Folk singers, songwriters and musicians flock to Stamford for conference

There’ll be more singers, songwriters and guitars per square foot in Stamford this weekend than in any other city in the state, and possibly the entire Northeast. That’s because hundreds of performers as well as presenters, promoters, agents, managers, and folk DJs, will be coming together for the 25th annual New England Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) conference taking place Nov. 7-10 at the Crowne Plaza Stamford Hotel.

NERFA is one of five regional affiliates that make up Folk Alliance International (FAI). Other affiliate regions represent the Southeast, Southwest, Midwest, and West. Each region hosts its own conference, but the big one is the Folk Alliance International conference taking place in New Orleans in January. NERFA, itself, represents a region that includes Connecticut, and reaches far and wide, from Canada to Delaware.

“Folk Alliance conferences exist to help musicians hone their skills and introduce musicians to DJs who might play their music and venue operators or house concert hosts who might hire them,” said Barbara Shiller, NERFA vice president. “In addition to performance showcases, there are workshops on topics such as vocal training, creating a good website, or developing a good social media presence. The exhibit hall will have tables from venues with info about their hiring practices as well as extras like festivals and songwriting competitions. There will be tables from industry professionals, too, like guitar builders, recording studios, publicists, and some musicians, who will take tables to introduce themselves to the community.”

Besides daily workshops, there are formal and semi-formal showcases, late night “guerrilla” showcases featuring performances in dozens of hotel rooms that run into the early morning hours, and a keynote address by Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary.

And although the conference falls under the “folk” banner, the styles of music vary widely.

“I’m sure if you pulled ten attendees aside at the conference and asked them ‘What is folk music?’ you would get ten distinctly different answers,” said Ethan Baird, NERFA board secretary, chair of the programming committee, and a member of the touring folk quartet Pesky J. Nixon. “I have a broad definition for this music that moves me, music written celebrating vulnerability. A great love song is about putting yourself out there. A great protest song is about declaring yourself to a position. Great blues often is the definition of self-conscious honesty. A great spiritual is about celebrating our frailty in the face of something greater. That’s just the way I see it, and I would rather invite people in than build walls to keep people out.”

This is the NERFA conference’s fourth year in Stamford — prior conferences took place in the Catskills — and Shiller finds the location very agreeable for all that takes place. “One benefit to holding the event in Stamford is the fairly central location for the conference,” she said. “People come from Maryland and up through Canada. There is good train service from New York City, and it is a challenge to find a hotel that can accommodate 700-800 people and does not mind music being played in the lobby and private rooms all hours of the day and night. Besides concerts and showcases, there are workshops, so there need to be good-sized breakout rooms as well as a really large dining room.”

On the programming side, musicians will find plenty of topics to choose from. “Personally, my primary criteria is that anything that we present have an actionable side to it, so that attendees should feel that they are learning something and can take that with them and find a way to be more productive from the discussions and workshops here,” said Baird. “We are aiming at as wide a perspective as possible. We have a strong focus this year on opening the doors wider in folk music as ways of evolving into a space that has more diverse representation in its attendance and participation.”

And Baird feels very fortunate to have folk legend Stookey delivering the conference keynote address. “To me, it’s a blessing to have someone who has not only been such a key member of the folk community over the last 60-plus years, but who has spent such a significant portion of his life dedicated to good work, activism, and mentorship to younger artists. Having him to celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary is just a perfect opportunity.”

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