Last February, Evan Bartels, Mike Semrad and Hana Zara headed to Kansas City, Missouri, to take in the Folk Alliance International Conference, which, for four days, takes over the Westin Hotel in Crown Center.
“We just all kind of went down there together as an exploratory mission,” Bartels said. “They do grants for first-time attendees. We got one and went down.”
The trio found what is billed as the “world’s largest gathering of the folk music industry and community,” an event that features a convention expo room packed with booths for booking agents, record labels, festivals, folk organizations, radio stations and guitar and string companies and lots and lots and lots of (very loosely defined) folk music.
For the biggest names in the folk world, the music happens in 10 “official showcases” each day, that are held in the hotel’s ballrooms and large meetings spaces.
This year, from Feb. 14-18, official showcase performers will include John Oates of Hall and Oates, Mary Gauthier, Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls, Gretchen Peters, Grant-Lee Phillips, Dar Williams, Ana Egge, Jorma Kaukonen, The Mastersons, Ronnie Cox, Ruthie Foster and Stephen Kellogg.
When those showcases end, the hotel fills with music from “private showcases” held in rooms on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors, starting at 10 p.m. and going until 4 a.m.
“The best ones are organizations and record labels,” Bartels said of the private showcases. “I was hanging out at the Bloodshot Records one last year. I saw Robbie Fulks, who was nominated for a Grammy, in a hotel room with 12 other people.”
This year, for the first time, KZUM Radio will have a private showcase space -- room 701 to be exact -- that it will call the “KZUM Nebraska Room.” It will feature a rotation of Nebraska artists performing on each night. KZUM also will have a booth in the expo room.
"The opportunity to help promote Nebraska artists at a huge conference where the industry gathers that is just 3½ to 4 hours away was too good to pass up,” KZUM program director Ryan Evans said.
KZUM will celebrate its 40th anniversary in February and was looking to find ways to take its mission to promote arts and culture in Nebraska to a higher level. Participating in Folk Alliance will allow it to do just that, helping to expose Nebraska folk and roots musicians to an international audience, Evans said.
To raise funds for the Nebraska showcase, KZUM will hold “The Great Winter Ramble” at the Pla Mor Ballroom Saturday. Performers will include Mike Semrad and the River Hawks, Andrea von Kampen, Matt Cox and Jack Hotel as well as Bartels, who will be playing solo.
Food from Lippy’s BBQ will be available to purchase with all food sales donated to KZUM. A silent auction of items from local businesses also will be held with all proceeds going to the Nebraska showcase.
Money raised Saturday will go to cover expenses for the conference, the showcase room, travel and lodging. Tickets are $10 in advance at kzum.org or $12 day of show.
The Nebraska Room will join rooms dedicated to Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Britain, Canada and Australia at the conference that last year drew people from 27 countries.
“I met these guys -- they flew in eight band members and a manager from Tel Aviv, Israel,” Bartels said. “They play American-style roots music. They flew in for that, then they were making a record in North Carolina and then going to tour Russia. There’s a real mixture of people down there.”
That blend of people, Bartels said, is more than just an international mix.
“In the folk genre, there are people who are living it as their life, some of them are still even hopping freights (trains),” Bartels said. “There will be some of them there. Then there are the guys who are being slick about it, who buy weird hats and strange clothes who are trying to get attention because it’s what’s popular now. They are there too.”
Bartels and Semrad got to play a few times at last year’s Folk Alliance. Bartels played a couple of the “pay-to-play” showcases, he and Semrad joined Utica singer-songwriter Hope Dunbar on her showcase appearances and Bartels took part in several of the spontaneous “very communal jam-style things” that pop up in the hotel throughout the conference.
“There’s plenty of opportunities to play down there, for sure,” Bartels said. “You’re going to get to play music if you want to.”
Especially this year, for those who will play KZUM’s Nebraska Room.