There’s Stage 5 at Walnut Valley Festival and Camp Cuisine (and fifty other named camps ) at Kerrville Festival. At some you need to be invited to play or wait your chance in the circle. Some like cover songs, others all originals, only classics, or bluegrass.
The Crow’s Nest runs on the idea that each person gets to sing one song whether they are a total stranger, a mainstage performer, or a tonedeaf aspirant. I remember evenings of saying “Wow, who just sang that song?” and that’s how I met some of my favorite songwriters/singers who were not yet known.
Mike Williams runs a tight ship with big listener benefits.
Crow: So Mike Williams, you’ve been a mentor to me and scores of others. At Festivals or in your and Kathy’s livingroom in Nashville, I’ve witnessed your kindness and discerning ear. How did that begin?
Mike: My kindness and discerning ear are up for debate, but it was the lust for the Muse and a pathological inability to endure out-of-tune instruments that created it. (I’ve been known to go behind someone playing in a picking circle and tune their guitar while they ‘re playing it!
In 1963 when I hitchhiked from east coast to west, I got invited one night to a guitar pull in an apartment in Berkeley, California. Some well-known folkies were there, including a slim black man who, when asked to sing, said,”I do not play no rock and roll.” (Mississippi Fred MacDowell)
I watched the music go around the circle, and though I didn’t get to play, I yearned to someday be in that circle, in the company of good musicians and creative people, to have a chance to earn their approval.
Crow: When did you start Camp Cuisine?
Mike: The Kerrville Folk Festival provided a venue for that. Forty years ago I established Camp Cuisine in the campground, and since then our campfire circles are known as a place where songwriters and pickers had “better bring the goods.” Our motto is Don’t kill the dog, because if it’s two o’clock on a full-moon campground night and 150 people are crammed around a songwriter circle and loving every note, and then somebody plays an eight minute song with no melody and no chorus, and you look up at the end of the song and everybody has left. . . you killed the dog. I have lambasted a young Ken Gaines and similarly abused Kevin So, who is a musical powerhouse and longtime band member with Keb’ Mo’.
Some Kerrverts (regulars to the festival) think me elitist for insisting on only top quality music at Camp Cuisine…but I only know one way to run a picking party, and that is to start on the ceiling and stay there. It has been manna of my life to host more than 500 great Kerrville campfire picking circles.
When Kathy and I moved to Nashville in 1993, we bought a house with a big livingroom, and I organized The 6-Chair Pickin’ Party, a Wednesday night invitation event with me ansd five featured songwriters, many of them #1 hit writers plus 80 or 90 of our best friends crowded in beak to tail. At these parties nobody paid or earned a dime, we were just there to kiss the hem of the Muse. About 6:30 the empty house would welcome a steady stream of folks walking up our steep driveway. (We had a sign on the mailbox, “Park on the street, sing on key”). By 7pm the house would be crammed and I’d yell, “Shut up and sit down!” With a break in the middle, we’d go around the circle five times and end at 10pm. At 10:30 pm the house was empty but the walls still rang with music and camaradierie.