The Kerrville Folk Festival, which celebrates its forty-ninth anniversary in October, is one of the longest continuously running music festivals in the United States. Over eighteen days each year, as many as thirty thousand people gather at Quiet Valley Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio, to immerse themselves in live music. Loyal festivalgoers often return for years, viewing the place as a second home. They live in camps that function through a barter economy, hold fireside jam sessions into the wee hours of the morning, and attend shows by big-name artists such as the Indigo Girls, Willie Nelson, and David Crosby. Up-and-comers participate in the New Folk Competition, which counts Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and Steve Earle among its alumni.
The festival, which will return in person from October 1 to 11 after a virtual celebration in 2020, comes to life in the pages of photographer David Johnson’s It Can Be This Way Always, a University of Texas Press book that highlights a decade’s worth of photographs from the festival. Johnson’s black and white photography centers attendees and volunteers instead of the musicians, capturing the spur-of-the-moment campfires, hazy summer fashion, and communal living that define Kerrville.
Johnson, who’s from Austin, has attended the festival since 2004; he describes the experience as “Burning Man for the three-generation Texas hippie family.” He went to his first festival with his parents after returning to the United States from a semester abroad in Italy during his time at Texas Christian University. Four years later, he began photographing Kerrville with a four-by-five-inch film camera. He continued the project for twelve consecutive years, studying the community, landscape, and people that make the event so special. It was a turning point for Johnson, who had just finished his MFA thesis on a very different theme: images of corporate offices that had emptied during the great recession of 2007 to 2009. He saw commonalities between the two subjects, however. Johnson says he has always been interested in “thinking about the ways in which places form personality, and then how personality affects space.” Where better to study that than at a utopian music festival?
Johnson’s favorite memories from Kerrville aren’t of watching big-name bands, though he did feel a special connection when he got to see the Indigo Girls, a band his sister introduced him to. Instead, the best moments, he says, come from small groups singing together at campfires amid miles of makeshift tents. These are the images he shares in It Can Be This Way Always. “All the things that were behind the stage were more interesting to me,” Johnson says. “I can think of times hearing my favorite Austin musician in the distance, and through the darkness I find the path up the hill, and then all of a sudden there’s a hundred people sitting on the side of the hill listening to somebody play by flashlight. It’s magical.”
It Can Be This Way Always takes its name from the festival’s unofficial catchphrase, which nods to both nostalgia and hope, two themes explored in essays that are peppered between Johnson’s photographs. The photos have a timeless quality, with no iPhones or computers in sight. We see revelers in cowboy boots and jeans, long skirts and bohemian blouses, dancing on porches or perching on the edges of Winnebago vans. These portraits could just as easily be from the seventies as the aughts, and that’s part of the appeal. While Johnson is now wrapping up this photography project, he still plans to attend Kerrville with a camera in tow. It’s become his home.