By Michael Corcoran
(LSM May/June 2014/vol. 7 – issue 3)
Rod Kennedy at the 2013 Kerrville Folk Festival (Photo by Susan Roads)
Austin became known as a town of free spirits and cheap living in the ’70s and ’80s, but it took a lot of hard work from people like Rod Kennedy to build the Groover’s Paradise that became the Slacker’s Playground. Although best known as the founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1972, Kennedy made his mark much earlier, helping to establish what became radio station KUT and popularizing the outdoor music festival in Austin in the ’60s with annual July concerts in Zilker Park.
In a town full of talkers, Kennedy was a do-er. When he passed away April 14 at age 84, the talk was about how the Hill Country would’ve been a much different place had it not been for the conservative ex-Marine who was profoundly touched by sad and beautiful songs.
When Kennedy turned 80, the event was celebrated with a three-hour concert at Austin’s Paramount Theatre featuring such Kerrville favorites as Robert Earl Keen, Ruthie Foster, the Flatlanders, Eliza Gilkyson, Bobby Bridger, Terri Hendrix, Randy Rogers and more. Before that milestone I visited Kennedy at his house in Kerrvile and talked about a career that began when he was the 16-year-old “boy singer” for the Bill Creighton Orchestra in his native Buffalo, N.Y. Kennedy didn’t have to haul an instrument, so he was drafted to handle stagehand chores, and within a matter of months he was booking the band. “I was hooked from that point on,” said Kennedy, who loved to sing, but found early on that his place was behind the scenes.
He moved to Texas in the late 1940s with his mother when she got a job as a buyer for Sakowitz, an upscale clothier based in Houston. After serving in the Marines during the Korean War, Kennedy booked jazz, gospel, country, classical, rock, Tejano, Broadway shows — you name it — in addition to the singer- songwriters in Kerrville, where the main stage bears his name. Under Kennedy’s stewardship, Kerrville grew from an indoor event that attracted 2,800 people over three days into the world’s longest continually running folk festival, which annually draws more than 30,000 fans over an 18-day run.
Kennedy was already established as a promoter in 1972 when organizers of the Kerrville-based Texas State Arts & Crafts Fair asked him to put on a music festival at night to keep the crowds in town. The Kerrville Folk Festival was the crowning achievement of Kennedy’s career, but even if it had never happened, his impact on the Central Texas music scene would’ve been profound.
As a 24-year-old freshman at the University of Texas in 1954, Kennedy used a school project to spearhead efforts to raise money for a campus radio station that would become a reality four years later when KUT went on the air. Weeks after graduating from UT in 1957, Kennedy and then-wife Nancylee bought the KHFI classical music station for $21,000.
The roots of Kerrville were planted at the Zilker Hillside Theater in 1964, when Kennedy began booking and hosting the KHFI-FM Summer Music Festival over six nights in July. Monday was Folk Night and included such acts as Bob Dylan mentor Carolyn Hester and Texas country bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
Kennedy worked hard and expected the same of those in his employ. He also demanded respect for musicians. There was that infamous night at emmajoe’s on Guadalupe street when Kennedy flattened a drunk Blaze Foley, who was causing a ruckus during a folksinger’s set.
Teaming up with Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals founder George Wein, Kennedy co-promoted the Longhorn Jazz Festival at Disch Field in 1966 and inside at Municipal Auditorium (later renamed Palmer Auditorium) the next year when it rained. The jaw-dropping lineups included Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, and Nina Simone, plus homecoming sets from Austin- born Teddy Wilson and Kenny Dorham. “Thelonious Monk trashed his hotel room,” said Kennedy, whose behind-the- scenes recollections — including some huge monetary losses at Kerrville when it rained — fill his 1999 autobiography, Music From the Heart (Eakin Press). Monk admitted swinging from the light fixtures and paid the Downtowner Hotel $400.
Kennedy, who never had children because, he said, his work schedule wouldn’t be fair to them, opened the Chequered Flag folk club, named after his passion for race car driving, at 15th and Lavaca streets in 1967. He put the Speed Museum next door in 1968 to display his collection of vintage Porsches, Ferraris and Maseratis.
A conservative owner of sports cars owning a folk club in the ’60s seemed incongruous for the times. But then, Kennedy had always been a model of duality. His best friend of 40 years was the liberal singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, yet until he backed Barack Obama in 2008, Kennedy was an staunch right-winger.
“Rod is that rare combination of sensitive listener and a former Marine who has the determination to just plow through when things get tough,” said Gary Hartman, director of Texas State University’s Center for Texas Music History, in 2010. Preserving music history was a cause dear to Kennedy, who donated 43 boxes of papers and memorabilia from Rod Kennedy Presents to UT’s Center for American History when he retired.
“Just having him around and watching a show sort of raises the bar just a bit,” said Lloyd Maines, who played in the backing band for the 80th birthday event. “I think his passion and persona is what helps make the Kerrville festival a special- feeling place.”
Taking his cue from his military training, Kennedy laid down the rules that kept Kerrville unique: no talking in the audience during a performance, no recorded music between sets, and get that drum circle out of the campgrounds. Kerrville was built on reverence for the songwriter.
“I was pretty intimidated by Rod when I met him in 1981,” said Kennedy’s neighbor Robert Earl Keen in 2010. “Not just because of his reputation, but because he ran something that I very much wanted to be a part of.” Keen said that when he won Kerrville’s New Folk competition in 1983, “it validated music as a career choice for me.”
Although he continued attending the festival up to last year, Kennedy retired in 2002, leaving the producer’s seat to his longtime protégé, Dalis Allen. When I interviewed Kennedy in 2010 he was in love and taking his retirement seriously, with nine time-shares all over the world. He got a check every month from the Kerrville nonprofit (“My title is consultant,” he said, “but nobody listens to me anymore.”) He also sold Enlyten dietary supplements. Robust at 80, he was the product’s greatest endorsement and during his last few years at Kerrville, he had a booth selling the product.
Above all, though, he still listened for great songs until the very end.
“Music changed my life,” he said four years ago. “When I was in the Marines, I had a mission that had nothing to do with feelings. You’re just not aware of anything else. But I’ve heard songs that made me cry.”