here.”
A lot of other Kansas City musicians had never even heard of Folk Alliance. Others figured it wasn’t for them. One of those was the classically trained flamenco guitarist Beau Bledsoe.
“The word ‘folk’ just brings to mind the ‘Blowin in the Wind’ folky thing, singer-songwriter type, so I didn’t think it would be my scene at all,” Bledsoe says.
But the scene turned out to be all kinds of musicians. They jammed all day in the hotel lobby. Concerts in the big ballrooms. Showcases all night in three floors of hotel rooms. The conference organizers asked Bledsoe to lead a panel on world music.
“I had someone from Hungary, Argentina, Mexico, somebody representing Ireland and West Africa, Cuba,” he says. “I got to play with people from all over the globe.”
He came away from Folk Alliance describing it almost like a religious experience.
Besides all those concerts and jams and workshops, musicians could learn how to get an agent, or book tours. After the conference was over, Bledsoe worked with Folk Alliance to get into its not-for-profit umbrella program. That led to new fundraising opportunities. Bledsoe was able to launch his new group, Ensemble Iberica, which put on six concerts in its first season.
“It’s been great!” he says. “We’ve got money in the bank, sales have been fantastic.”
Victor and Penny, meanwhile, signed on with a manager they met at at Folk Alliance. They’ve just released a new record, and McGrane says they’re on a whole new trajectory.
“I think the presence of the Folk Alliance here has let us kind of see what else is out there? What is the next level? Who is on it and do we belong there? For ourselves the answer was yes. For some people they found out, you know what, my band isn’t ready to tour.”
The Folk Alliance moved to Kansas City for practical reasons. It had outgrown Memphis hotel spaces. Flights here are cheaper and more direct. But the organization didn’t just make Kansas City home base for its once-a-year conference. It opened the Folk Store in the River Market, filled with every imaginable stringed instrument. That’s become a place where people can hang out and jam. Folk Alliance also reached out to Kansas City musicians.
“We’ve done 20 workshops now, these are all free,” says Louis Meyers, who was executive director of the organization when it moved here and now heads up special projects. “We’ve done everything from Middle Eastern music to Celtic to bluegrass to steel guitar to blues, we had Lazy Lester in here doing a harmonica workshop. So it’s been tremendous to get to visit with many different elements of the community.”
Meyers was a founder of Austin’s South by Southwest. So he knows music cities. He brings a useful perspective to Kansas City’s scene.
“It’s a realistic community,” he says. “I think people have attainable goals at this point and are smart enough to climb the ladder rung at a time and not think they all deserve a major publishing and record deal tomorrow. I appreciate how hard the local artists are willing to work.”
One example of that work ethic was a Saturday afternoon in November at the Coda bar in the Crossroads. More than a dozen steel guitar players showed up to improve their chops. Kasey Rausch was one of the vocalists for the house band that day. She says her music career – her business – is now on an upward swing thanks partly to the Folk Alliance.
“Folk Alliance being in Kansas City has helped my business in that it’s given me more of a platform, more of a voice,” Rausch says. “It’s also helped in creating other special projects."
One of those projects is the Greater Kansas City Music Directory. Rausch and Mikal Shapiro, her co-host on the River Trade Radio program on KKFI 90.1 FM, worked on the directory with Meyers. It will be hot off the press for the Folk Alliance conference in February.
“Other folks who are now recognizing Kansas City as a viable art community and music community, it will help them see that there are tons of options here if they need to hire a musician, score a film or whatnot,” Rausch says. “They will have this directory available.”
Some of the musicians who’ll be listed in that directory say they are better off today than they were a year ago. That’s a good thing because now Kansas City’s on a bigger stage.
“The name of the organization is Folk Alliance International,” Rausch notes. “I don’t believe they would have chosen Kansas City for their world headquarters if Kansas City didn’t have a vibrant music community. And I believe that helps put Kansas City on the map as a music town.”
The Folk Alliance International is Feb. 18-22, with many events open to the public. It plans to hold its annual conference here for at least the next three years, so musicians who aren’t quite ready yet have a little more time to practice.