On the surface, Rod Kennedy is about as unlikely a purveyor of folk music--a form radical by its very nature--as one could imagine.
A 60-year-old former Marine who lives in rural Texas, Kennedy dislikes welfare and socialized medicine, offers quotes from his training in the corps and votes Republican.
But his best friend in the music world is Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary. And through the folk festival he has produced in Kerrville, Tex., for 20 years, Kennedy has given voice to singers whose message is distinctly left--from Yarrow and Tom Paxton to Michelle Shocked and Eliza Gilkyson.
Now the white-haired Texan wants to expand his influence to the West Coast.
Earlier this fall, Kennedy met with musicians and producers in Los Angeles to set in motion his plans for a Southern California festival next spring, most likely in Santa Barbara.
Kennedy already has produced a festival in Napa Valley--another is scheduled for October--and last month 1,000 people attended his Columbia River Folk Festival in Spokane, Wash.
"I would like to link Los Angeles and San Diego with Napa Valley and Spokane and Vancouver," Kennedy said. "I would like to get it started, make sure that it meets the standards of excellence that we've established in other markets, and then see it operate locally."
Kennedy's festivals and concerts are different from most in that they celebrate the songwriter more than the performer. They typically include a songwriting contest for unknowns, with the winners performing on the main stage.
"Every other kind of artistic endeavor is organized except the singer-songwriter folk musician," Kennedy said. In Southern California, "We want to complement the scene and break out some of the original songwriters who are buried under the crust of pop and film music."
While Kennedy is enormously respected for his taste and for the tenacity with which he built his Texas festival from a one-day affair in an auditorium to a monthlong extravaganza, the economics of folk music don't lend themselves to empire-building.
In January, Kennedy's company, Kerrville Festivals Inc., filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code. The organization had $600,000 in debts, almost no cash flow, and a higher-than-anticipated tax bill.
"We always thought we were attentive and deliberate and quite well-organized," Kennedy said. "But the only technology we were using until now was an 8-year-old Kaypro computer which was used primarily for our mailing list. We didn't have our accounting on computer, we didn't have spreadsheets, we didn't have quarterly reports. We were able to file our taxes, but usually late."
Now, he said, the organization has a better computer with accounting software. Since January, the debt has been reduced by $200,000, and the reorganization plan filed in June includes a promise to pay everything off within three years.
"Now we feel like we can keep a real active tab on what's happening here and run it more like a business," he said.
Folk music in general and singer-songwriters in particular have dominated Kennedy's life since the counter-culture of the 1960s turned Austin from a quiet Texas city to a center of music and political action.
"I found (folk singer) Allen Damron working in a small club in 1966," said Kennedy, who with his wife, Nancylee, was a broadcaster at the time and owned a radio station and a television station in Austin. "We were appalled at the working conditions and the salary, so we opened the Checkered Flag folk club with him as the resident entertainer."
Soon, Kennedy was spending most of his time producing concerts for folk singers. In 1971, he agreed to spend four days on the road with Yarrow, who was fresh from the breakup of Peter, Paul & Mary. The tour changed his life.
"As a conservative, I always considered Peter, Paul & Mary as radicals, bomb throwers," Kennedy said. "I was stunned to find out that they were not bomb throwers at all. They were healthy agitators for a point of view that was not a popular point of view at the time with the Establishment."
Nearly 20 years later, time has worn away many of the differences between the right-wing entrepreneur and the defiant poets he has championed.
He has learned from them, even adopted their causes. Next year, an entire week of the Kerrville Folk Festival will be devoted to American Indian culture and music. He has become a staunch proponent of women's rights.
"Liberals," Kennedy said, "have always been more fun."