(LSM June/July 2010/vol. 3 – issue 4)
I hope I never forget what it was like to pull off Highway 16 for the first time onto that caliche path, a curtain of coral dust swirling into my open window from the pop-up camper in front of me. The camper had not one, but two “Viva Terlingua!” stickers on its bumper, and I was mostly confident I had arrived at the right place … but I was less confident how much I wanted to stay.
Cynic that I am, my nervousness about not fitting in was not assuaged by all the hand-painted signs at the entrance to Quiet Valley Ranch declaring “Life Can Be This Way Always,” and “Welcome Home” — phrases I was already hearing tie-dye-clad, 20-year-old, dreadlocked hippie kids calling out to each other. They all seemed to be on very affectionate terms with one another. One might think living in Austin for more than a decade would have softened some of the reserve that growing up in Spring, Texas, developed in me. One might also be wrong. Okay, I was comfortable with flip-flops, halter tops and men with long hair — all dress-code no-no’s where I grew up. But while it drives me crazy to admit it (about myself) on paper, I’m still uncomfortable with bikini tops instead of shirts.
With gravel popping under my tires, I rolled up to what I now know as the Mix Master — an open-air tollbooth at the entrance to the campground — and a bandana-wearing girl in a bikini top and shredded Kerrville volunteer shirt hovered close enough to my car for me to smell her patchouli and exclaimed, “WELCOME HOME!!!” I was tempted to roll my eyes. I was tempted to switch into reverse and get the heck out of Dodge. I was tempted, but I resisted. I think (I hope) I smiled and said, “Thanks — I think I’m trying to get to the Rouse House Camp. I’m here for the New Folk contest …?”
The next few hours are a blur. I do remember meeting Lindsey Lee, Deb Rouse and Liz Rouse, setting up my tent, and making a peace offering of a handle — yes, a handle — of Jameson Irish whiskey. Over the next 48 hours, something in me changed. Kerrville devotees (“Kerrverts”) call this the “Kerrversion” experience. No, it was not whiskey-induced. But I was kerrverted. I remember needing to walk off on my own and weep. The weekend of the New Folk contest was an incubator for lasting friendships, meaningful encouragement and endless inspiration.
For most of the participants, we never felt like competitors. We were rooting for one another, cheering for new friends and their songs that moved us. I remember thinking, “If we can’t all win, I don’t want to win.” Of course, being chosen as one of the six co-winners was tremendous, but it was secondary to the experience of the festival and the relationships that began there and that I treasure now. By Sunday night, we were singing harmonies and playing leads on each other’s songs. We were rhapsodizing about each other like new lovers. Two years later, we are co-billing shows in other cities, performing on one another’s albums, staying as houseguests when we come through town.
We discovered and explored this bizarre and wonderful world together, and the shared experience of living cross-culturally bonded us. I know this all sounds like an exaggeration, but the Kerrville Folk Festival campground is like a foreign country. It’s a foreign country where people trust one another, give to one another and feed one another in a way that seems too ideal to be true. There are no locked doors that I know of. I remember walking through the campground early one evening when a group of strangers invited me to join them for dinner, so I did. It was delicious.