Blended approach to 39th Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

When the Ann Arbor Folk Festival expanded from a one-night event to two nights in 2003, organizers made an effort to concentrate traditionalist folk acts in one evening and younger envelope-pushers in the other. But they’ve since changed their approach to mix legacy acts with new blood.

For example, the lineup for this year’s festival places 66-year-old guitar wizard Richard Thompson alongside current radio sensation City and Colour, and ’60s folk legend Joan Baez alongside “The Voice” star Joshua Davis. The festival, which celebrates its 39th anniversary Friday and Saturday at Hill Auditorium, is a fundraiser for Ann Arbor folk venue the Ark.

While Friday’s lineup still skews younger and Saturday’s players lean toward older performers, Ark spokeswoman Barb Chaffer Authier says audiences and organizers both prefer the blended approach.

“We have so many artists that the Ark presents that really could cross over that line,” Authier says. “It’s more interesting for a night of music to mix that up a little bit.”

Baez and City and Colour are the headliners for this year’s festival, but the event also scored a truly remarkable booking this year in Cooder-White-Skaggs, who will play Saturday night. Slide guitarist Ry Cooder, bluegrass mandolinist Ricky Skaggs and country vocalist Sharon White lead the group.

Cooder is well known for his solo work and collaborations with artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Randy Newman; Skaggs cut his teeth playing in Emmylou Harris’ band; and White is a member of the family vocal group the Whites, most widely heard on the soundtrack for the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The three made waves last year with their announcement that they would tour together.

“In their own right, all of these artists are just legendary,” Authier says. “Ry Cooder is not someone who has toured much, and he’s been this phenomenal, world-class guitar player and musician, so just having him on the bill is exciting in and of itself.”

In addition to the major national acts, the festival spotlights Michigan performers as well. This year’s local lineup will include the Chelsea-based Ben Daniels Band, led by actor Jeff Daniels’ son Ben, on Friday night. Saturday night’s bill will include Davis and high-energy trio the Accidentals, both Traverse City-based. Although Davis might seem the obvious breakout star among this year’s local performers because of his recent stint on TV, Authier says keep an eye on the Accidentals.

“This is a young band that is really going places right now,” she says. “They are very popular and I just see them on the beginning of that kind of trajectory.”

Authier says the Ann Arbor Folk Festival differs from other music festivals because it’s presented on a single indoor stage as two “curated” nights of music, rather than allowing attendees to wander from act to act. She says the “beauty” of the festival is that attendees are automatically exposed to a variety of acts: traditional, unconventional, local, national, established and upcoming.

“It’s not just about the headliners,” she says. “The headliners are exciting and they’re part of the draw, but really the point of it is to discover somebody new.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival

6:30 p.m. Fri.

City and Colour, Richard Thompson, Yo La Tengo, the Oh Hellos, Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line, Penny & Sparrow, the Ben Daniels Band and David Mayfield

6:30 p.m. Sat.

Joan Baez, Cooder-White-Skaggs, Joshua Davis, Alan Doyle & the Beautiful Gypsies, Darlingside, Rose Cousins, the Accidentals and David Mayfield

Hill Auditorium

825 N. University, Ann Arbor

Tickets: $37.50-$200

(734) 763-8587