At last year's Kerrville Folk Festival at the Quiet Valley Ranch, Rod Kennedy, who founded the event in 1972 and retired 30 years later, was seen standing in front of the empty stage in the middle of the day.
"He didn't know anyone was watching," said Lloyd Maines, who was sitting under the trees, waiting to teach a songwriters class. "He just stopped and stood there looking toward the stage for a long while." In the silence, no doubt, the veteran promoter heard music. Having turned 80 on Jan. 22, Kennedy can look back on his five-plus decades in the music business, during which he produced more than 1,500 shows, with great satisfaction.
Kennedy — whose milestone birthday will be celebrated Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre with a three-hour concert featuring such Kerrville favorites as Robert Earl Keen, Ruthie Foster, the Flatlanders, Eliza Gilkyson, Bobby Bridger, Randy Rogers, Terri Hendrix and more — entered the business as the 16-year-old "boy singer" for the Bill Creighton Orchestra in Kennedy's native Buffalo, N.Y. Kennedy didn't have to haul an instrument, so he was drafted to handle stagehand chores, and within a matter of months he was booking the band.
"I was hooked from that point on," said Kennedy, who loves to sing in barbershop quartets but found early on that his place was behind the scenes.
He moved to Texas in the late 1940s with his mother when she got a job as a buyer for Sakowitz , an upscale clothier based in Houston. After serving in the Marines during the Korean War, Kennedy booked jazz, gospel, country, classical, rock, Tejano, Broadway shows — you name it — in addition to the singer-songwriters in Kerrville, where the main stage bears his name. Under Kennedy's stewardship, Kerrville grew from an indoor event that attracted 2,800 people over three days into the world's longest-running folk festival, which annually draws more than 30,000 fans.
Kennedy was established as a promoter in 1972 when organizers of the Kerrville-based Texas State Arts & Crafts Fair asked him to put on a music festival at night to keep the crowds in town. The Kerrville Folk Festival was the crowning achievement of Kennedy's career, but even if it had never happened, his impact on the Central Texas music scene would've been profound.
As a 24-year-old freshman at the University of Texas in 1954, Kennedy used a school project to spearhead efforts to raise money for a campus radio station that would become a reality four years later when KUT went on the air. Weeks after graduating from UT in 1957, Kennedy and then-wife Nancylee bought the KHFI classical music station for $21,000.
The roots of Kerrville were planted at the Zilker Hillside Theater in 1964, when Kennedy began booking and hosting the KHFI-FM Summer Music Festival over six nights in July. Monday was Folk Night and included such acts as Bob Dylan mentor Carolyn Hester and Texas country bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
Teaming up with Newport jazz and folk festivals founder George Wein , Kennedy co-promoted the Longhorn Jazz Festival at Disch Field in 1966 and inside at Municipal Auditorium (later renamed Palmer Auditorium) the next year when it rained. The jaw-dropping lineups included Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Nina Simone, plus homecoming sets from Austin-born Teddy Wilson and Kenny Dorham. "Thelonious Monk trashed his hotel room," said Kennedy, whose behind-the-scenes recollections — including some huge monetary losses at Kerrville when it rained — fill his 1999 autobiography "Music From the Heart" (Eakin Press). Monk admitted swinging from the light fixtures and paid the Downtowner Hotel $400.
Kennedy, who's never had children because, he said, his work schedule wouldn't be fair to them, opened the Chequered Flag folk club, named after his passion for race car driving, at 15th and Lavaca streets in 1967. He put the Speed Museum next door in 1968 to display his collection of vintage Porsches, Ferraris and Maseratis.
A conservative owner of sports cars owning a folk club in the '60s seemed incongruous for the times. But then, Kennedy has always been a model of duality. His best friend of 40 years is the liberal singer Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul & Mary, yet until recently, Kennedy was an avowed right-winger.
"Rod is that rare combination of sensitive listener and a former Marine who has the determination to just plow through when things get tough," said Gary Hartman, director of Texas State University's Center for Texas Music History, the beneficiary of Tuesday's show at the Paramount.
Preserving music history is a cause dear to Kennedy, who donated 43 boxes of papers and memorabilia from Rod Kennedy Presents to UT's Center for American History when he retired.
"Just having him around and watching a show sort of raises the bar just a bit," said Maines, who will play in the backing band for the 80th birthday event. "I think his passion and persona is what helps make the Kerrville festival a special-feeling place."
Taking his cue from his military training, Kennedy laid down the rules that kept Kerrville unique: no talking in the audience during a performance, no recorded music between sets, and get that drum circle out of the campgrounds. Kerrville was built on respect for the songwriter.
"I was pretty intimidated by Rod when I met him in 1981," said musician Robert Earl Keen. "Not just because of his reputation, but because he ran something that I very much wanted to be a part of." Keen said that when he won Kerrville's New Folk competition in 1983, "it validated music as a career choice for me."
Although Kennedy won 50 races as a sports car driver from 1966 to 1971, his knees and back only remember the three times he crashed, and he now walks with a cane. He goes to the doctor three times a week to rehabilitate his knee after arthroscopic surgery and last month underwent surgery for spinal stenosis.
These are the sort of ailments one can expect when entering the ninth decade. But just as there was life before the Kerrville Folk Festival, there's life — and love — after.
"Who could have guessed that at age 75 I would meet the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with?" he said recently from the home in the Comanche Trace subdivision of Kerrville that he shares with Carolyn Pillow, 57, a retired nurse. The sister of English professor and music historian Kathleen Hudson, Pillow met Kennedy when she joined the pair for dinner at a Kerrville steak house.
"Carolyn had been at Kathleen's house, sick, so she showed up wearing dark glasses over her puffy eyes," Kennedy said. "When Kathleen got up to go to the bathroom, I held Carolyn's hand. Something just came over me."
After he and Pillow decided to live together in 2004, Kennedy moved out of the backstage house at Quiet Valley, where he lived rent-free as part of the deal to sell his creation, now owned by the nonprofit Texas Folk Music Foundation.
"It was just too hectic over there," he said of his former residence.
He's begun to take his retirement seriously. With nine time-shares all over the world, he and Pillow love to travel.
He gets a check every month from the Kerrville nonprofit ("My title is consultant, but nobody listens to me anymore.") and sells Enlyten dietary supplements. And he's changed in other ways; the former Republican switched parties in 2008 to back Barack Obama.
Above all, though, he still listens for great songs.
"Music changed my life," said Kennedy. "When I was in the Marines, I had a mission that had nothing to do with feelings. You're just not aware of anything else. But I've heard songs that made me cry."
Music From the Heart An 80th Birthday Tribute to Rod Kennedy
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.
Cost: $34.25 to $77.25
Information: 866-977-6849; www.austintheatre.org