Photo by Jack Wellman
The Kerrville Folk Festival isn't just a series of mostly-acoustic concerts held on an outdoor stage near a small town in the central Texas Hill Country. It's a culture. It's a language. It's an alternate reality. It's a way of life.
Music happens there, of course. It happens on the Main Stage for at least six hours every evening, and sometimes in the afternoon, too. It happens on the more intimate Threadgill Stage, perched on a hillside in the heart of the Quiet Valley Ranch campground. It happens in the shade of the Ballad Tree on Chapel Hill. On benches in front of the Kerrtry Store. Between trailers and tents at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And around campfires late, late at night.
At this Folk Festival, the featured performers aren't the only folks that carry musical instruments. Stop by any campfire, any enclave of tents, and chances are someone there will have a guitar, a fiddle, a flute or a saxophone. If you time it right, you may be the first human being to hear a brand new song.
Weather happens at Kerrville, too. In 27 years, Folk Festival audiences have endured tent-toppling winds, torrential rains, glorious sunrises, balmy starlit evenings, damp chilly nights, and afternoons that hung endlessly, breathlessly, between baked caliche and a burning sun. Ask around, and you'll find someone who claims to have experienced all of these in a single day.
The music and weather go on forever, like the party that never ends in that Robert Earl Keen song. But that doesn't mean life in general gets put on hold. At Kerrville, life adjusts its rhythm and moves along with the tune.
The main theater, built by volunteer carpenters, electricians, painters and grunts, is designed to meet the full range of human needs. You can sit up close to the stage, hanging on a favorite artist's every note, or hang back and shoot the breeze with a friend you haven't seen since last year. Concessions, restrooms, and the hospitality record booth are accessible any time. You needn't wait for a set change, and the music on stage will follow you wherever you go.
If the kids are restless, there's a supervised sandbox near the campground gate, or you can let them run in the grassy space between the seating area and the craft booths. When they use up all that energy, you can spread quilts and pillows on the ground and let them sleep. You may even catch yourself dozing off, relaxed by the night breezes, music and lyrics drifting into your dreams to be stored in memory banks you didn't know you had.
In the campground, you'll find people cooking, eating, sleeping, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, hanging up wet towels and swimsuits, playing frisbee, playing chess. There's a church service every Sunday on Chapel Hill and a meeting every afternoon for recovering alcoholics. The store sells Cokes, coffee, beer, and bags of ice, and you can help yourself to the firewood. At the toiletry trough behind the shower shed, you'll find an assortment of campers combing, brushing, flossing, shaving, and getting ready to face the day.
In this Folk Festival community, you can dress up or dress down. You can write a poem, make a friend, learn a new instrument, seek a vision, get sick, get well, heal a broken heart, or fall in love. You can even get married there. Every year, at least one couple says "I do" on Chapel Hill.
Life at Kerrville has a different rhythm, a different feel. It always takes me about 24 hours, one full cycle of the sun, to settle in. On your first visit, it may take longer. You may find it difficult to sleep with a bluegrass jam going on just outside your tent, or feel skeptical when people tell you it's safe to leave your car unlocked all night. We have a word for newcomers like you. We call them Kerrgins, or as some would say, Kerrvirgins.
Relax. Eventually, it will feel perfectly natural to sit listening to music in the rain, stay up all night playing fiddle at a campfire, stand in line for cold showers and share your breakfast with strangers. Pit toilets will seem comfortingly familiar; you may even pause long enough to read the graffiti on the walls.
How do you lose your Kerrginity? Opinions vary. Most agree that a good thunderstorm is the best initiation. That other transformation-- the moment when you become what we call a Kerrvert--is harder to pin down.
Kerrversion is a mystical experience, a kind of reawakening that adjusts your world view and changes your life forever. It changes the definition of "Kerrville," in your mind, from an obscure town in central Texas to a place you'll feel compelled to return to again and again. Kerrverts don't leave home to come to Kerrville when festival time rolls around. They leave wherever they are to come "home."
Some people get Kerrverted on their first night at the Folk Festival. For others, it can take weeks, even years. It doesn't happen to everyone. But if you call your office from the pay phone in the campground and explain, in a reasonable tone, that you're feeling too well to come back to work--if your eyes mist over as you drive through the exit gate--if you're cleaning out your car at home and find yourself saving clumps of Quiet Valley Ranch mud in plastic bags to bring back next year--you'll know it has happened to you.
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