There have been moments in recent years when Nancy Johnson Barker has wondered whether it’s time to retire Kentucky Music Weekend, the folk festival she began 37 years ago in Iroquois Park. It was hard work when she was 29, and she’s now 66, with plenty of other things on her plate.
But she can’t let it go. Or more likely, it won’t let go of her.
“It just has a life of its own,” said Barker, of Bardstown. “I do love it, and I know there are a lot of people who care about it.”
The festival starts today and runs through Sunday in and around the Iroquois Amphitheater. More than 20 performers will be on two stages, along with storytellers, workshops and a crafts fair. Headliners include Anne MacFie, Small Potatoes, Grease Gravy String Band, John Gage and Storefront Congregation. Contests will be held Saturday afternoon to name Kentucky’s mountain and hammered dulcimer champions.
All of it is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 (or whatever you can afford) for main-stage concerts tonight and Saturday. The money goes toward expenses and, most importantly, the performers, who show up with no guarantee of being paid.
Even if you’re lukewarm on folk music, Kentucky Music Weekend is one of the city’s most laid-back and genuine events. Impromptu jam sessions break out under the shade of trees, and some of the country’s finest folk and bluegrass performers fill the schedule.
It’s a living history lesson in the kind of music that only a few decades ago was found in every classroom in Kentucky.
“It’s important for people to support this kind of music,” said Barker, an accomplished dulcimer player and singer with the Kentucky Standard Band. “Not only is it great music, but it’s part of our heritage.”
Barker got a vivid reminder of that heritage a few weeks ago in Berea, when she was part of group of friends and folk musicians from around the country who were invited to visit the great Jean Ritchie at her home. The Mother of Folk, who turns 90 in December, had a serious stroke in 2009 but has bounced back.
Ritchie even led some songs during a five-hour session of picking and singing that left Barker energized and ready to power through another festival.
“Right about the time we had the party is usually when everything that can go wrong (with the festival) does — cancellations, changes, surprises,” Barker said. “So I made a list of all the things that were bumming me out, and on the other side I made a list of all the incredible things, and on top of that list was Jean Ritchie’s party.
“It made the rest of it seem so trivial. It was a gift to each one of us just being in that room. A gift from the cosmos, I guess, just to experience that joy of singing together. Oh, I just got cold chills!”
For a full schedule, go to www.kentuckymusicweekend.com.
Contact Jeffrey Lee Puckett at (502) 582-4160. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.