Congress didn't mandate it, as it did with 2003's Year of the Blues, but 2006 may have been the Year of Folk.
Just ask Louis Jay Meyers, the executive director of the Folk Alliance -- a member-service and cultural organization that seeks to promote and preserve folk music much like the Memphis-based Blues Foundation does for its genre.
Meyers was hired to run the international organization in the summer of 2005, with his first duty to move the Folk Alliance offices from Silver Springs, Maryland, to its new home amid the burgeoning cultural community in Memphis' South Main Arts District.
This month, the Folk Alliance will host its annual conference and performance showcase in Memphis -- at the downtown Marriott -- for the first time since its move south. The conference, which was held in Memphis as a one-off event in 1997, will be housed in the Bluff City for eight of the next 10 years.
And the timing for Memphis to become the semi-permanent home for the event couldn't be better.
"In the '50s and '60s, folk music was pop music," says Meyers of what has since become more of a niche genre. "At the top of the charts were people like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Harry Belafonte, and Judy Collins. But with [Bob] Dylan having the number-one album in the country [the folk-oriented Modern Times was Dylan's first chart-topper since 1976] and [Bruce] Springsteen's Seeger Sessions bringing that music to several new generations of fans, we've probably just finished one of the biggest years for the music since the 1960s.
"A lot of it is time and place," Meyers says by way of explanation for the resurgence of acoustic troubadours. "The world is kind of messed up right now. There's a lot to sing about and folk singers have always paid attention to the world around them."
Folk is generally not considered a key element in a local music history rich with blues, soul, and rock-and-roll, but Meyers, who moved to Memphis from Austin, Texas, doesn't see it that way.
"Memphis has never been considered a folk market, but it has a rich folk history," Meyers says. "This was such a major stop on that road from Louisiana and Mississippi to cities such as Chicago and St. Louis and Kansas City, and that encompasses what the folk tradition is."
That folk history can be traced back to the jug bands and traditional blues (artists such as Gus Cannon, the Memphis Jug Band, and Furry Lewis) that directly influenced the folk revival of the '60s, when local folk-culture stalwarts such as Jim Dickinson and Sid Selvidge first made their mark.
And there are still plenty of artists in Mem-phis who fit into the folk continuum, from the still-going-strong Selvidge and Dickinson to traditionalists such as William Lee Ellis and David Evans to younger artists associated with labels such as Makeshift, MADJACK, and the Broken String Collective.
Meyers, who was running a community television station in Austin when he applied for the Folk Alliance job (he'd been a member and conference attendee for years) has tapped into the Memphis scene both personally and professionally. Since selling his Austin house and buying a condo in downtown Memphis, he has performed with Dickinson and Keith Sykes, and has played banjo with the bluegrass/folk band the Tennessee Boltsmokers. He is also incorporating plenty of Memphis artists into this month's conference, with a diverse slate of Memphis artists performing across the conference's four days, including a Memphis showcase during Saturday night's open-to-the-public festival.
According to Meyers, there were a lot of factors involved in the decision to move the organization to Memphis.
"The cost of doing business was very high in the D.C. area," Meyers explains. "And we liked being a little more central to the majority of our membership. The roots of this region, with its deep music history [was attractive]. And part of it was the number of music-related nonprofits here that are kindred spirits. Jon Hornyak at the Recording Academy and the Music Commission and the Arts Commission and Convention and Visitors Bureau were all very supportive."
Meyers also cites local organizations such as the Blues Foundation, the Center for Southern Folklore (whose director, Judy Peiser, is a Folk Alliance board member), and community radio station WEVL, as part of a musical "synergy" that the Folk Alliance feeds off. As such, he couldn't have asked for a better location than his organization's storefront on South Main, located across the street from Hornyak's Recording Academy offices, and sharing space on the east side of the street with such cultural locations as WEVL, jazz bar Café Soul, and filmmaker Craig Brewer's Southern Cross the Dog production company.
After a year and a half in its Bluff City residence, the Folk Alliance will give its new home a proper showcase to visiting members at the 19th International Folk Alliance Conference, which will be held February 21st -- 25th and will bring 2000 attendees, including more than 600 performing artists, according to Meyers, to Memphis. And those interested in testing the event out should expect more than just acoustic-guitar-wielding white guys in the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger mold.
"The Folk Alliance is based around the traditional music community," says Meyers. "And that's anything that originates from a traditional music form. It doesn't have to be a U.S. form -- anything from Celtic to mariachi to jazz to klezmer to bluegrass, in addition to singer-songwriters."
Glimpsing at the lineup for the conference, the variety leaps out: Gypsy music, blues (Otis Taylor), bluegrass (Claire Lynch), cajun/creole, and dance exhibitions, in addition to a wide array of notable names from the more standard folk/roots paradigm: James Talley, Karla Bonoff, Jesse Winchester, and Michelle Shocked, among others.
The first three days of the conference -- workshops, panels, and other industry sessions, in addition to showcase performances -- will be restricted to conference registrants, though local Recording Academy members are eligible for day passes.
But Saturday night, the conference will open to the public with the "Folk Alliance International Music and Dance Festival," where $25 wristbands grant you access to 17 stages worth of music from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
"For people who like the coffeehouse set-up, this is perfect," says Meyers, who, 20 years ago, helped create a similar type of fan-friendly music showcase as one of the founders of Austin's South By Southwest music festival. "You can wander from room to room and hear lots of different music. It's like SXSW under one roof."
The 19th International Folk Alliance Conference
Wednesday, February 21st -- Sunday, February 25th
For more info, see FolkAlliance.org.