Tom at Kerrville Folk Festival

Tom at Kerrville Folk Festival

“A Report from the Kerrville Folk Festival” Joe Jencks, June 2009

If you have ever been to the Kerrville Festival, you know that it is a unique experience. Rising out of the west Texas hill country, the festival grounds host a month long village of musicians and artisans who gather to celebrate and connect.

The New Folk Competition was the idea of Local 1000 member Peter Yarrow and Kerrville founder Rod Kennedy. Peter used to have a good number of young writers wait for him outside the stage door, wanting to share songs with him after performances. He knew that there were other high profile performers all over the country experiencing the same phenomenon. So he and Rod discussed creating a place where emerging writers could come share their songs and be heard. The first competition was held in 1972, and it has grown and evolved since then. Now they cut off entry at 800, and 32 finalists are selected from that number. Of those, six are declared winners.

Tom Neilson is the most recent Local 1000 member to win New Folk. He is a humble man in his early sixties and has been working as a professional road musician for over 40 years. He has been a songwriter for over 45 years. Through it all he has held true to his beliefs and has devoted himself to the betterment of the lives he touches, and those that touch him. His music is socially conscious and rooted in the traditions of Woody, Pete and Utah. And so when Tom won the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Competition this last month, he said it felt like a victory for all of the musicians who play and write music of conscience. Tom went on to say, “Of course I appreciate being selected as a winner, but I am more grateful that the music itself is being honored and recognized as a legitimate component of folk music. That is the greater honor, to be a part of creating this music for so long, and have it acknowledged within this community.”

Indeed, many songwriting competitions in North America do cater toward a more commercially viable style of songwriting. And for one of our own to be honored at this particular festival is significant. Tom says, “I don’t write for radio play, for recording contracts, or to impress anyone. I write to help people organize, educate, have fun, raise money and reach out. I did not come here with a competitive sense, just a desire to present the message of who I am, and what I believe.” And in an environment that often honors a more commercial style of writing, it was indeed a pleasure to see a writer like Tom Neilson celebrated.