Fifteen years ago this week, in 2001, I drove through the gates of the Kerrville Folk Festival for the first time. An old hippie reached into my car window, gave me a sweaty hug and said "Welcome home!" I must have looked like a deer in the headlights cause someone pointed me toward a stage to go hear some music. I wandered in and sat down behind a gentle-faced, older man. He looked like he was in the know, we struck up a conversation about what was happening that afternoon- a performing songwriter competition called New Folk. I later learned that kind man's name was Bruce Rouse. I listened in the hot Texas sun as writer after writer took the stage and offered up well-crafted songs, some beautiful, some funny, all from the heart. It occurred to me that I had stumbled upon something magical. Intrigued, I wanted to know more.
After the New Folk performers were finished, Bruce suggested I find my way up to a place called Chapel Hill, where any and all writers were welcome to bring a song and sing it at something known as Ballad Tree. I started weaving through the campgrounds, half lost, but determined to find my way. Everyone I met would smile and point me in the right direction. As I climbed the long, rocky stairs to Chapel Hill, there beneath a tree was another kind man, this one with a guitar, a camera, and an infectious smile. He introduced himself as Bill Nash, our host. The sun burned hotter now, but I sat and listened as folks from all walks each brought a song. Some songs were great, some were terrible, but every person was made to feel welcome and brave just for bringing it. When it was my turn, I took my place under the tree and sang "Find My Way Home." Little did I know, I had.
After Ballad Tree finished, I headed toward the Mainstage, where the evening concerts were set to begin. Alone on a bench, I sat listening, learning, and laughing and in awe of the beauty each tunesmith brought to share. I made a wish in my heart that one day- one day- I would craft songs worthy of taking my place on that stage.
Not sure if it was Bill, Bruce or some other soul, but I was told to stick around the campgrounds after the conclusion of Mainstage. All across the festival grounds, huddled in campsites, songwriters were circled up swapping songs under the starry Texas sky, and I was welcome to join them. I set out that night, wholly uncertain that I had the guts to walk up to a circle of strangers, take a seat and share a song. I wandered aimlessly through rocky paths and tents for a long time, listening on the outside looking in. I don't know how I made it up there, but I ended up standing on the edge of Crow's Nest, where about ten to twelve folks were gathered in song around a fire. Too afraid to engage, I took it all in until a woman caught my eye, and with a nod she invited me in to sit beside her. She must have seen my fear and lack of confidence, and I don't recall what I muttered to her. But with that fire lighting up her face, she smiled at me and said, "I'm Rachel. Welcome home." That was the only time I ever met Rachel Bissex, but like many others, I'll never forget her.
Five years (and five submissions) later, I was named as a Kerrville New Folk Finalist. Ecstatic and utterly shocked to be a part of the 32 finalists, David and I passed through those Festival gates and into the refuge of Rouse House New Folk Camp. Little did we know at the time, the familiar "welcome home" greeting would one day ring so true. It's hard to believe that first New Folk weekend was a decade ago. We've traveled so far since those early days on the ranch. I didn't win in 2006, or the following year when I was chosen again to compete. Now, after witnessing eleven New Folk classes perform, I can say without question it is truly an honor to be chosen and counted among the thirty-two. Seriously good company! Helping with Rouse Camp in subsequent years has given us more lifetime folk family friendships than I can number- you know who you are 😉
We've only missed one festival since 2006; last year was not in the cards, for obvious reasons. Endless memories have been etched in our hearts, I could never list them all. After years of hard work and wishing, Dalis invited me to share my songs and stories on the Kerrville Mainstage for the first time in 2009. That year, and each time since, I stood tall in my shoes, owned my moment, and beamed with joy and gratitude to be a part of such a rich community of song. As I sang, I couldn't help but think of that first night on the ranch, eight years before.
This year I was taken back, and reminded that not all festival memories are sweet. Just like life, it's a mixed bag. In 2011, on my 37th birthday, I was performing at Wine & Music. David and I had been trying for a long time to conceive a child with no success. The day of my set, I woke to a red and clear message from my body that our efforts had failed again that month. I was devastated, to say the least. That day, I walked onto the ranch in grief and mourning, and I surrendered my dream of having a child. We had no money for fertility treatments or further testing, and I felt we had reached the end of ourselves. I was exhausted from the process and had lost hope. Six days later, through complete providence and our dear friend Rhonda, we were accepted into a medical study for unexplained infertility. All the treatments and tests would be free. Eight months after that, I performed on Mainstage with baby Beatrice growing in my belly. In 2013, we brought Bea at age 9 months and in 2014 when she was almost 2.
That year was also bittersweet for me. In an effort to conceive a second child, we were again in the midst of fertility treatments, this time not free. We thought it would just be a matter of repeating the regimen we'd gone through with conceiving Bea. But the first two rounds of treatments failed, and I especially was feeling panicked and broken. On Sunday morning of opening weekend, I woke to the all too familiar red and clear message from my body that our third round of treatments had failed again that month. I tried to smile through New Folk Breakfast at Rouse, but inside I was torn apart. It was a rainy year like this one, and the clouds seemed fitting for my grieving, sad heart. Our inner circle was in the know, and they cradled us in hugs, tenderness, friendship, and song. It was such a safe place to be broken hearted. No one tried to fix it, and we knew we weren't alone. I'll never forget sitting at the back of Threadgill after New Folk as our dear friend Eric held space while we shared our story, and he prayed for us, prayers of mercy and an open womb. Little did we know, a year later we'd be in the fight of our lives, and that Hollis would rise from the ashes of it all. And even from far away, our tribe held us, offered songs and love in ways we couldn't have imagined. Deb and Lindsey reached toward us with unbelievable generosity, and friends like Amy took time to sit at my hospital bedside on the way through town. We weren't on the ranch in 2015, but the Festival was with us all along, as part of the great provision and Love that carried us when we needed it most.
I've written about this before, but this year has not been easy. The aftermath of spring 2015 has been harsh, raw, and punishing, as trauma often is. It's been difficult for us to feel our feet underneath us, as individuals and as a family. We are not lacking in gratitude, but we've been fighting for joy and weariness is palpable. When we stepped on the ranch this weekend, we were so very glad to be there, to have made it back among our folk family. There were lots of hugs, which is not unusual, but many of them included a lingering or a look in the eyes as if to say, "We're still holding you close. We were scared with you. We're so glad to see you." And a sort of, "Whoa. That was intense." Once again, we loved meeting the New Folk and listening to the beauty of their offerings. It felt so good to laugh and listen and learn again the audacity of a song to move us from here to somewhere. It's such a privilege to truly hear.
We were so excited to bring the kids this year. In our hearts we hope they will grow up coming every year, and that the music will carry them as it has us. After doing the whole "flooded tent with a small kid" thing in 2014, this year we booked a hotel room for the festival. Of course, the hotel flooded in the rains. And when I say flooded, I mean standing water in our whole room and water coming down the walls. I was feeling so overwhelmed and traumatized again until I remembered how far we've come, and what we've come through. And my friend Kelly reminded me that my most prized possessions were safe, and she couldn't have said a truer thing. I looked back and thought about how much of the treasure in my life I never thought I'd have, and how the festival is subtly woven through the story of us. We moved our wet belongings to a new room, headed south on 16, drove through the gates of the Quiet Valley Ranch as they whispered "Welcome Home."