Kerrville Forever: An Inside Look at One of America’s Most Vital Folk Communities

Words and Photos by Kimberly Jean

As I walk up to Radio Coffee & Beer’s front porch, several small children wearing nothing but colorful tutus are running by, peeking through the windows at the patrons inside. Families and friends are sprawled across the front lawn and picnic tables. The energy feels like a close-knit family reunion and that’s because it is a reunion: the unofficial and ongoing gathering of the Kerrville Folk Festival community.

This historic festival, founded in 1972, supports singer-songwriters and musicians in a way that feels religious. KFF recently wrapped its 18 days of live music and camping, and these committed believers (also known as “Kerrverts”) have now moved their place of worship to support the opening of Radio Coffee & Beer in Austin. The owners (and creators) of Radio, Jack and Nora Wilson, just had a baby, so little Shiloh is being passed around from one set of eager arms to the next. I walk over to say hello to my fellow singer-songwriter and Kerrville friend Dave Wilcoxson (who is also Nora’s dad). He’s been an organizer of Kerrville’s “Camp Bayou Love” for the last six years, and runs a monthly songwriter round at the Boathouse Grill in Austin. As we watch the Bottom Dollar String Band perform, he talks about how he’s seen all of the members of the band grow up over the years at Kerrville.

“I remember when Josh (Moore) started playing guitar, then switched to banjo and in just a short time became a monster player– a good monster,” says Wilcoxson. Gibson Davis (who plays with the Bottom Dollar String Band occasionally) is leaving for Washington state, and Dave remarks, “you know Gibson is such a talented player…I hate to see him go.”

Bottom Dollar String Band

Bottom Dollar String Band performs at Radio

A woman cheerfully walks around the crowd with a tip jar for the performers, stuffed to the brim from everyone’s dutiful contributions. Tipping is part of the “walk,” another way this community supports the higher purpose of what these musicians and songwriters are doing; support not only for their craft, but an acknowledgment of the soul space created for the community to connect and enjoy.

A creatively repurposed green house frame corrals one of the two picnic table areas. Radio was previously a flower mart, carefully renovated and redesigned with a large community in mind. So far the self proclaimed “Kerrverts” are proving to be the nexus of this new scene. It doesn’t take long before I run into more of my pals from Kerrville, Emilie Clepper, a singer-songwriter from Canada who lives in Austin and started going to Kerrville 11 years ago with her dad.

“Kerrville is so great, everyone shares and creates openly with others, so you feel this flow of creativity that is contagious,” Clepper says, “I’ve already written two songs since I’ve been back in Austin. It’s an inspiring place.” She also mentions that the lines between mainstage performers and campground players are often transcended.

“My very first year of Kerrville I was singing at one of the camps and I struck up a conversation with one of listeners at the camp,” she tells me. “And as we were talking he asked if I wanted to meet his mom who was going to perform on the main stage. I said ‘Sure, what’s her name?’ And he said Tish Hinojosa. That was a pretty magical moment for me because my dad would play Tish’s songs on cassette tapes when I was growing up, and I really loved her music. So I got to meet her, then she invited me to join her on main stage to sing.That was one of my coolest Kerrville moments. I wondered ‘How does something like that even happen?’ But it does, and it happens at Kerrville.”

Adrianne Lenker Buck Meek Radio Austin

Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek are one of the many duos representing Kerrville at Radio

And there are camps galore at Kerrville, Most would agree that the campground culture and theme camps that have developed over the years are what define the KFF experience. As a singer-songwriter or music supporter, you can meander through the camps playing songs, listening, and swapping songwriting tips. Most of the camps have been participating for years. It’s where countless couples have fallen in love, tied the knot and now bring their kids, and the kids keep track of how long they’ve been going. Many of the main stage performers also walk through the campgrounds at night. “You never know who might hear you sing at a circle, even Peter Yarrow will walk over and sit in with different camps.” said Wilcoxson. Other camps like Honky Tonk attract raucous revelries that go until dawn. And you can always escape to the top of the hill to Crow’s Nest, where the song-circles are much quieter and focused on hearing the songs in a meditative space.

The magic of the campground scene is created by KFF veterans and camp organizers like singer-songwriter Amy Sue Berlin, who has attended Kerrville since she was eight years old and has been an organizer for Camp Merrville over the last 15 years. “Our camp has a theatrical element in addition to being a place for singer-songwriters,” she explains. “Every year we write a play a few days before the end of the festival and perform it on the last Saturday. I try to bring in everything from poetry to theatre…we really work hard to make Merrville a welcoming place for anyone to come and hang.”

Berlin grew up in Pittsburgh and after her mom won the New Folk competition in 1989, they both drove down to Kerrville every year. “Once I turned 18 I knew I wanted to live in Austin because of the community I experienced at Kerrville Folk Festival,” she says. “If you’re involved in the music scene in Austin you’re going to see someone you know from Kerrville, there’s definitely not a shortage of Kerrverts in Austin.”

The  impact of KFF on attendees is definitely life changing. Greg Moore, the vice-chairman of the KFF Foundation Board, has been going to KFF since 1997. “My first year was an epiphany for me,” Moore says, “It was one of the most magical things I had ever done. Everyone camping played an instrument and was so communal and friendly. The festival has never been financially successful but it has been a smashing success at creating an annual event that changes so many lives for the better.”

Dave Wilcoxson Radio Austin

Dave Wilcoxson is a camp organizer at Kerrville and a fixture of the community.

In Moore’s view, the festival’s status as an incubator is its real success, particularly when it comes to youth. “I started taking my kids Josh and Hanna when they were 7 or 8 years old,” Moore explains, “The festival does such a good job catering to kids and creating a safe environment for them. I was never concerned for their safety and gave them the freedom to explore and do what they wanted.”

Enabling the festival to continue to provide that kind of safe haven for future generations is incredibly important to KFF devotees. “Before [KFF founder] Rod Kennedy died the KFF Foundation had worked with him to set up an endowment fund so there was a formal process for those that want to give and support the festival through their wills, or donate items of value, etc,” Moore told me. “The Foundation also provides monetary support to the Kids Camp that takes place on the ranch in July of every year. The Boys and Girls club puts it on and many of the Kerrville main stage artists are instructors. Camp Bayou Love does a midnight burger benefit every year, I cooked 200 burgers this year and we raised $1200 that goes directly to support the kids camp. It’s a life changing event for lots of kids that are struggling and need to find their inner voice and confidence.  Many of these kids come to the festival after experiencing the camp.”

This level of commitment to future generations attending KFF is what makes this festival so unique. Singer-songwriter and Kerrville Folk Festival historian Brian Cutean has been an active member of the community for the last 34 years. Not only does he participate as musician, but he has also been an active staff worker for the festival doing everything from fixing fences, to managing various projects with KFF’s history crew. “Each year for the last five years, I’ve compiled and curated a disc of field recordings featuring miraculous musical moments recorded live in the campground. Often folks don’t know they are being recorded and that is when the best stuff happens. The collection is called Songharvest and we press a limited edition of about 150 copies each year for folks to purchase in support of the Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation that the History Booth is part of.”

Cutean tells me he’s been recording at the festival since the ‘80s, originally using “the limited technology of hand-held cassettes.” Lately he has been going back through those recordings too and has been able to preserve early performances via Songharvest.

“This year I included a recording from Ballad Tree in 1990 of Anne Feeney’s second year at the Fest,” Cutean says, “There are voices that have passed and new voices coming up singing and sounds from birds, rain and various other sources we hear all around us there.”

And it’s a lucky thing to be able to continue hearing these Kerrville voices in Austin. As I leave Radio Beer & Coffee, my heart is full with love, music and the anticipation of more magic and music from Austin’s Kerrverts. You can check out the music pages for some of the recent performers at Radio below…

Adrianne Lenker & Buck Meek | The Bottom Dollar String Band | Grace Park

Kimberly also recorded various Kerrville Campground jams to give you a little taste of what the campground feels and sounds like, listen to them here.

Kimberly Jean is a newgrass, alt-country singer-songwiter in Austin, TX.