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VOL. 123 | NO. 28 | Monday, February 11, 2008

Folk Conference To Bring Musicians

By Andy Meek

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GETTING FOLKIE: The Memphis duo of Deering and Down is one of several acts who have been invited to perform at this month's Folk Alliance conference. -- Photo Courtesy Of Kellen Kjera

Singer-songwriter Olga Mathus moved to Memphis from New Orleans not long after Hurricane Katrina struck the Crescent City in August 2005. A slender, blonde chanteuse with a soulful, sometimes husky, blues voice, Olga - as she's widely known - encountered a music scene vastly different from the one she left behind.

That's one reason she's looking forward to supporting and participating in a conference and showcase event later this month that will dramatically elevate the city's music scene. More than 200 artists and musical acts from around the world are expected to converge on Memphis Feb. 20-24 to take part in the 20th Annual International Folk Alliance Conference.

The event will be held at the Marriott Hotel and Memphis Cook Convention Center. The official Web site of the Folk Alliance, www.folk.org, has the latest information about the conference.

JUMP FOR MUSIC: The Memphis band Giant Bear is one of some 200 artists and acts invited to perform at this month's Folk Alliance conference. -- Photo Courtesy Of Kellen Kjera

In one of her songs, Olga sings about the motivation for her career, that she's "been looking my whole life, been chasing the devil's muse/From the mountains to the cities to the foothills of the blues." That spirit carried her to the birthplace of the blues, and today she plays as frequently as she can around Memphis.

She and her husband, Jimbo, also own and operate the Delta Recording Service studio in the North Mississippi town of Como. But she said it still can be hard to scratch out a living as a musician in and around Memphis.

"In New Orleans, music is very, very important," she said. "People will really go out any night of the week to see music, so you could actually make a living as a musician. You could play five nights a week and make good money, whereas in Memphis, you can't play five nights a week and, in many cases, you might not get paid."

America's song in Memphis

The power of song, high-profile keynote speakers such as former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the screening of a documentary about folk star Pete Seeger and much more will be part of the yearly folk music confab, which has been staged in Memphis twice before.

"When (companies) are doing a search for an industry site in this region of the country, it's much easier for them to go to one Web site that encompasses all four counties and properties that are available, as opposed to trying to do that individually in each county."

- Sonny Simmons

Reno's appearance might seem like a surprise, except for the fact that her nephew-in-law is a singer-songwriter and helped inspire her to get involved in the three-CD "Song of America" project. Working as the project's executive producer, Reno helped compile that 50-song set of folk tunes as a way to illustrate various periods of American history.

"The Janet Reno thing is pretty cool," said Folk Alliance executive director Louis Meyers. "This is the last leg of her promo tour for the CD, and we are one of the beneficiaries of that CD."

Meyers is a former student and teacher at the first music business school in the country, the Hank Thompson College of Country Music at Claremore Junior College in Oklahoma. A musician since the age of 6, he also co-founded the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, in 1987 and has run similar conferences in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Walking, spending in Memphis

Citing figures partly from the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, Meyers said he expects the conference to bring a $2 million economic impact to the city. The Marriott hotel reportedly has been sold out for those days.

Parts of the event in Memphis will be filmed and broadcast on the Internet. The Memphis-based Folk Alliance, which operates out of a storefront office along South Main Street, expects close to 2,000 people to show up for the conference, a number that includes everyone from musicians to businesspeople to members of the general public.

"I think it's great that they have this music conference in Memphis, and I would say it proves there's definitely not a shortage of people who are trying to create more of a vibrant music scene in Memphis," said Olga, who's one of the dozens of artists invited to perform at this year's conference showcase.

Other artists invited to perform include Deering and Down, a duo whose repertoire touches on everything from blues to country to rock.

"We relocated from Juneau, Alaska, moved here about three years ago, and feel like we've been totally welcomed by Memphis and all the players here," said Deering and Down vocalist Lahna Deering. "The main reason we came here is just because of the whole vibe and scene, and every time we leave Memphis and come back, we realize why we picked here."

Meyers said Memphis benefits in ways large and small from the international conference. Attendees, for example, are returning this year perhaps better armed with information on how to get the most out of their stay in the conference's host city.

"I think every year they come back, they'll feel more a part of the community and get out more to see and hang out in the community," he said. "That's always a good thing. They know their favorite restaurants now. They all know where Alcenia's is and how late Westy's delivers. So there's a comfort level with that, even for somebody from Denmark or Alberta or wherever they may be."

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