A double love affair with jazz and folk – KC STUDIO
photo of Bob McWilliams by Crystal Image
A folk epiphany 50 years ago hooked the longtime jazz fan, who went on to found West Side Folk in Lawrence and is known to many as the veteran ‘Trailmix’ dj
Bob McWilliams, the veteran Kansas Public Radio DJ, doesn’t really consider himself part of the Kansas City folk scene.
Certainly, he regularly attends the annual conference organized by Folk Alliance International, whose headquarters are in Kansas City. And he’s been a familiar presence at the Kansas City Irish Festival, often introducing bands. And many of the listeners who tune in via air or online for his weekly “Trail Mix” shows every Friday and Saturday are in Kansas City. But still, he sees Lawrence’s music scene as distinct.
But let’s go back. At first, McWilliams was a fan of jazz. Indeed, he still hosts jazz shows on KPR on weekdays. But he had never paid much attention to folk music – until he did.
“Let me step back in time,” McWilliams said. In the 1960s, folk music was dominated by commercial bands broadcast on the radio – Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, et al. “It was light folk, but they were great performers,” he said.
But then, almost by chance, McWilliams discovered another kind of folk music that made a deep impression on him. And it happened in one of Kansas City’s legendary concert halls.
“In the fall of 1972, when I was a senior in high school, I was a volunteer for the (George) McGovern campaign,” he said. “We were told that Phil Ochs was going to play for us the last night at the Cowtown Ballroom. A guy comes on stage with a guitar. My experience at the time had been with bands. Now a guy with an acoustic guitar comes out and starts playing. And he was phenomenal. He just blew me away.
Phil Ochs was a poetic songwriter and protest singer during the Vietnam War, highly respected for his talent but never commercially successful. The next day, McWilliams went to Capers Corners, the Kansas City, Kansas record store that has become something of a cultural touchstone, and purchased two Ochs records.
“I started going to shows at the Cowtown Ballroom,” he said. “I really loved Brewer and Shipley, and found myself liking bands like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which were more country/folk.”
While attending Boston Law School in the 70s, McWilliams said he became a total, immersive jazz monster. Back home, his musical world changed again when someone asked him, “Are you going to Winfield?
West Side Folk, the non-profit presenting organization…introduced a range of singer-songwriters to Lawrence audiences.
Winfield, Kansas is home to the Walnut Valley Music Festival, founded in 1972 as a camping and gathering gathering that started as a two-day affair and grew to five. Most attendees and performers pitch a tent on the festival grounds. The extensive acoustic music festival includes the National Flat Picking Championships and the International Finger Style Championships for Guitarists. Other competitions are devoted to the autoharp, the mandolin, the mountain dulcimer, the hammered dulcimer, the banjo and the violin.
Out of curiosity, McWilliams attended the festival for a day. Once again he was blown away.
This was the start of McWilliams’ dual love affair with jazz and folk (or, if you prefer, Americana).
For 20 years, West Side Folk in Lawrence has sponsored a who’s who of singers, songwriters and guitarists, as seen in this selection of posters promoting their performances. (posters courtesy of Bob McWilliams)
The Birth of West Side Folk
Eventually, McWilliams and a group of volunteers began promoting live music. This, as you might expect, had humble beginnings. McWilliams was at a music event in the mid-1990s when a man approached him and handed him a CD of the new young Boston singer. Listen to it, see what you think, the man said. So McWilliams did. As it had just happened, McWilliams and his family had moved into a house in Lawrence with a large game room in the basement – an acceptable venue for house concerts. And he liked what he heard from the young singer from Boston. Her name was Dar Williams, who in a year or two would be a top performer on the singer-songwriter circuit.
“So in about three weeks we had Dar Williams,” McWilliams recalled. “We had laughable, crude, mimeographed posters. And I played a song from his album every night on the radio. There was almost no advertising. But we have 40 people. (Full disclosure: This writer was in the audience.)
“It was really the start,” McWilliams said. He started to book other artists: Ellis Paul, Susan Werner,
The Kennedys. This was the start of West Side Folk, the nonprofit presenting organization that introduced a range of singer-songwriters to Lawrence audiences.
“We formed a board of directors, drafted statutes,” he said. The original venue was Westside Presbyterian Church. For 20 years the band sponsored a who’s who of singers, songwriters and guitarists – Greg Brown, Richard Shindell, Antje Dukevot, Peter Mulvey, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Chris Smither (a Kansas native making a rare regional appearance), Lucy Kaplansky and Martin Sacristain. And many more.
Kansas City folk music fans would make the trip to Lawrence because no Kansas City presenter was doing exactly what West Side Folk was doing. If you wanted to hear a Chris Smither or a Greg Brown or a Lucy Kaplansky, you had to take the highway to Lawrence.
A streak that brought exceptionally gifted musicians to audiences for two decades finally came to an end in 2016.
“Nobody took a dime,” McWilliams said. “We prided ourselves on being able to treat artists fairly and stay in good financial shape all the time.”
As a DJ, McWilliams continues to wear two hats. Between 1 and 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday, he hosts “Trail Mix,” a medley of Americana, singer-songwriters, bluegrass, alt-country, traditional folk, and Celtic music. And from Tuesday to Thursday, he hosts “Jazz in the Night” between 9 p.m. and midnight.
“I get paid to listen to music,” McWilliams said. “So there is an endless flow, which is great. And I love meeting new people.
To learn more, visit kansaspublicradio.org.
The Folk Alliance International conference, originally scheduled for February, has been moved to May 18-22 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more at www.folk.org.