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Folk music makes a comeback

2,000 folk stars gather in Austin for International Folk Alliance Conference
Louis Jay Meyers, executive director of the 18th annual International Folk Alliance Conference, is shown at the entrance to one of the venues Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006, in Austin, Texas. The conference is a five-day event that is to begin Friday. It is designed to celebrate folk music and dance and spread its popularity.Harry Cabluck / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Folk music promoter Tom Neff can’t go anywhere without meeting someone who used to love Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Peter, Paul and Mary.

He has a harder time convincing these people that folk music is still thriving, albeit out of the limelight, four decades after those artists topped the charts.

“A lot of people might think folk music is dead, but it’s so not,” said Neff, president of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance.

About 2,000 folk musicians and members of the music industry will descend upon Austin on Friday for the group’s 18th annual International Folk Alliance Conference, a five-day event designed to celebrate folk music and dance and to spread its popularity.

The gathering is more trade show than music festival, but performances will be held every night, including a Monday show featuring Arlo Guthrie and many other acts from around the world. That concert will raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

The conference has grown every year since its 1989 inception, when 125 people gathered in Malibu, Calif., to consider forming a coalition to promote folk music. The alliance was born a year later.

Louis Jay Meyers, the group’s executive director, said his goal for this year’s conference is to prove that folk music is mainstream.

“We’re not a secondary element in the music industry,” said Meyers, co-founder of Austin’s famed South by Southwest film and music festival. “We’ve been a force since the beginning of time.”

Theo Cateforis, an assistant professor of music history at Syracuse University, said a growing number of 20-somethings have embraced folk music in the past five years because it isn’t mainstream — it’s experimental, unpolished and often acoustic, whether the musician plays the piano, guitar or even harp.

Folk music’s new stars, such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Iron & Wine, are the opposite of the heavily packaged and produced acts that dominate the Top 40, Cateforis added.

“I think the audience identifies with that,” he said. “They hear it as being more authentic, more real.”

That’s not to say folk music remains completely underground. It can be heard in a few commercials and movie soundtracks, Cateforis said, something he expects to become more common in the future.

But folk musicians aren’t waiting around for someone to discover them, Neff said. They’ve built a fan base the hard way, playing in coffee shops and bars and traveling the country to music festivals.

“If the major labels decide tomorrow that folk music is cool again, it would be what we call a nice problem to have,” Neff said. “But nobody’s waiting for it to happen. They’re taking matters into their own hands.”