Rod Kennedy: The Passing of a Legend

By Bob Livingston

(LSM May/June 2014/vol. 7 – issue 3)

Rod Kennedy was a crusty old bird. There are many tales of his irascible nature, his ruling the roost and his penchant for kicking musicians off the Kerrville Folk Festival for one reason or another — including yours truly.

Kennedy in 2013 (Photo by Susan Roads)

Kennedy in 2013 (Photo by Susan Roads)

On the other hand, Rod was a musical visionary who produced not just folk but jazz festivals and also opened the Chequered Flag, one of the first folk clubs in Austin. He founded the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1972 and helped jumpstart the careers of countless singer-songwriters. He was a pretty conservative guy in a lot of ways, but he partnered up with left-leaning folkies for the love of the song.

I had the high privilege of being on that first Kerrville Folk Festival, playing bass with Michael Murphey. The festival was held in the Municipal Auditorium in Kerrville and LBJ showed up at some point with long hair and sat in the audience with all the other music lovers. There was no way to know then that Kennedy would stick it out through thick and thin, eventually move the Festival out to the Quiet Valley Ranch, and brave scorching heat and flash floods and still keep everything afloat — for another 30 years!

Bob Livingston, Amilia K. Spicer, Bill Oliver and BettySoo at Kerrville in 2009. (Photo by Susan Roads)

Bob Livingston, Amilia K. Spicer, Bill Oliver and BettySoo at Kerrville in 2009. (Photo by Susan Roads)

Holding forth from his captain’s chair in the wings of stage right, Rod ran a tight ship. There was a big clock right under your nose; you got 40 minutes to play and that was it. As the years rolled by, I played the festival several more times: with the Lost Gonzo Band, Jerry Jeff, Bobby Bridger, and Willis Allan Ramsey. In the ’80s I played three straight years as a solo performer. The third year, Rod told me I wouldn’t be asked back for being ill prepared to play my 6 p.m. set after a 54-hour plane ride from India. Hell, he was probably right. I was massively jet lagged, my hands were swollen and sore from some wild drum lessons in India, it was 105 degrees with the sun dead center in my eyes, and the stage piano wouldn’t stay in tune. It was the perfect storm for disaster. I was disoriented, and halfway into the set my mind went blank. I asked for requests. Somebody yelled out “Merle Haggard!” and I immediately launched into, “Down every road there’s always one more city …” Rod was not amused. And he never gave me another chance.

In 2002, Rod turned the wheel over to a new Festival producer, Dalis Allen, and I think I redeemed myself somewhat and have played some respectable sets on the “main stage” since then. Three years ago, Rod surprised me and made some amends for banning me from the festival. He said he knew that in the past he had “ruffled some feathers,” and was seeking some folks out to say he was sorry. I guess I’d finally passed Rod’s litmus test of folkdom, but I’m not 100-percent sure.

On April 14, 2014, Rod passed away “surrounded by love and music,” according to Dalis. On April 26 there was a memorial service in Kerrville. It was full of musicians and well-wishers and there was a Marine Honor Guard that marched down the isle and presented an American flag to Dalis. I hadn’t thought much about Rod being a Marine, but Dalis gave me a clue as to what Rod was all about when she said, “A Marine does not fail.”

Even though we had that little thing happen between us, I had great respect for Rod Kennedy. He gave us one of the greatest folk festivals in the country, and his folk ethic, passion, tenacity, and love of songwriters and songs was infectious. Rod was one of a kind and we’ll all miss him. Safe travels, amigo.