Riverfolk and NashBash
Nourishment from the roots
Dog days. Summer Festival is over, the fall season is weeks away, and everyone who can make it out of town has done so. August isn't the top month on anybody's concert-going list, but that just means it offers a chance to see what's bubbling under the surface and check out some events with local roots, traceable to the efforts of just a few individuals and almost unconnected to the realm of larger promotional forces. Two small festivals happening this month are about as grassroots as you can get, each of them bringing threads of Southern music that aren't much heard around here.
The Riverfolk Festival started out in Manchester's Carr Park, and a Friday night dance party and jam camp are still held there. Plagued by mosquitoes and mud, however, the organizers moved their grand finale show indoors to the Ark a few years ago. The festival focuses on bluegrass and Cajun music, both underrated and largely under-the-radar American genres, and their Cajun visitor this year is worth a considerable detour to see. It's Christine Balfa, daughter of Dewey Balfa, the fiddler and singer whose performance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival virtually kicked off the modern national revival of French music from Louisiana.
Christine went on to form the band Balfa Toujours. She's one of those rare musicians who both grew up immersed in a tradition and has thought about how to present it to outsiders. She once recorded an entire album consisting of nothing but triangle playing, and she has a knack for telling the history of a song in a way that's as engaging as the music itself. I met her once in the studios of WCBN, and I've rarely seen a traditional musician with as much sheer fresh charisma. The Riverfolk Festival Finale Concert, which also includes the finalists in the fest's songwriting competition and an appearance by bluegrasser and former Bill Monroe band member Bob Black, happens at the Ark on August
Less than two weeks later, on August 16, comes NashBash, a one-evening country music festival held in the unlikely confines of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market at Kerrytown. The sheds provide some protection in case of rain, and a "Trunk-a-palooza" sale adds to the down-home atmosphere. From the start, the festival has been under the direction of Whit Hill, an Ann Arbor songwriter and choreographer who moved to Nashville a few years ago and has struck up acquaintances with some interesting fixtures of the city's vibrant songwriting scene. You might catch a rising star: past NashBash headliner Angaleena Presley has been playing sold-out shows as part of country superstar Miranda Lambert's trio Pistol Annies.
This year's headliner, Kathy Hussey, skews toward the folk end of the folk-country spectrum that makes Nashville songwriting so interesting and provides periodic injections of sophistication into mainstream country music. For sixteen years she's hosted a weekly songwriter night at Wilhagan's bar in Nashville, so it's a fair bet that she's given some important culture shapers their starts. Her own music is deliberate, often startlingly detailed, and original in topic. In "Sing My Memory" she tells of a dying healer from whom she hears a gripping speech culminating in: "Love may come and love may go, life may ebb and life may flow. Remember me when I am gone; sing my memory in a song." One of her best is "Red Maple," a song about a beloved tree that is cut down by a home's new owners. It spreads into the corners of its verse form like the living, breathing branches of the tree itself.
When we're busy, it's easy to fall into the trap of making time only for the cream of the cultural events. But nourishment from the roots is equally important, and August is a time to find it here.
[Originally published in August, 2012.]