A native Tucsonan, blues guitarist Mitzi Cowell has played the Tucson Folk Festival each of the past nine years. She says it is unique among such festivals around the country and is not reluctant to sing its praises.
"It's got a really unpretentious vibe. A lot of jamming happens, obviously. A lot of people wind up playing on several different slots during the festival. A lot of people get to see old friends there, or make new friends.
"It's kind of like a yearly meeting spot for a lot of local musicians and fans, as well as people from out of town. It's great to get outside in a beautiful setting and hear such a diverse assortment of music in such a short period of time. And it's free."
This weekend marks the 21st appearance of the annual festival. It will feature some 20 hours of music on four stages over the course of two days--Saturday and Sunday, May 6 and 7--in and around downtown's El Presidio Park, near the intersection of Church Avenue and Alameda Street.
The main stage will be located in El Presidio Park, with additional stages on the lawn of the Pima County Courthouse, in the courtyard at Old Town Artisans and in the plaza at the Tucson Museum of Art.
Name acts from out of town often serve as headliners for the festival, and this year is no different.
The country duo of singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines--one of Texas' most critically acclaimed acts of late--anchors Saturday at 9 p.m. Grammy Award-winning Native American blues-folk singer-songwriter Bill Miller will close out the festival at 8 p.m. Sunday.
The folk duo Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen, from Maine, will play opening sets prior to each of the headliners' performances. Andersen and Reid also will lead many instrumental workshops during the weekend.
Otherwise, the bulk of the festival's performers consist of unsigned acts primarily from the Southern Arizona area. They will play in styles that include--but are not limited to--contemporary and traditional folk, blues, folk-rock, gypsy jazz, Celtic, bluegrass, gospel, country, Cajun, Western, Cuban, Russian, African and other forms of world music.
Among those from our neck of the woods is Cowell, a 42-year-old veteran of the Tucson nightclub and coffeehouse circuit. She has spent time in numerous bands, often playing as many as six nights a week.
She started playing music as a child. She even has a photo of herself with a little plastic Western guitar; the instrument became a vehicle for her rich creativity.
Cowell's sister and brother are 10 and 13 years older than she, respectively. "So in some ways, I felt like an only child. I spent a lot time with myself, working in a fantasy world of my own creation. I was really into art, especially wood carving. I've always had a rich interior life and could easily entertain myself."
She especially admired her sister, who had turned her on to such inspirations as Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. When Cowell's sister started taking guitar lessons, so did she, remaining enamored of the instrument long after big sis had put it aside.
In junior high school, Cowell was allowed to tailor an independent study course for herself that focused on learning how to play the guitar. "So I actually ended up playing my guitar all day every day for most of my eighth-grade year in school."
Although she was born and bred in Tucson, Cowell lived in other cities such as New Orleans and Anchorage for short periods of time. She always came back to Tucson, however, where she has released several albums, the most recent being the CD 33 and an EP, Ornamental Oranges.
She also appears prominently on the latest CD Moving, Not Leaving by singer Cantrell Maryott, an old friend and colleague from their days in the Visionary Blues Band during the late 1980s and early '90s.
Cowell's latest recording is a CD titled Ways and Means, which is almost finished and she hopes to release later this year. Its subject matter signals a new direction on Cowell's songwriting.
"It's pretty political. I get kind of jiggy with certain current events on it." The CD reflects Cowell's recent burgeoning interest in politics and social activism, she says.
"I actually wound up getting really inspired to get politically involved during the 2004 elections. I had this overwhelming need to be a part of the solutions."
Cowell's commitment to such issues goes well beyond singing about them. She's a full-time student, pursuing a degree in religious studies, with a minor in political science, at the UA.
Mitzi Cowell will take time out of her studies to play, accompanied by Bev Seckinger on bass, at 4:45p.m. Saturday on the Courtyard Stage.
The 21st annual Tucson Folk Festival will run from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday, May 6, and from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 7. Admission is free. Go to www.tkma.org for a full schedule or more information.