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People We’ll Miss—2014

Rod Kennedy, 84

January 22, 1930–April 14, 2014

Across drought-weary Texas, small-town signs plead locals to “Pray for rain” and farmers search the sky hoping to find some cloud dark with promise. But standing on his Hill Country ranch at the start of Memorial Day weekend, Rod Kennedy would lift his eyes heavenward, an utterance for clear skies on his lips.

Not that rain ruined Kennedy when he launched the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1972. The inaugural festival, which took place over three nights, was sheltered in the Kerrville Municipal Auditorium, where acts ranging from local “cosmic cowboy” Michael Martin Murphey and revered bluesman Mance Lipscomb to national folk icons Carolyn Hester and Peter Yarrow played to a sold-out house. The next year, Kennedy added another night of performances, but still the 1,200-person auditorium sold out. With music-lovers clamoring for more tickets, Kennedy decided to move his fledgling festival to a larger outdoor venue.

Kennedy purchased a sixty-acre tract of land nine miles south of Kerrville, diplomatically decreeing his new stead the Quiet Valley Ranch in hopes of soothing concerned neighbors. The start of 1974 found Kennedy hard at work, clearing cedar stumps and building a stage for the third Kerrville Folk Festival. Another crop of eclectic musical talent expertly picked by Kennedy drew six thousand fans over four days to Quiet Valley. Attendees and interested onlookers hailed the event as a success.

But Kennedy barely broke even. That was only the beginning of the tribulations the festival and its founder would face. The next year the rain fell—hard.

Rod Kennedy was born in Buffalo, New York. Music surrounded him from his earliest days. His father would sing while his mother played the ukulele on their farm in Amherst. The young Kennedy sang in church choir and frequented the local movie theater, where big bands would play before a film started. When he was fourteen, he explains in his autobiography, Music From the Heart, his mother followed work to Wheeling, West Virginia.

In Wheeling, Kennedy scrapped with sons of local coal miners who mocked him for singing in public. His world radically shifted again when his mother accepted an offer in New Orleans. From the back of his friend’s Cushman motor scooter, Kennedy discovered the French Quarter, a place electrified by a whole new world of music: jazz. His musical education steamed ahead when he and his mother relocated to Houston. Here Kennedy fell in love—both with a suntanned brunette and with the sound of Bob Wills’s fiddle. Kennedy returned to Buffalo to finish high school, but this exposure to various musical forms across America, especially his time in Texas, made him want to pursue music.

Hired as a singer by a big-band orchestra in Buffalo, the sixteen-year-old was soon managing the band, doing everything from booking gigs to stage production. He was focused on fostering the city’s jazz community when he was summoned by Uncle Sam to Korea. As a marine, he survived months of brutal trench combat, vowing on the voyage home to, as he says in his autobiography, “devote the rest of my life to something that would benefit a lot of people.”

Back from war, Kennedy attended the University of Texas while working at KHFI, the first FM station in Austin. He later bought the station and added variety to its classical-music programming. He helped raise the funds for KUT’s first broadcast building and was instrumental in bringing the second television station to Austin. He combined his love of sports cars and live music by opening the Chequered Flag Club, a venue serving up roast beef sandwiches and musical talent.

His palate for traditional styles of music like ragtime, Dixieland jazz, bluegrass, and classical compositions combined with a keen taste for modern country, folk, Tejano, and blues, made him the most sought-after concert promoter and producer in the state. But it was his affinity for well-crafted songs that spurred him to create the festival, which has become the shining achievement of his career in the arts.                                                                       

Hard rains fell on seven of the first nineteen Kerrville Folk Festivals held at Quiet Valley Ranch. Still, Kennedy weathered on. Under his stewardship, the festival not only maintained a level of musical excellence, but by the fireside of late-night sing-alongs, an atmosphere of “spiritual optimism” flourished among Kerrverts (as festival-goers are called). It was this unique sense of community and a powerful devotion to music that gave Kennedy the fortitude to withstand those early floods.

The Kerrville Folk Festival is now the longest-running festival of its kind and has expanded into an eighteen-day event that draws a crowd of more than 30,000. The festival has been the launching pad of countless musical careers. On Kennedy’s eightieth birthday, many of these artists, including Robert Earl Keen, the Flatlanders, and Eliza Gilkyson, paid tribute to the man whose festival has been so important to their music.

The stage at Quiet Valley Ranch still bears Rod Kennedy’s name, but the true testament to his legacy can be felt in the festival’s one-of-a-kind atmosphere and heard every time a group of fans and songwriters gathers around the Ballad Tree. The music lives on. Rain or shine. –Christian Wallace 

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