Although singer-songwriter and former Okie Kevin Welch has played in hundreds of venues around the world, it's easy for him to name his favorite place to play: The Blue Door.
"It's a great room to play, and the acoustics are really, really nice in there," Welch said from his home in Wimberley, Texas. "It's about the most Okie place I can imagine and even though I haven't lived in Oklahoma for years and years, I still consider myself an Okie, and I travel and play all over the world, but The Blue Door remains, just about consistently, my favorite place to play.
"It's not just me, either. A lot of other musicians will say that, too. It's a really special place."
A longtime personal friend of club owner Greg Johnson, Welch's 9 p.m. Friday performance will mark The Blue Door's 16th anniversary. Welch was the club's very first performer, and the singer has returned annually to perform for each succeeding anniversary.
Welch said the small, unremarkable building that houses The Blue Door and Johnson's tenacious support of Oklahoma and Texas singer-songwriters are reminiscent of CBGB, the run-down club considered by many to be the birthplace of punk rock, and its owner, the late Hilly Kristal.
"I've heard it said The Blue Door is the CBGB of red dirt music, and while I can't take credit for that phrase, I really like it, and I'm going to start using it," Welch said.
In addition to his Blue Door birthday gig, he said he was also looking forward to his appearance at the 24th annual MusicFest, which was held Jan. 5-10 in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
"I'd been looking at playing at Steamboat Springs for a few years, and they finally asked me to do it," he said.
But little did Welch know that the festival's organizers had an ulterior motive in extending their invitation.
"Every year, they honor somebody, and the other musicians who are there learn that person's songs (for) a special show where everyone performs the honoree's songs," Welch said. "Well, it turns out that I'm that guy this year."
In recent years, the MusicFest's honorees have included noted Texas singer-songwriters Robert Earl Keen and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
"When they said I was the honoree, I didn't really know what that meant. Then I was in Nashville, and someone casually mentioned the song they were going to do of mine, and I said, 'What do you mean?'" Welch said, with a laugh. "Whoever it was said, 'Well, that's what we do. Everyone who's there, we all do your songs,' and I said, 'No shit " really? Well, that is cool.' It just sorta blows my mind."
In recent years, the Americana Music Association has recognized Welch, Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin " working together as Kane Welch Kaplin " with two successive nominations for duo or group of the year.
But with some amusement, Welch noted the 2008 winners in the duo/group category were rock legend Robert Plant and country star Alison Krauss.
"We had some pretty stiff competition," he said.
Although Kane Welch Kaplin have no plans to record together until late 2009, Welch said he and his musical cohorts have kept busy working on individual projects.
"Kieran has just completed a brilliant EP that I've been hounding him to make for two or three years," Welch said. "It's going to be a limited release, or at least that's what he thinks at this point, but it knocks me out so hard, I'm not sure what's going to happen with that.
"In addition, Fats is working on a new solo record, and I'm branching out and starting to produce some outside folks. I just made a record with Jason Eady, who lives and works a lot in Texas, and I happen to be a fan of his."
While Welch hasn't been doing any writing of his own in recent months, Kane's solo EP particularly excites him.
"I've been dying to hear a whole stream of uninterrupted Kieran songs, because he's on this particular kind of jag that he slipped into a couple of years ago, and it's entirely different from something I would do," Welch said. "It's like everything begins with Bo Diddley, and you run it through Charles Bukowski and Bill Monroe, and out comes this stuff that most of it doesn't rhyme and a lot of it isn't sung."
With a February tour of Australia booked and scattered domestic festival dates confirmed, there are as yet no set plans for Kane Welch Kaplin to record a new CD in 2009, although Welch said he always looks forward to their collaborative efforts.
"We'll probably be recording later in the year " it's just to fun and too easy not to," he said. "We go in, and by the end of the third day, the songs are mixed. It's not that we're screaming geniuses; it's just that we have a really fortunate partnership that's very, very intuitive, and it's just really easy for us to play together.
The three friends did, however, convene for a one-off recording session earlier in 2008 to contribute a song to "Voices of a Grateful Nation," a two-CD set that's part of The Welcome Home Project, a fund-raising effort to help provide care for U.S. troops who have returned from the Middle East. The list of musicians included on the CDs reads like a who's who of Texas-based rock, blues, folk, country and Americana musicians. Welch said he and his partners were deeply touched by the intentions of the project.
"The Welcome Home Project was started by a Vietnam vet who goes to the VA hospital in San Antonio for his treatments, and walked past all these kids just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq," Welch said. "He'd look at them in the waiting room, and they weren't getting the help they needed. The CD we all made is just kinda the cherry on top of this whole program.
"Basically, something to hand to every guy and girl who come back to say, 'Thanks a lot for doing what you did.'" "C.G. Niebank