‘A very pleasant surprise’: Lawrence songwriting duo takes home top honors in Texas folk festival

photo by: Aaron Polinard/1Perspective Photography

Byron James performs during the Kerrville New Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas. James and his songwriting partner, Rita Beyer, entered the festival's Grassy Hill New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters for the first time this year and ended up being selected as one of the six winners ahead of nearly 900 other entrants.

Entering the Grassy Hill New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas, was a first for Lawrence songwriting duo Byron James and Rita Beyer.

But the pair didn’t just participate — they went and won the whole thing.

James and Beyer’s entries — a pair of songs titled “Rodeo Clown” and “Aliens” — were chosen late last month as one of six winning contest submissions ahead of nearly 900 other entrants vying for the honor.

“I feel pretty ecstatic, actually,” Beyer told the Journal-World Friday. “It’s really fun to have that kind of recognition. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and Byron writes the most beautifully intense melodies. They take twists and turns like no other, so to have his music and then both of our words recognized is really a treat.”

photo by: Contributed

Rita Beyer

The songs Beyer and James wrote together were certainly a hit among the Texas crowd over Memorial Day weekend, when James performed their entries during the second day of the contest. “Aliens,” especially, garnered plenty of laughs and a standing ovation. The aptly titled tongue-in-cheek tune recounts the tale of his abduction by aliens on the side of the interstate — and the ensuing sting of rejection when the aliens realized he wasn’t exactly the highest-quality product they could’ve chosen.

“This next song, people have asked me before, ‘Is that true?'” James said during the performance. “And like I’ve said before, it’s as true as it could possibly be.”

photo by: Kerrville Folk Festival screenshot

Byron James performs during the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas.

Getting to that moment was one leg of a long journey, in part because Kerrville is a roughly 24-hour round-trip drive away from Lawrence. James and Beyer both made the trek. It was a return for Beyer, who had gone to the festival as an attendee back in the 1990s, but a first-time visit for James.

But James actually had to make two trips back and forth to Kerrville in quick succession. He told the Journal-World the pair had to start the drive home immediately after the competition over Memorial Day weekend, but they were getting texts and phone calls a couple of hours into the drive learning they’d won.

That meant James would need to make a second solo trip and come back for the winners concert the following weekend, this time for a longer set including more songs.

“I was surprised; I kind of didn’t see it coming,” James said of the honor. “… You don’t go in there thinking you’re going to win right off the bat, and it was a surprise. A very pleasant surprise.”

Upon the pair’s return to Lawrence, James described an “overwhelming” community response. He and his band, Sugarfoot Detour, are already familiar faces in the local music scene. That band and other acts play regular concerts from James’ front porch at 901 Pennsylvania St. during Lawrence’s monthly Final Fridays events.

James said it touched him deeply to see so many folks offer their congratulations about the win. And Beyer added that their Facebook community has “blown up” with congratulatory messages.

Both James and Beyer were quick to note that the other musicians who participated in the contest were wickedly talented, and many of them are obscure enough it’d be hard to catch wind of them this far up north from the festival itself. That made the taste of victory especially sweet.

“The people that were down there, the other applicants, the talent was just off the charts, so it was a real honor for both of us, Rita and me, to be chosen and then to win,” James said.

As for what comes next, Beyer said it’s hard to tell, at least as far as grand plans are concerned. She knows for certain the duo will continue to write songs together, but at the same time “each day is different.”

“Some days, the words come out quickly and other days, they come out just like molasses,” Beyer said. “But we don’t have any set plans for anything.”

The next Final Friday won’t be the only chance for folks to hear James perform locally in the near future. Folks in Lawrence will be able to hear Sugarfoot Detour play the winning tunes in person Sunday at Uplift Coffee Shop, 624 N. Second St., from noon to 2 p.m. James is a classically trained guitarist, and Beyer added that James will play classical music on the patio from 10 a.m. to noon before the band’s set.

The following Saturday, June 17, James will play at Empty Nester’s Winery, 338 Elmore St. in Lecompton, at 5 p.m. He also plans for the winning songs to be included on an upcoming album.


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