Willie Carmichael of Bend took the title in the Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest at the Sisters Folk Festival. photo by Jay Mather
Bend songwriter wins festival contest
Willie Carmichael of Bend was this year's winner of the Sisters Folk Festival's Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest, against a formidable group of emerging artists from around the country.
This year's finalists included Julia Baucke, Marc Douglas Berardo, Cary Cooper and Dan Weber.
Carmichael receives a $750 cash prize and, most importantly, an invitation back to the 2011 Sisters Folk Festival.
Contestants performed their three selected songs before a live audience on Saturday at the Sisters Art Works Stage. As the winner, Carmichael was showcased at the main stage, opening the Saturday evening performances.
"Getting to play my set in the main tent ... was incredible," said Carmichael. "It's sort of like winning the presidency in my sleep and now I woke up and have to give the inaugural address. This is a big deal for me."
Carmichael had entered the contest many times over the years and was a finalist in 2007 but did not win.
Previous winners have seen their careers blossom following the prestigious award, with recognizable names such as Beth Wood, Dennis McGregor and Bob Hillman.
"I was so stunned I won the contest. The afternoon seemed surreal. The most people I've ever played for is maybe 100 people. I'm just a 53-year-old guy from Berkeley, California. I'm a grown man but as a performer I'm a baby."
Carmichael grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area listening to the polished funk of Tower of Power and folksy tunes by Peter, Paul and Mary, especially one of the trio's murder ballads called "Flora."
He left Berkeley when he was 18 and never looked back. After flunking out of Humboldt State University, he landed in Gilchrist circa 1981, the last company-run logging town in Oregon. A graduate of nursing school, he worked at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend for 17-1/2 years as a nurse and internal consultant.
Nowadays, in between strumming and songwriting, Carmichael lives in Bend with his wife and owns a managerial consulting business teaching leadership effectiveness.
Carmichael talked about his musical roots.
"I loved all the classic R&B music and Motown sound but always felt drawn to folk songs. It wasn't cool to listen to Bob Dylan at Berkeley High," Carmichael said. "My material is influenced by old folk music, blues artists and my favorite authors. Writers like J.D. Salinger, Ken Kesey and Harper Lee. I didn't start writing songs until I was in my 40s and didn't play guitar until after that."
He was happy to be in the company of so many songwriters.
"This festival is a miracle," he said. "There is so much talent everywhere. Ellis knocked me out and I'm aspiring to her sort of openheartedness as a person and that reflects in her music. So many musicians think you need to have a shtick of some sort and that becomes artificial. I'm trying to learn to be more authentic and believe what I have to offer genuinely is more valuable than what I can trick you into."
One thing he noticed is that on the night of the songwriting contest, finalists get treated with favored nation status.
"It's like being brought into the fold, like a mushroom in an omelet. This is how audiences in Sisters treat all their performers, and the song contest winner particularly, like a treasure to be taken care of and nurtured," he said.
By Jeff Spry
Marking its 15th anniversary season, the Sisters Folk Festival has ripened into a mature yet never predictable celebration of true American roots music.
With 28 diverse acts over three days, encompassing six venues, this year's stellar lineup wove a lyrical spell all around town and left festivalgoers breathless and satisfied - just the way Executive Director Brad Tisdel likes it.
"The music and its presentation is first and foremost, with excellence in every detail," said a fatigued but elated Tisdel, hustling to grab some lunch. "So many key elements come together to make that magic. That is our goal and our job."
For Friday's opening night show, an eager, sun-dappled crowd marched past banners from previous festivals decorating the tent at the Village Green Main Stage, golden micro-brews and Korean barbecue in hand. In minutes, seats were filled to capacity and choice standing-room-only spots remained a hot commodity.
Emcee Dennis McGregor, festival poster artist and featured musician, mounted the stage and declared that "the coolest people around are in this tent right now," then introduced last year's encore performer, Ellis.
"I was thinking today... gatherings like this and how important they are, where we come to replenish," said the singer/songwriter from Minneapolis, easing into a sad, sweet ballad.
Her pure voice and innocent, evocative songs warmed hearts and set a powerful tone to christen the festival.
Texan Slaid Cleaves, no stranger to Sisters, having played the 2001 and 2002 fests, delivered a raw series of working-class roadhouse tunes about prison cells, horses and divorces. "Seems like I was just here, stepping off the stage. Time sure flies," he said.
Heavyweight bluesman John Hammond wasted no time after cradling his guitar. "I came to play for you so I'm just going to go for it," he announced, launching into a blistering guitar riff injected with heartache and harmonica.
Hot Club of Cowtown rounded out opening night by ingratiating themselves forever with some old-fashioned Western swing that elicited many a "yee-haw" from the audience.
"It's good to be amongst friends," said lead singer and guitarist Whit Smith, after a riotous round of applause.
"We love being here," said Elana James, the trio's nimble-fingered fiddler. "We drove in over the pass from Portland and it smelled so good."
All weekend long, wherever you turned or sat, that same infectious folk festival stare was returned by happy strangers and new friends: Equal parts inspiration, awe and admiration for the generous offerings, blessings of the phenomenal music and its effects.
Deb Gasster and Rich Steronko of Portland were here for their first time.
"It's great. We love all the venues and how you get to experience the town," said Steronko. "We saw Hot Club of Cowtown. What energy. And John Hammond, he's the real deal, master of the rack harmonica."
The new Sisters Coffee Company Community Stage proved popular, providing that sense of intimacy with the artists the festival is known for.
The Ashland band One Horse Shy, played an easy-going country set on the lawn under the trees. Band members thanked Brad Tisdel, festival cofounder Jim Cornelius and the City of Sisters for their hospitality.
"This is how life should be everyday," said singer Bob Evoniuk.
Jay Howlett hosted a Friday night "Circle the Wagons" tribute at Sisters Art Works to honor his friend Chuck McCabe, a songwriter, recording artist and friend of the festival who passed away this year.
"Lots of songwriters came, all the important people," said Howlett. "I still feel him; he spent a lot of years here at the folk festival."
Grizzled outlaw troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard stuffed the Village Green tent Saturday afternoon with avid fans, some traveling as far as three states away to hear the renegade blues performer and absorb nuggets of priceless life lessons from his library of lurid tales.
"You can probably tell by now, I'm an acquired taste," he growled, diving into a rowdy sing-along called "Snake Farm."
Across town, the line waiting to see Po' Girl at Angeline's Bakery Stage stretched around the block to Cork Cellars, where weary music lovers took a moment to sample some fine Oregon wines and scan their event programs.
Saturday night headliners, the Celtic group Solas, had people dancing jigs in the aisles with their mystic brand of Irish folk music. Their name translates into the word "light," and illuminate the evening they did.
"This is our maiden voyage to Sisters and we want to come back," shouted banjo-picker and flutist, Seamus Egan.
The five-piece band was formed 15 years ago in 1995, sharing that birthday with the Sisters Folk Festival.
Slaid Cleaves played a final song on Sunday afternoon before heading to the airport for the next gig.
"We love this festival," he said. "Everything is so easy here; its easy to get around, it's easy to grab a bite to eat. The staff treats us like kings. We don't want to leave."