Billy Bragg will be a headliner at this year’s Folk Alliance International Conference and the Kansas City Folk Festival. Jason DeCrow | AP

Folk Alliance puts down roots in KC, with plans to expand annual folk festival

Aengus Finnian is the director of Folk Alliance International. Morten Fog | Folk Alliance International
JP Cormier was among the dozens of performers at the Folk Alliance International Conference in 2015. Joe Ledford | jledford@kcstar.com

The Folk Alliance International Conference will leave Kansas City in 2019, but the organization and its headquarters aren’t going anywhere. Nor is the annual Kansas City Folk Festival.

“We have such an amazing team here,” said Aengus Finnan, the alliance’s executive director. “We’ve grown from a staff of two, three years ago, to a staff of seven plus two interns. It’s been a real joy to find that level of passion and skill, and I have no interest in trying to do that again in another city. There’s no reason to. The team is just too tight.”

The alliance moved its headquarters from Memphis, Tenn., to Kansas City in 2013. Kansas City has hosted the conference since February 2014; before it came here, the conference was in Toronto for a year and in Memphis for six years. The board is still considering conference sites after 2019.

This year’s conference begins Feb. 15 at the Westin Crown Center hotel. Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco will be the keynote speakers.

The second annual Kansas City Folk Festival, produced by the alliance, will be Feb. 19 at the Westin Crown Center. The all-day indoor event is open to the public, with Bragg and Bobby Rush headlining. Other performers will include David Wilcox and Steve Poltz, plus Kansas City performers Ensemble Iberica, Making Movies, Gerald Trimble and Sky Smeed.

Finnan was named executive director in 2014, replacing Louis Meyers, who brought the organization and the festival to Kansas City. (Meyers died in March in Austin, Texas, where he’d moved after leaving the Folk Alliance.)

Since he took over the alliance, Finnan has made working beyond the Kansas City music community a priority.

“Two years ago we launched an artists-in-residency program,” he said. “While Folk Alliance was a darling for the music community, it was still a foreign entity for the rest of the city and its cultural sector.

“It was considered an interesting event but not necessarily trusted. We came to Kansas City from a different place with this impression that we’d pack up and leave in five years.

“When I’d have conversations at a community level, there wasn’t that sense of investment or interest because we were going to leave, which wasn’t true but was the impression. One of the ways to counter that was … for our organization to look beyond the music community.”

So he incorporated other elements of the community into the program. For the 2015 conference, the alliance, singer/songwriter Brandy Zdan and the Kansas City Ballet collaborated on a live dance production. Last year, the alliance, the National World War I Museum and artist Joe Crookston created a live performance based on letters in the museum’s archives written by Florence Hemphill, a nurse serving in France in 1918.

This year’s conference will feature two artists-in-residency programs. One is with blues artist Rita Chiarelli, who will visit a women’s prison for three days before the conference.

“She is going into the Topeka Correctional Facility to launch a chorale,” Finnan said. “We will document the interaction and the process and rehearsals with inmates interested in music. The warden wants to see the project continue.”

A four-minute documentary of that process will precede DiFranco’s keynote on Friday of the conference.

The other artist-in-residency program will involve Making Movies, a Latin-rock band from Kansas City. They have been commissioned to compose music that will accompany Kansas City police officer Octavio “Chato” Villalobos as he recites his poem “Brown Eyes in Blues,” about his experience of being a Mexican-American cop.

For inspiration, Making Movies will visit the Lansing Correctional Facility “to take in and absorb the sound and sights and language and feel intimidated or affected by it and then come back and put it into the music and then rehearse with a police officer who puts people in (prison).”

Their performance will precede Bragg’s keynote on Saturday.

Finnan already has an artist-in-residency idea for the 2018 conference. It will involve a guitarist, a mathematician and a visual artist and possibly a museum installation.

For the general public, the main attraction will be the Kansas City Folk Festival, which will likely expand when the conference leaves for Montreal in 2019.

“What we’ve really been focusing on is distinguishing between the conference and the folk fest,” Finnan said. “The Folk Festival will become an outdoor, spring or summer, multiday event and become a folk festival proper.”

He has expanded the programming of this year’s festival, adding headliners like Bragg and Rush to the lineup.

“We’ve also built a family program on the Children’s Stage,” he said, “including the Grammy winners the Okee Dokee Brothers. We’re really focusing on cultivating a relationship with the community so it becomes their festival.”

Finnan said another inspiration behind keeping the headquarters in Kansas City and starting a separate folk festival is the city’s folk heritage, going back to the days of the Foolkiller Folk collective and venues like the Vanguard Coffee House.

“There’s such a deep history with folk music here,” he said. “I was at an event at the Irish Center recently and met a woman from Kansas City who was at the very first Folk Alliance conference in Malibu in 1989 and it was because of the folk scene here. It was fascinating. That was way before the internet, and it involved leaders in cities coming together through a spider web of phone calls, sharing information about what was going on, what acts they were booking. … . From that, it blossomed into what it is now. Kansas City is part of that.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

2017 Folk Alliance Showcase Schedule

Thousands of folk and folk-related musicians and representatives of the industry that support them will congregate in Kansas City for the annual Folk Alliance International Conference Feb. 15-19 at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. Showcases open to the public take place nightly Feb. 15-18; the conference culminates with the daylong Kansas City Folk Festival on Feb. 19. Find details at FolkConference.org. The lineup of showcase performers:

Wednesday, Feb. 15

8:15 p.m.: Mean Mary, Silver City Bound, Heather Mae, Betse and Clarke, Al Scorch

8:30 p.m.: Twisted Pine, Sonia Disappear Fear, Brooke Annibale

9 p.m.: Track Dogs, Lisas, Jeff Crosby, Cory Branan, Calvin Arsenia

9:15 p.m.: Bob Woodruff, Beth Bombara, Ellis Paul, Romantica

9:45 p.m.: Robbie Fulks, Frances Luke Accord, Jeremy Kittel Trio, Handmade Moments, Victor and Penny

10 p.m.: Changing Room, Terra Lightfoot, Ben Bedford, Annie Oakley

10:30 p.m.: Matchsellers, Novel Ideas, Joe Purdy, Tony Furtdaod

10:45 p.m.: Railsplitters, Skye Wallace, Nancy and Beth, David Berkeley

Thursday, Feb. 16

6:15 p.m.: Carrie Elkin, Suzie Vinnick, Bean Project, Brother Brothers, Haley and Dylan Richardson

6:30 p.m.: Surly Gentlemen, Ellie Marja Eira, Janice Jo Lee, Newberry and Verch

7 p.m.: Darden Smith, Dione Taylor and the Backsliderz, Freddy and Francine, Fru Skagerrak, Liz Stringer

7:15 p.m.: Tiz MacNamara, Kortchmar, Postell and Navarro, Front Country, Blair Dunlop

7:45 p.m.: Amilia K. Spicer, Mari Black Celtic Band, Marquise Knox, Tish Hinojosa, Liam Gerner

8 p.m.: Tomato Tomato, 10 String Symphony, Hey, Wow, Susan Werner

8:30 p.m.: Jellyman’s Daughter, Matt the Electrician, Rita Chiarelli, All Our Exes Live in Texas, Belle Plaine

8:45 p.m.: Luke Jackson, Masters of Hawaiian Music, Trout Steak Revival, Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally Band

9:15 p.m.: Tom Freund, Ray Bonneville, Eliza Gilkyson, Gjermund Larsen Trio, Lloyd Spiegel

9:30 p.m.: Gaby Moreno, Steel Wheels, Rachel Siermanni, Oh Susanna

10 p.m.: Bill and the Belles, Harpdog Brown and the Travelin’ Blues Show, Paul McKenna, Rowena Wise, High Plains Jamboree

10:15 p.m.: Hermitage Green, John Craigie, Iskwe, Lonely Heartstring Band

Friday, Feb. 17

6:15 p.m.: Si Kahn, Saltarello, Adyn Townes, Flagship Romance, Leanne Goose

6:30 p.m.: Authentic Light Orchestra, George Wurzbach, Lyal Strickland, Korby Lenker

7 p.m.: Tift Merritt, Sussex, Meaghan Blanchard, Leonard Sumner, Annika Bennett

7:15 p.m.: Robby Hecht, Peter Bradley Adams, Mel Parsons, Jeff Black

7:45 p.m.: Emily Wurramara, Erin Costelo, Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboy, Elage Diouf, Aindrias de Staic

8 p.m.: Luke Daniels, Lindsay Lou and the Flatboys, John McCutcheon, Catlin Canty

8:30 p.m.: Robyn Hitchcock, NEeMA, Moddi, Ben Caplan, Bill Miller

8:45 p.m.: Missy Raines and New Hip, Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, OSOG, Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer

9:15 p.m.: Sarah Watkins, Cecile Doo-Kingue, Lal, Ten Strings and a Goatskin, Quantum Tangle

9:30 p.m.: Ross, Wahlsteen, Graham, Plainsong, Laura Cortese and Dance Cards, Bruce Sudano

10 p.m.: Amado Espinoza Trio, Heather Rainkin, Melisande, Barefoot Movement, Taarka

10:15 p.m.: John Fullbright, Radio Free Honduras, Sean McConnell, Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers

10:45 p.m.: Roy Williams and Human Hands

Saturday, Feb. 18

6:15 p.m.: Michael Fracasso, Sousou and Maher Cissoko, Doolin’, David Olney, AHI

6:30 p.m.: Baile an Salsa, Barbara Dane, Las Cafeteras, Samantha Whates

7 p.m.: Maria Dunn, Matt Haeck, Trout Fishing in America, Gaelynn Lea, Coco Love Alcorn

7:15 p.m.: Vishten, Ramy Essam, Fraser Anderson, Ariana Gillis

7:45 p.m.: Digging Roots, Bella Hardy, Alex Wong, Vance Gilbert, William Prince

8 p.m.: Kristy McGee, Sondorgo, Once, Giri and Uma Peters

8:30 p.m.: Harrow Fair, J.P. Hoe, Madison Violet, Rod Picott, Sam Baker

8:45 p.m.: Kobo Town, Dave Gunning, Socks in the Frying Pan, Son of Town Hall

9:15 p.m.: Alysha Brilla, James Hill and Anne Janelle, Jess Klein, Jimmy LaFave, Currys

9:30 p.m.: Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys, Kelly Oliver, La Banda Morisca, Sam Kelly

10 p.m.: Tim Easton, Wink Burcham, Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Ana Egge and the Sentimentals, Anthony da Costa

10:15 p.m.: Carsie Blanton, Curly Strings, Ports, Gwyneth Herbert

Compiled by Joel Francis, Special to The Star

Kansas City Folk Festival

The second annual Kansas City Folk Festival starts at 10 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 19 at the Westin Crown Center hotel. Headliners include Billy Bragg, Bobby Rush and David Wilcox. The festival includes a morning gospel session, multiple music workshops, folk dancing and an artisan marketplace, Tickets are available at KCFolkFest.org.