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Can 5 days at this Kansas City conference catapult a band to stardom? Barnaby Bright hopes so

Five musicians on a small stage perform in front of an audience sitting in a darkened room.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Violinist Carmen Dieker, left, performs with Barnaby Bright on Saturday, Jan. 4, during their showcase set at the 2023 Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

Like hundreds of acts before them, Becky and Nathan Bliss hope the International Folk Alliance Conference can be a springboard to success as a full band — not just a duo.

Barnaby Bright had a lot riding on the Folk Alliance International Conference at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center last week. Becky and Nathan Bliss, the founders of the local ensemble, used the five-day event as a strategic rebranding opportunity.

“Our goal this week is to present ourselves as a full band,” Becky Bliss said a few days later. “Because for the past decade, people have known us as a duo.”

To that end, the couple conducted a productive band rehearsal in the living room of their home on a tree-lined street in suburban Overland Park the week prior to the conference. Harmonies were perfected and arrangements tightened as personal bonds between the five-piece ensemble were strengthened.

Barnaby Bright built a loyal base of support for their brand of indie folk-rock through steady touring as a duo. They’ve also received national critical validation; The New York Times called its 2020 release, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” one of the most notable holiday albums of that year.

The couple relocated to the Kansas City area following stints in Brooklyn and Nashville.

“We have found our band here in Kansas City,” said Nathan Bliss, Becky’s husband.

Two people in the foreground play acoustic guitars while a drummer behind them and a bassist are seen on a small stage with a banner that reads "Folk Alliance International."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
From left, Becky and Nathan Bliss, who are married, lead the band Barnaby Bright during their showcase performance Saturday, Jan. 4, at the 2023 Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

The expanded ensemble includes violinist Carmen Dieker, bassist Rick Willoughby and drummer Pat Adams.

“Now that we’re here in Kansas City we’re putting our roots down,” Nathan Bliss said. “This seems like a time to really push the full band.”

They chose an ideal forum for their new look. Two thousand music industry professionals attended this year’s conference.

Alex Mallett, the development director of the Kansas City based Folk Alliance International, says the annual gathering helps bands like Barnaby Bright fulfill their dreams.

“It’s where touring artists come to build their careers or build their next tour or stay in touch with a festival,” Mallett said. “And where those festivals come to find new talent and meet the agents, and do all of the mechanics that keep the many genres under folk music alive.”

Even though the conference is closed to the public, Mallett said the convention reaps economic and artistic dividends for the area.

A man and a woman sit on the floor of a large, carpeted lobby area in a hotel. He is singing and she is playing guitar. People can be seen walking past them
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Tom Troyer, left, and Miki P. harmonize in the hallway at Kansas City's 2023 Folk Alliance International Conference on Saturday, Jan. 4. The two had never met before, found each other that day and thought it'd be fun to sing together.

“Folk Alliance exposes the international music industry to Kansas City,” he said. “It’s one of only a few major music industry events in the world and the largest one in folk music. The network that comes here is very concentrated and very passionate and they’ve come to love Kansas City.”

'Telling truth through music'

Business was balanced by pleasure throughout the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. As hundreds of music industry insiders scouted talent, struck deals, and schmoozed, heartfelt hootenannies broke out throughout the complex’s public spaces.

Musicians armed with guitars, fiddles, and banjos rehearsed for their showcases on Friday afternoon as more than a dozen people participated in a relaxed rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” nearby.

Additional unruly scenes transpired on upper floors of the hotel. Hundreds of late-night showcases were held in individual rooms and suites — one of which yielded an encouraging response for Barnaby Bright.

A TV screen is shown on the left while people walk along a long hotel corridor to the right.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Guests, musicians, and industry officials roam the halls of the Westin Crown Kansas City at Crown Center on Saturday, Jan. 4, during the 2023 Folk Alliance International Conference.

After hearing the band in the informal setting, Becky Bliss reported that an industry executive told the band’s manager: “‘This is the best band I’ve heard the whole weekend’ — exactly what we wanted to happen.”

Though Becky and Nathan Bliss had the luxury of returning to their home each evening, they face a wonderful and life-altering challenge. They’re parents of a three-month-old baby.

The new circumstances add meaning to Becky Bliss’s songs during their official showcase on Saturday evening.

“It hits a little different when you have a baby,” she said in her introduction to the tender ballad "The Hurting Times."

“This afternoon I was trimming (the baby’s) sharp little fingernails, and I cut her and she started bleeding,” she confessed. “I just wanted to curl into a fetal position and just die.”

Bliss’ candor is part of longstanding tradition in folk music.

“Folk music is music of the people, is music for the people, locally and globally,” Alex Mallett said. “The power to tell truth through music, whether it’s a personal truth or a political truth.”

A musical band performs on a small stage in front of a small crowd. The band is seen from behind with the audience sitting in the shadows of a small, hotel conference room.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Barnaby Bright performed for a crowded audience in a conference room at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center on Jan. 4 during the 2023 Folk Alliance International Conference.

The personal truths in the Bliss’ music help Barnaby Bright stand out. Remarkable musicianship, exemplified by Nathan’s extraordinary, jazz-inspired guitar flourishes, further differentiate the band from the other 161 acts selected to perform at the showcase. It has also helped the Blisses achieve an enviable level of success.

“We support ourselves playing the music we love,” Nathan Bliss explained — the dream for millions of musicians.

And even if Becky Bliss’ intention to “graduate to the next tier” doesn’t materialize, an incident during the whirlwind conference suggested her band has earned its place in the folk music continuum.

“A girl came up to us and said, ‘I basically learned to sing because of you. … My mom was a huge fan of yours, (and) I spent years and years harmonizing three-part harmonies to your records. Now I’m a singer-songwriter,’” Bliss explained.

Besides, there’s always next year.

Barnaby Bright will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 16 at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64120. More information at KnuckleheadsKC.com. The Folk Alliance International Conference returns to Kansas City from Feb. 21 to Feb.25, 2024.

KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at plasticsax.com.
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