Rod Kennedy, who founded the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1972 and watched it grow into one of the nation’s premier folk music showcases, died Monday morning in hospice care, surrounded by family and friends. He was 84.
Kennedy was 42 when he launched the festival as an offshoot of the Texas State Arts & Crafts Fair, first at Kerrville Municipal Auditorium and then at the Quiet Valley Ranch about 10 miles south of town (about two hours west of Austin). An early associate and champion of the festival was Peter Yarrow of the iconic 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul & Mary, who flew from New York to Texas yesterday to say his goodbyes to Kennedy.
"Everybody was singing," Yarrow said of his Sunday visit to Kennedy’s bedside. "We sang ‘Give Yourself to Love’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ and some songs I’d written when we were first getting to know each other."
Born Jan. 22, 1930, in Buffalo, N.Y., Kennedy aspired to be a big-band singer in his youth but ended up working behind the scenes, booking the Bill Creighton Orchestra. "I was hooked from that point on," Kennedy told former American-Statesman writer Michael Corcoran in 2010, shortly before a concert at the Paramount Theatre celebrating his 80th birthday featuring the Flatlanders, Robert Earl Keen, Bobby Bridger and others.
Bridger got to know Kennedy just before the first Kerrville festival and took part in the inaugural "New Folk" series, which in subsequent years developed into an influential contest that helped boost the early careers of songwriters such as Lucinda Williams and Hal Ketchum. "I played 27 festivals consecutively after that," says Bridger, who became a member of the festival’s board in 1976.
A 1975 New Folk winner who rose to prominence in a different field was political strategist Mark McKinnon, a key member of George W. Bush’s presidential team. "Rod Kennedy is the reason a lot of people like me ended up in Austin," he said Monday via email. "I came out to Kerrville from Nashville in 1975, and discovered Austin on the way back. When Rod asked me to come back in 1976, I packed my stuff and stayed."
Kennedy first came to Texas as a teen, when his mother got a job in Houston in the late 1940s. After a stretch with the Marines during the Korean War, he attended the University of Texas, where he took part in early fundraising activities for a radio station that became KUT. After graduating, he bought KHFI, then a classical station, and booked a summer festival for the station that included folk and blues musicians.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, he owned a folk music club at 15th and Lavaca streets called the Chequered Flag. He also co-produced a couple of major jazz festivals with Newport Folk and Jazz Festival producer George Wein, which led Kennedy to Yarrow.
"George recommended Rod, and Rod produced some concerts for me in Texas," Yarrow recalled Monday. "We went on the road together and we had a glorious time. He said he was going to be producing a folk festival, and of course I knew the ropes on that, having been on the board at Newport."
Yarrow stressed that Kennedy sought out artists for the festival "who were writing from the heart. The big criterion for judging them was the art of it and the emotional power of it — but not what was commercially viable. That’s not what Rod was listening for."
Kerrville also became an early launching pad for Texas acts such as the Flatlanders, which played the first festival in 1972 with former President Lyndon Johnson in attendance. Other prominent Texas artists who appeared at Kerrville in their developing years included Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Tish Hinojosa.
While the main stage featured a mix of established names and rising hopefuls, much of the magic happened at impromptu after-hours campground jams. Michelle Shocked’s breakthrough album, "The Texas Campfire Tapes," was recorded on a Sony Walkman at one of them in the mid-1980s.
Politically, Kennedy stood out as a conservative among the left-leaning folkie crowd, though his views changed over the decades, to the point where he supported Barack Obama in 2008. "He was quite conservative back in the ’70s, but he slowly became more liberal,." Bridger said. "The more liberal he became, the better friends we became."
In 2008, Kennedy sold the festival to the nonprofit Texas Folk Music Foundation, which continues to operate both the main three-weekend festival anchored by Memorial Day and a smaller Labor Day event. This year’s festival runs May 22-June 8 with performers including Judy Collins, Steve Forbert, Ray Benson & Milkdrive, Mary Gauthier, Dale Watson and Yarrow.
"If I wanted to imagine the way the world could be, I’d go to Kerrville," Yarrow said Monday. "And the person whose vision it was, the person who inspired everybody, was Rod. It was a place not just to enjoy music, but also to visualize what the world could be like, and live it."