Excellent Musicianship and Plenty of Diversity

Diana and Bob Suckiel stand in front of the former entrance of the Foolkiller Etc. at 39th and Main Street, which they owned from 1977 to 1988. The two were prominent members of Foolkiller, an important player in KC’s folk music history. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Folk Alliance International Conference Builds on Folk Music’s Deep Roots in Kansas City

As Folk Alliance International prepares for its 2022 conference (after taking a COVID year off), we can expect to see a mix of live performances and virtual shows as musicians and other music professionals gather from across the country and beyond. If we can use the past as a guide, the artist showcases (which this year includes the KC-based Making Movies) should yield excellent musicianship and plenty of diversity.

Kansas City likes to promote itself as a jazz town, but when you look at the interest generated by the Folk Alliance and the Kansas City Irish Festival (which has featured some of the finest bands from Ireland and the British Isles), you have to wonder — is calling KC a “jazz town” missing the point? Jazz, in the view of some people, is just another kind of folk music.

Bottom line: Folk music in its various forms has deep roots in Kansas City.

Most people below a certain age have probably never heard of the Foolkiller, an iconic collective of idealistic young folksingers, playwrights, activists and philosophers that played an important role in the 1970s and ’80s.

For several years the group maintained its headquarters in an old office building at 39th and Main, where it was equipped with a performance space downstairs and meeting rooms upstairs. Some may recall its first home in 1970 — a reputed former chicken-plucking factory on 31st Street.

“The upstairs was knee-deep in feathers,” recalled original member Bob Suckiel, a retired railroader who often performs with his wife, Diana Suckiel. The playing area was so small, Suckiel recalled, that actors had to exit the building and re-enter through a separate door to make an appearance on the opposite side of the stage. Three doors down, a smaller building was where discussion groups met.

Humble beginnings, indeed.

But the Foolkiller in its various permutations remained true to its motto, “We prefer crude vigor to polished banality,” and became an important player in the town’s history of folk music, exerting an influence that continues to this day.

But back in the day, nobody was thinking long term.

One of the early members was Bill Clause, who came to KC from Arizona to take a job with the Social Security Administration in 1970.

“Here I was, living in a new city, very lonely, with a degree in philosophy,” Clause said. “But I came across the Communiversity Catalogue and in that there was a discussion group about alienation. So I decided to go.”

Yes, the discussion was a Foolkiller event.

“I slowly got sucked into it and wound up doing theater and music and discussion groups,” Clause said. “The theater was really folk theater — it was amateur theater, and it was the same with folk music. The folk music I was exposed to was organic. The Folk Opry was usually a locally written play with amateur actors and then we’d have walk-ons, which was such a mixed bag. It was really the good the bad and the ugly when you had walk-ons. The scariest thing a walk-on could say was, ‘I wrote this song.’ You tell ’em, ‘We’ve only got time for one song,’ so they might do a song with 18 verses.”

Eventually the group sold the building, dropped the Foolkiller name, and became CrossCurrents Culture Unlimited. At that point, the organization began presenting well-known folk artists, often at the Community Christian Church. People saw concerts by the extraordinary guitarists Doc Watson and Dave Van Ronk, a pairing of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman, and the folk-country duo Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin. And many others. Regional artists were invited to perform house concerts.

The Foolkiller was also an incubator whose office space housed the fledgling Mid-Coast Radio, the nonprofit which eventually, after years of effort, established KKFI-FM as a community radio station. KKFI’s programming includes, as you might expect, plenty of folk music and singer/songwriters, including a Sunday morning show called “Foolkiller Folk” with rotating hosts, including the Suckiels. Preceding it each week is “River Trade Radio,” showcasing Americana, hosted by Kasey Rausch and Scott Stanton.

(Another source for listeners is “Trail Mix,” a weekly broadcast hosted by Bob McWilliams each Saturday and Sunday on Kansas Public Radio. McWilliams programs bluegrass, Celtic and singer-songwriters, many of them from this region.)

The subdivisions of folk music are virtually unlimited, but Suckiel put it this way: “The progressives embraced all folk music as something people could gather around. Square dancing and fiddle music in America was an extraordinary thing because a lot of the fiddle tunes come from Celtic tunes and Europe, but they are then processed through the lens of extraordinary Black musicians, some of whom were slaves.”

The image of folk music has become less esoteric over time. Sometimes you find it in mainstream entertainment. In recent years we’ve seen two Broadway musicals informed by folk traditions — “Once,” based on the indy movie about struggling songwriters in Dublin, and “Hadestown,” Anais Mitchell’s “folk opera” based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The Coen Brothers 2013 film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” starred Oscar Isaac as a 60s-era Greenwich Village folk singer modeled in part on Dave Van Ronk.

“If I was to describe (folk music) in any way, it’s music of any genre on instruments you use where you live.”

Danny Cox
Folksinger and songwriter Danny Cox at a concert he performed in Johnson County last July (photo by Jim Barcus)

The Folk Roots of Danny Cox

For Danny Cox, the 78-year-old folksinger, songwriter and grandfather, none of this is new. The Cincinnati native first came to KC in the ’70s with Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley, songwriters who as Brewer & Shipley scored with a series of hits with a soft country-rock sound. They had been successful in LA but wanted to get back to their roots in the Midwest. They formed Good Karma Productions to manage their touring careers and other artists, including Cox. They rented office space at 42nd and Main, just across the street from the Vanguard, the city’s premier folk club.

“The Foolkiller was like something very much back East because it involved social interaction,” Cox said. “That was almost the point of it. We (Brewer & Shipley, et al.) were entertainment folk music, let’s be honest about it. The Foolkiller was really serious about what folk music used to be about back in New York City. The Foolkiller was really special.”

Not long after moving to Kansas City, Cox decided to vacation in Mexico. The vacation became a long residency. He settled in a small village 30 miles from Guadalajara and didn’t come back for more than seven years. He loved the people, he loved the food, he loved the slow pace of life and he especially appreciated the absence of institutional racism.

“As an African American, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. ‘I was treated very well.”

He returned in 1975 and decided to settle in Kansas City, Kansas. But things weren’t the same.

“The music scene had changed, and folk music was kind of going out, and if you wanted to play, you had to play in a bar,” he said. “I never played in a bar in my life. Folk music was dead. The Vanguard didn’t exist anymore.”

Cox usually performs on guitar, writes on the piano, and plays drums and bass when the mood strikes him. He’s been around folk music his entire life. Growing up in Cincinnati, with Kentucky and West Virginia nearby, that included old-time country music.

There’s an eternal debate about exactly what folk music is. The most expansive definition includes bluegrass, blues, gospel, protest songs, workers’ anthems, cowboy songs, songs from the British Isles and Ireland, sea shanties, work songs, world music and on to infinity. Cox has opinions about that.

“You’re talking about folks and their music,” he said. “If I was to describe it in any way, it’s music of any genre on instruments you use where you live. Now the folk industry is a whole different thing.”

And music migrates. The banjo, which evolved from an African instrument played by enslaved workers, became ubiquitous as it was incorporated into bluegrass, jazz and Irish music.

“I love Celtic music, man,” said Cox. “Have you heard Afro-Celtic music? The instruments are so close to each other. It’s great stuff.”

And that brings us to another great folk tradition that put Kansas City on the international map in the 1980s.

Two people — Connie Dover and instrumentalist Gerald Trimble — found success as international recording artists. Their careers left little doubt that Kansas City could produce high-caliber Celtic artists.

Celtic artist Connie Dover (from the artist)

KC Making a Mark in Celtic Music

Two people — Connie Dover and instrumentalist Gerald Trimble — found success as international recording artists. Their careers left little doubt that Kansas City could produce high-caliber Celtic artists. The two were classmates at North Kansas City High School and sang in the pop choir together.

Trimble, who began traveling in the UK and getting to know musicians there in his 20s, eventually mastered the cittern and recorded a series of albums for the now defunct Green Linnet Records in Connecticut.

Dover, a keyboard player, began performing with the country/bluegrass/rock band Denver Locke while she was still in high school. She later joined the Celtic band Scartaglen. One of their albums was produced by Brian McNeill, a founding member of the revered Scots group the Battlefield Band.

Phil Cunningham, a founder of another respected band, Silly Wizard, ultimately produced three solo albums by Dover, three of which she recorded in Scotland. A bonus to recording in Scotland: Cunningham rounded up the cream of instrumentalists to back Dover.

“These were players whose work I’d listened to and admired for years,” Dover recalled via email.

When the recording was complete, Dover traveled home with the master recordings with a plan to land at an American indy label.

“I knew that this was a recording I could stand behind,” she said. “I was proud of it, and I was ready to shop it around to folk labels. That’s when I began papering my walls with rejection letters. Every label I talked to agreed that the album was beautiful, and the head of every label also said, ‘Who would buy an album of Celtic music by a singer from Kansas City?’ They didn’t think they could sell it . . . because I was not the ‘real deal.’”

So she did what other recording artists had done. She formed her own record label, Taylor Park Music, and began paying to have CDs manufactured and began selling them to distributors in the hope that she could get them into record stores. Still, her album generated little interest until a copy made its way to Scott Simon, host of NPR’s weekend edition.

“He interviewed me and played cuts from the record and after the interview was broadcast all the distributors who turned me down started trying to contact me . . . At that point I didn’t even have a phone number.”

Soon enough her album, “Somebody,” was in stores. Soon she was earning revenue she could apply to future albums. And her success made touring a viable option. And she discovered she could license her music. Individual tracks were included on compilation albums. And albums were released in their entirety to labels in Japan, Southeast Asia and Europe, with liner notes printed in each language.

The era of artists selling physical recordings doesn’t seem so long ago, but now we’re in the era of streaming and digital downloads. In the current reality, compensation to artists is “minuscule” compared to the days when she could sell physical CDs, Dover said. The good news is that her music is available through most online resources, and she’s rebuilding a revenue stream very slowly.

Portrait of musician Gerald Trimble at The Legacy at Green Hills in Kansas City, Missouri (photo by Jim Barcus)

Trimble, meanwhile, booked a flight to the UK when he was 20 during his first year of college.

“I just took my guitar and left for a semester and went there,” he said. “I was playing different places as a solo. I wandered around, got to see the Chieftains in London. I saw this whole genre of (British folk) music. Finally went to Edinburgh. I met a man on the street . . . and he took me to Sandy Bell’s Forest Hill Pub, which has always had lots
of music.”

On his trip, Trimble met the Cunningham brothers, Phil and Johnny, who would play key roles in the recording careers of both Trimble and Dover. When he came back, his head swimming with Celtic music and the creative possibilities it offered, nobody was interested.

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” he said. “People were like, ‘Irish music? What’s that?’”

Trimble began learning to play the cittern, a traditional Celtic stringed instrument, and later formed the band Talisman. He eventually released a series of solo albums on the Green Linnet label in Connecticut.

In addition to making music, Trimble made another significant contribution in 1979, when he and his old friend and former next-door neighbor, the late Dave Brown, began broadcasting “Ballads, Bards and Bagpipes” on KCUR-FM. Every week they played recent and classic recordings by leading Celtic artists. Nobody had produced a Celtic music show before and it started getting picked up by other public radio stations around the country.

And that, Trimble said, led to Brown helping to form the Missouri Valley Folklife Society, a not-for-profit that began booking well-known artists from the UK. Many of them performed at the Community Christian Church. Among them were the Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard and ensembles that included respected players, including fiddler Kevin Burke and Andy Irvine, who plays bouzouki and harmonica. Between CrossCurrents and the Missouri Valley Folklife Society, audiences at the Community Christian Church saw an extraordinary succession of artists come through.

Trimble eventually moved away from traditional Celtic music and began learning Turkish and Middle Eastern music. These days he plays the viola de gamba with his trio, Jambaroque. They, like other locals, have performed on stages at the Irish Festival, and he has attended the previous editions of the Folk Alliance International conference.

Making Movies performing outdoors at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2019 (photo by Donna Trussell)

“It’s a good thing to have something that worldwide in Kansas City,” he said. “It is not primarily to benefit Kansas City, but it is to benefit music worldwide.”

During the summer, the Alliance made money available for some local artists to perform on outdoor stages. Jambaroque was one of them.

Trimble said it was a lifeline after COVID shut down most indoor events.

“They really came out for the musicians in Kansas City,” Trimble said. “I’d never done anything with them, but what they did for people this summer was just such a blessing.”

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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