With its seven stages, joyful crowd, independent beats and stunning Jericho Beach sunsets, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival achieves an annual state of greatness regardless of who headlines. No surprise that an informal poll among regular attendees shows many people plan to attend even before they know who’s playing.
That said, several talented artists lead the bookings this year. Gillian Welch (in tandem with her awe-inspiring guitarist David Rawlings) will gobsmack the unsuspecting throngs with her beautiful bluegrass “antique” music. And Rosanne Cash will be singing many songs that her father — Johnny Cash — recommended she learn when she started songwriting. Plus, you’ll find a host of international performers and some great musical slam (CR Avery, The Fugitives) to boot.
Two openly queer women worth noting in this year’s Folk Fest roundup are both pioneers and boundary-crushers in the music world: acoustic folk singer Cris Williamson and country-folk artist Mary Gauthier.
Cris Williamson has been blazing trails since the late 1960s. One of the only out musicians of that time, Williamson lovingly but defiantly sang her truths to many audiences, culling a fan base that includes Bonnie Raitt and Carly Simon. As someone who has previously performed at the Vancouver Folk Fest in both the ’70s and ’80s, she is excited to return.
“This has been an honour for me,” she says. “I’ll be featuring songs from my last two albums, as well as some classics from [1975’s] The Changer and The Changed.”
When the topic of Vancouver is touched upon, Williamson admits to being heartsick about the recent hockey riots. She insists that it didn’t change her feeling about our city. “I felt sad is all. That is just alcohol out of control. My favourite story was about Suzette’s Café, where friends of the women who owned this restaurant came and held hands, and when people tried to bully them, they were polite and kind and said, ‘No, not here.’ They stood up in a quiet, beautiful way.”
For her part, Gauthier has been winning awards and critical acclaim since she began writing songs, which amazingly didn’t start until the age of 35. In the 15 years since then, her music has made top-10 lists ranging from The New York Times to Billboard magazine. She’s had her deeply personal story-songs recorded by everyone from Tim McGraw to Jimmy Buffett, and Bob Dylan counts himself as one of her fans.
All this and — as Gauthier herself points out — she was signed in Nashville to a major label as an openly gay artist, though many said it couldn’t be done.
Her 2010 record The Foundling, about her own adoption and search for her birth mother, has a Canadian connection; it was produced by Cowboy Junkies member and producer Michael Timmins.
“He understands the subject matter because he has two adopted daughters. And it just makes sense musically because the sound he gets in the studio — the Cowboy Junkies’ minimalist sound — really was the right sound for these songs I had just written.”
Gauthier has used the platform that celebrity has brought her with great intent, especially via YouTube. She recently released a 10-part YouTube concert in support of Adoption Reform, a movement designed to universalize state-by-state restrictive adoption information laws in the US.
She also used YouTube to create her own It Gets Better video, eight minutes of honesty, charm and music. As she endearingly explains in the video, “I am happy to be an outsider. It’s the outsiders that are the most interesting people in this life!”
Catch Cris Williamson, Mary Gauthier and hundreds more at the Vancouver Folk Festival from July 15 to 17 at Jericho Beach Park.