Text and photos by Jim D’Ville
You can’t get much deeper into the heart of Texas than the Hill Country city of Kerrville, an hour drive northwest of San Antonio. If you had visited Kerrville in 1929, you may have seen the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, playing downtown on the corner of Water Street and Fredericksburg Road (Rodgers moved there in 1929 for his health). But these days Kerrville’s musical claim to fame is the Kerrville Folk Festival. For the last 45 years, the festival has been an annual 17-day-long homecoming for both novice and professional singer-songwriters. Notable musicians who got their big break through the Kerrville New Folk Contest include Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, and Lyle Lovett.
But for the last four years, the Kerrville Folk Festival has accepted a new instrument into its folk-family fold: the ukulele. Dalis Allen, KFF Producer, explains her decision to add a three-day ukulele workshop camp into the Kerrville festival. “I knew that the ukulele had been gaining in popularity as it’s a very accessible instrument. I stopped Del Rey, who has been a major force on the ukulele for years, in the hallway at Folk Alliance and asked what she thought of the idea. It was hatched then and it has been a great addition to the workshop offerings at Kerrville.”
This year’s event was held May 26–June 12.
Rey, from Seattle, Washington, has been the Director of the Kerrville Ukulele Camp since its inception in 2013. She explains how the Kerrville uke camp schedule differs from other camps and retreats. “I try to incorporate enough time in the schedule so people can absorb what they’ve just heard and are learning to play. Learning a tune is like watering the lawn, you don’t want the water just running down the sidewalk! I also like having a couple all-camp classes, where three instructors teach as a team. That way, the lead instructor has back-up, and the students have individual attention without feeling like they are interrupting the flow of the class.”
Past instructors at the Kerrville Folk Festival ukulele camp have included James Hill, Victoria Vox, and Aaron Keim. This year’s trio of instructors consisted of Del, string wizard Daniel Ward from Los Angeles, and myself.
The Kerrville Folk Festival Ukulele Camp is normally held the first week in June and runs for three days, 10 am to 3 pm. All classes at the camp are held at the Threadgill Theater, a covered, open-air venue on the festival grounds. Lunch is provided each day of classes as is an evening folk concert that takes place each night at the Threadgill from 7 pm to 9 pm.
Meg Hoke, a three-year veteran of the uke camp from Asheville, North Carolina, says, “It’s such a laid-back atmosphere at the Kerrville Ukulele Camp. From the first minute of the camp, there is no intimidation. It’s a very supportive environment, both from the instructors and the other students. I’ve really been able to build upon my skills every year.”
The Kerrville Folk Festival is part Woodstock, family reunion and three-week jam session all rolled into one. The dedicated festival grounds are the Quiet Valley Ranch, located eight miles southwest of Kerrville. The image line for the festival is “Welcome Home,” since many of the participants have been coming to the festival for decades it really is a musical homecoming. Most tend to congregate in well-established tent camps with friends while others go the trailer or RV route. For the less adventurous, the comfortable Y-O Ranch Hotel in Kerrville is also an option (that’s where the instructors stay).
One of the highlights of visiting the Texas Hill Country is the food. This year’s trip to Kerrville included multiple breakfast trips to the Hill Country Cafe, a Texas legend since 1942; Bill’s Bar-BBQ, also in Kerrville, proved to be the real deal in Texas BBQ; and for the more sophisticated palates, Grape on Main Street in Kerrville was a lovely dining option.
Since the ukulele camp workshops finish up at 3 o’clock every day, it leaves ample time to explore the surrounding countryside. An annual activity for the instructors is a refreshing swim in the Guadalupe River, which runs through downtown Kerrville. With temperatures normally in the high 80s with some humidity, an afternoon dip in the Guadalupe is a welcome respite.
With the average yearly attendance around 30 students, the excellent student-to-teacher ratio makes for a lot of one-on-one interaction and individualized instruction. And if you’re into the singer-songwriter aspect of the ukulele, this event is a must for you.
For more information on the Kerrville Folk Festival and the KFF Ukulele Camp, visit www.kerrvillefolkfestival.org.