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Ann Arbor folk fest tweaks lineup with diverse acts

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

This year’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival features some of the biggest acts under the broad umbrella of Americana music, but spokeswoman Barb Chaffer Authier says the “meat” of the event is in the names festivalgoers likely don’t know.

The festival returns to Hill Auditorium on Friday and Saturday with an opening night lineup headlined by chart-topping young country star Kacey Musgraves. Saturday show features folk-rock duo Indigo Girls, who had a string of gold and platinum records in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Critically acclaimed country-rocker Margo Price, who was named emerging artist of the year in September by the Americana Music Association, also performs Saturday.

Margo Price

Authier says that outside of a couple of big names each night, organizers worked hard to program a lineup of diverse lesser-known acts. The event is a fundraiser for Ann Arbor folk venue the Ark, bringing in about 10 percent of the Ark’s annual operating budget. So the festival at 3,500-seat Hill Auditorium often gives a much bigger spotlight to acts that have previously played mostly smaller venues like the Ark’s 400-seat listening room.

“The philosophy behind it is that we’re able to bring in a large audience … and the vast majority of them might be coming just to see a particular artist that they know and love on the bill, but they’re going to discover something new at the festival,” Authier says.

For instance, Friday night’s lineup features the “musical collective” Nahko and Medicine for the People, whose frontman Nahko Bear draws on his own Apache, Puerto Rican and Filipino heritage, among other cultures, to create an integrated world music sound. In the more traditional folk vein on Saturday there’s We Banjo 3, a young Irish band that employs three banjo players and a fiddler for a blend of Irish traditional music and American bluegrass.

One of the up-and-comers in this year’s lineup is already a recognizable name to most, but not in the world of music. Actor Kiefer Sutherland, star of TV’s “24” and “Designated Survivor,” wrote and released his debut studio album “Down in a Hole” last year and will play the folk festival Saturday night.

Kiefer Sutherland

“He’s really busy with (‘Designated Survivor’) right now … but they film in Toronto and he was really excited to gather up his band and come out for the weekend,” Authier says.

“He really enjoyed playing the Ark when he was here in July and I think he really gets what we’re trying to do as an organization in supporting roots music.”

One big change that’s crept into the festival in recent years is the increasingly blurred line between classic and contemporary acts. In the mid-2000s organizers worked to focus Friday night’s lineup on younger, more unconventional performers and audiences, while Saturday night’s lineup skewed older and more traditional. Authier says the organizers have mostly dropped that approach as many Americana legends have passed away and younger acts have increasingly adopted old-school influences.

“You see some of those younger bands that draw a younger audience, but their music resonates just as much with the kind of traditional folk fest audience that used to look to Saturday night being their kind of music,” she says. “There’s much more crossover now.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

40th Ann Arbor Folk Festival

6:30 p.m. Friday

Kacey Musgraves, Jenny Lewis, Nahko and Medicine for the People, Valerie June, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Zach Heckendorf and Susan Werner

6:30 p.m. Saturday

Indigo Girls, Margo Price, Kiefer Sutherland, Over the Rhine, We Banjo 3, Davina and the Vagabonds, Corn Potato String Band and Susan Werner

Hill Auditorium

825 N. University, Ann Arbor

Tickets: $37.50-$200 per night; $67.50-$360 for two-night series

(734) 763-8587