June 05, 2005

Kerrville, Texas: It Can’t Be Like This Always

When you first drive into the Kerrville Folk Festival, you see a handlettered sign saying, “WELCOME HOME,” and a sign saying “IT CAN BE LIKE THIS ALWAYS.” My reaction when I read the second sign is always, I hope not.

The Kerrville Folk Festival takes place for three weeks every spring, starting Memorial Day weekend, at Quiet Valley Ranch, fifty hilly acres crisscrossed by dirt roads and generously sprinkled with octajohns: octagonally shaped structures of dark green wood, eight pit toilets per building, with a male and a female building at each site, all sixteen carrying downwind to those who have chosen to camp nearby. There are also a main stage and a secondary stage, a big grassy parking lot, showers, dishwashing sinks, several concession stands, a kids’ arts and crafts center called Kidsville, and a long line of booths selling all your needs from face painting to handmade knives to temporary tattoos to painting and sculptures to handmade sandals and, most of all, long flowing tie–dyed garments in the style of yesteryear.

Most of all, though, what you see at Kerrville is tents -- thousands of them, from single–person jobs made for high–altitude cliffsides, to elaborate pavilions into which the owners have moved beds, rocking chairs, and gourmet kitchen setups. Many of the tents are staked out of the first day, Land Rush day, and many of the campers return to the same site year after year. It’s customary to name your campsite. For example, the place across the road from us is Camp Nekkid, so christened because the occupants like to go around -- well, you can guess how they like to go around. We are Camp Slightly More Modest: we are all above forty, except for the kids. Camp Duct Tape is a sister campsite down the hill, with which Camp Nekkid has instituted an exchange program: one night all the Nekkids go down to Duct Tape to play and listen to music, another night all the Duct Tapes come up to Nekkid (do they come nekkid, or wearing duct tape? I forgot to ask) and play theirs in return.

The campsite next to us is a bunch of our old friends, the White Trash Sociologists. They are a cadre of sociologists -- including a father-and-son sociologist pair -- who are of white trash origin and who study white trash professionally. Their leader, Charlie, is a serious outdoor chef and makes a bangup mass meal every year for anyone who stops by: this year it was Cornish hens and gumbo. Unfortunately, one of the sociologists couldn’t attend this year, as he has come down with cirrhosis. His mates talk about him quietly in tones of nonjudgmental concern, one of them observing that if he doesn’t change his ways, by next year’s festival he won’t be anywhere at all.

Kerrville is a laidback scene, as we used to say, and it’s the most Woodstocklike affair I’ve seen since August 1969. (I’ve never been to the Rainbow Gathering, but I’ve heard that that’s still more so.) The crowd is at least 95% white, undoubtedly because of musical taste. In other ways the population is surprisingly diverse: there are hippies of all ages, from white–haired couples who have apparently dug their fringed buckskins out of the depths of their attics, to golden–dreadlocked couples and shaven–headed acid punks, to little kids who will someday reminisce to their friends, “My parents were…weird.”

Nonstandard people come here, and I like nonstandard people best because all people, underneath, are. There’s a tall, lean Western type guy wearing a cowboy hat, a yellow rain slicker, and purple clogs. There’s an old guy with the thickset body of a retired longshoreman wearing a sleeveless tie–dyed T–shirt and a raspberry beret. There’s a young man gyrating in a solo dance with a straw hat on his head, straw fringes entirely hiding his face. There’s a hippie in laceless boots and dirty cutoffs walking around with a pail, picking up rubber bands and cigarette butts from the ground, considering each one carefully before adding it to his collection.

You can see lots of anti–Bush bumper stickers, of course, on the vehicles unloading at the campsites, but I also see a dusty blue van with an NRA decal and a sticker saying, CHARLTON HESTON IS MY PRESIDENT. And one little campsite annually hangs the Stars and Bars from a laundry line. People don’t get on each other’s cases. At night there are campfires and some people get whooping drunk and a familiar tangy scent drifts on the air. Inebriated software engineers dance in the nude at dawn, singing “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. But all the rebellious energy is released in singing and dancing, not in fighting.

Considering how many people are here and in what condition some of them are in, the campgrounds are remarkably serene, befitting the ranch’s name. No drums are allowed, and no CD players (though almost all the performers sell CD’s for their audience to take home). And unlike most other music festivals, the real action at Kerrville is not onstage. The action consists of songwriters visiting one another’s camps, playing new songs with old and new friends, with nonmusicians like us listening. Hooking up for impromptu duets and trios, sharing tips on good places to play throughout North America, setting up house visits to keep them sheltered on their ever–hopeful travels from coffeehouse to convention to elementary school to Renaissance Fair. Songwriting is the main business at Kerrville. There are workshops and a competition and endless sharing of songs–in–progress at all stages of doneness and at all levels of proficiency. Peter, Paul, and Mary were here last year (Peter and Paul, whose real name is Noel, are major patrons of the festival), but even that rare reunion took second place to the campsite socializing.

The unofficial mayor of the festival is Hippie Karl, a trim middleaged man with Custer–length blond hair and beard who is an ordained Baptist minister, a graduate of a Bible seminary long, long ago. He occasionally performs weddings at the festival, and he keeps an organic garden, and he visits campsites tirelessly -- in part to arrange that leftover food find its way to hungry hippies who have traveled here on slim resources -- and he greets every newcomer with a hug. He has, in fact, hugged me, and I him. Our friend Randy, who is Camp Slightly More Modest’s prime mover, tells me that Hippie Karl’s speaking voice has three discernible levels of severity. At the lowest level, he simply tells you his request: “Could you dump those coffee grounds in the compost heap instead of on the trail?” The intermediate level is the “man” level: “Man, could you dump those coffee grounds in the compost heap instead of on the trail?” But when he gets really serious, “man” turns to “dude”: “Dude, could you dump those coffee grounds in the compost heap instead of on the trail?” The authority in Hippie Karl’s voice at the dude level is practically patriarchal.

In the afternoon we go to the small stage and hear a pretty good fiftyish singer–guitarist with a voice straight out of Bonnie Raitt, accompanied as a matter of fact by Bonnie’s longtime bass player, Freebo. It’s a pocket–size amphitheater with a trap covering -- last night’s puddled rain dripping through the gaps -- and a small kingfisher flying to and fro inside. The hundred or so listeners look as if the kids from a socialist summer camp in the Catskills, circa 1969, had been suddenly zapped with an instant aging ray. “We are such a beautiful family,” the performer says, thanking them for their applause, “and there are so many of us throughout the world, and we are so powerful.” And they look pleased to hear it once again.

Back at the camp, Randy is working at his laptop. (I’m glad I didn’t know in advance that the festival has wireless access this year. I would have felt obliged to bring mine.) Randy is a philosophy professor with shoulder–length hair, and a prolific singer–songwriter and the host of a folk music radio show in Carbondale, Illinois. (His show, “Folk Fiasco,” is on WDBX 91.1 on Wednesays, 10 am till noon, and you can live–stream it at www.wdbx.org, but unfortunately they don’t yet have archiving.) He is writing a chapter for a new volume in the Philosophy and Culture book series, the series that is probably best–known for THE SIMPSONS AND PHILOSOPHY and SEINFELD AND PHILOSOPHY. He already has a chapter in the forthcoming THE ATKINS DIET AND PHILOSOPHY; this new chapter is for HARLEY-DAVIDSON and philosophy. (They’re digging deep into the well of American popular iconology.) Randy’s chapter is called “The Biker Bar and the Coffee House, With an Ontology of Suicide Machines.” I read the chapter sitting on a folding chair under the campsite awning. It’s good! Four classical schools of thought -- the epicurean, the skeptic, the cynic, and the stoic -- are exemplified by composite characters Randy knew in a past life playing rock music at biker bars. In addition, the question, “Would Bruce Springsteen ride a Harley or a Honda?” is examined ontologically. Randy, who admits out front that he is a Honda rider and knows his place as such, concludes that the iconic Boss definitely rides a Harley, and that it doesn’t matter what the real live Boss rides or would ride. (Randy also concludes that Jesus would ride a Harley, and in fact the whole thing is a little too St. Paulish for me, dismissing historical human reality in favor of mythmaking.)

We’ve been going to the festival for three years now, the same amount of time I’ve known Randy and his wife Gaye and his brother–in–law Bruce, and each year there’s at least one powerful, unexpected interaction we take away with us. The first year it was a lovely song called "Beneath My Quilt" played at our campsite by a woman named Karen Mal. The second year it was a hilarious satirical song called “Jesus Was an American” -- you can imagine what kind of American viewpoint it satirized -- in fact you could probably write the lyrics for yourself, based on the title alone, but they wouldn’t be half as funny -- played by a retired professor who writes one song each year just for Kerrville and never records it or hands out sheet music. This year, it is the fact that I’ll always remember the Greek philosophies by their matching bikers: epicureanism is Cowboy, skepticism is Bear, cynicism is Happy Jack, and stoicism is Gary. And me? Randy tells me I’d be in a coffeehouse, but I think I’m a walking epicurean.

No, I wouldn’t want it to be this way always. But a world in which such things could never be, a world without room for Hippie Karl and his thousands of hugged friends, would be even worse.