Like A Little Vacation: Inside The 30A Songwriters Festival

8:00 p.m.

Rosemary Beach Town Hall is hosting the world’s hippest songwriter circle. Angel Snow, a uniquely talented songwriter who caught the ear of Alison Krauss (Krauss covered three of Snow’s tunes on her latest album, Paper Airplane); dashing, good-natured folk artist David Berkeley, who’s brought two remarkably tasteful musicians from New York City to play with him; and Joseph Arthur, the wandering minstrel who was discovered by Peter Gabriel and embraced by Michael Stipe. Arthur and Berkeley have both published prose as well. So there’s two authors on stage, and one muse.

Snow kills it with her first song, the folky lament “ Coals and Water,” and performs a brand new song called “Photographs.” Her voice is arresting. Berkeley works his excellent falsetto, as his musicians color in between the lines on banjo, guitar and trumpet. Arthur strums an electric guitar he painted himself, and sings songs like “Almost Blue” and “I Miss The Zoo,” songs I first heard when he visited our office a few months back.

Later on I asked Angel Snow what she thought of the show and the festival. I’m always curious what it’s like to play in the round like that; whether it’s fun or stressful. Here’s what she wrote:

I choose not to really have expectations about a show or round because you never know how it’s going to turn out, but the one with David Berkelely and Joseph Arthur had an air of magic to it for sure. Sharing the stage with those guys was just incredible. I wanted to be in the audience and just watch them perform.

Joseph’s “May God’s love be with you” (“In The Sun”) hit me pretty hard and David and his backing band blew me away. His voice is so beautiful! I will wear that guy’s t-shirt proudly. Amy Ray and Lindsay Fuller followed us and I just held my breath the whole time. Loved it.

I was so honored to be part of that show and the event overall. Such a great time of year to be by the ocean side and hear such great music. I loved Rodney Crowell’s set. I cried during half of it… I guess it’s a combination of being an over-emotional girl and a sucker for such honest, captivating lyrics.

The highlight of the weekend happened Sunday night. I played a show at Shorty’s in Grayton Beach and ended up selling a CD to Joan Osborne without knowing it was her. I gathered this information after the fact, freaked out, and ran after her in the parking lot to thank her again for the purchase. I was so bummed I didn’t get to see her play all weekend and then she came out to see me play. Totally crazy. Oh, and she signed my email list! And that list is on my refrigerator. Right now. Rad weekend for sure.

8:30 p.m.

Thank god we smuggled in a sandwich. There’s a lot more music to come, and if you leave your seat, you’re gonna end up standing. It’s time for the next round of acts at the Rosemary. Sharing the stage are Kevn Kinney, lead singer of Drivin’ and Cryin’, and The Tall Pines, an Americana male-female duo who turned in one of NPR’s top ten albums of 2007.

Kinney opens with a song about Lynyrd Skynyrd on his 12-string Takamine. He’s an affable storyteller with a pleasing voice and a knack for cool imagery. Check out his songs “Pre-Approved, Pre-Denied” and “The Jesus I know” (“the Jesus that I knows goes to Willie Nelson shows”). For the latter, he sneaks in references to The Indigo Girls’ “Galileo” and his own band. For his last song, he weaves The Beatles’ “I Got a Feeling” into his own “Let’s Go Dancing.”

The Tall Pines have the southern gothic revival thing down. Like another great Americana act, The Band, they skew Canadian. Singer/percussionist Connie Lynn Petruck emigrated from Edmonton, while Pentecostal-raised guitarist/vocalist Christmas Davis hails from the great state of Florida. Christmas sings a relatively true srory about his great grandfather from nearby Vernon, a man lost to sin who, rumor has it killed, more than one of his wives. It’s over quickly, in part because Christmas feels country songs should be short, like Ramones songs. Plus, that’s literally all he knows about the man. The Pines share the mic and get the audience to clap along for their closing numbers.

10 p.m.

Lindsay Fuller is still dressed like Natty Gann. She and Ray are on fire tonight; their set’s even better than the night before. Maybe because Ray is standing instead of sitting, or maybe it’s because she can feel her fingers. Fuller sings a new song, “Coal Mine Canary,” and calls it “the feelgood hit of the winter.”

“You guys awesome,” she tells the crowd as the night winds down. “Thank you so much for listening.” “You don’t have very high expectations, do you,” jokes Ray. “Seattle can be a tough place for a singer songwriter , says Fuller, and launches into a story about the night that she and Jeff played a show with a guy who was on the Twilight soundtrack. The Twi-hards talked throughout the entire set. So she said “You wont like this next song, its not about vampires. I think that pissed them off.”

Our friends who gave us a ride to the venue left early, so we have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get back. I hitch a ride from two friendly concertgoers in the back of their pickup truck, and gaze up at the stars, like Woody Guthrie might have done, had he attended the 30A Songwriters Festival.

SUNDAY

2 p.m.

This morning we biked a mile out to Grayton Beach for a decadent breakfast at Another Broken Egg, and a solitary stroll along the shore. Fish swim up to greet us, and I wish I’d brought a guitar. I’d like to write a song by the ocean right now, maybe get Oates and Lauderdale to sing harmonies on it. Or maybe I could provide them with that missing line. These are the sort of day dreams that 30A inspires.

I head over to Central Records, a surprisingly hip record store, which also sells homemade ukes, guitar strings and kitchy gifts. It’s been known to carry American Songwriter as well. Mary Gauthier is just walking out, and The Tall Pines are setting up for their second gig. Here’s your chance to see them up close.

Downstairs is a great bookstore (Sundog Books) playing the Avett Brothers, with Rodney Crowell’s memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks prominently displayed. This town loves its songwriters.

Back outside, I walk past two songwriters taking advantage of the sunshine, sitting on a bench in the public square with their acoustics and singing a twangy song. Life is good … even Tommy Womack would agree.

4:30 p.m.

“What’s the difference between a songwriter and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.”

“What do you call a songwriter in a three piece suit? A defendant.”

The jokes are courtesy of Tim Nichols, an affable Nashville hit songwriter. If you’ve had country radio on in the past few years, you’re familiar with his material. He’s sharing the stage with Reed Waddle, a skilled guitarist and vocalist who was born in Destin, made his home in Boston, and recently moved to New York City. Taken together, the two songwriters are a study in contrasts between the internal and external, the personal and the general. Waddles’ songs are introspective and arty, while Nichols’ appeal directly to the masses. The cool part is, they’re equally enjoyable.

Nichols has an entertaining story for every song (“Heads Carolina, Tails California,” “The Man I Want To Be.”) He plays his hit “Brotherly Love,” a semi-autobiographical tale about growing up which still causes friction with his brothers at Thanksgiving. Waddle sounds like a cross between John Mayer and Paul Simon; playing impressively jazzy chords and commanding an effortless falsetto.

“A musician told me that a songwriters favorite song is the one you’re working on now,” says Waddle. “But you can’t forget your old friends. This song is that.” He launches into “I Saw Stars,” which is among his most accessible. Nichols introduces his last number as his favorite song he’s ever written, “so far.” It’s “Live Like You Were Dying,” a #1 hit for Tim McGraw. But it really belongs to Nichols, who visibly chokes up when he gets to the line about “the year I lost my Dad.” It’s a powerful moment, and a killer show.

7 p.m.

Back at Fish Out Of Water for another great dinner and some fine entertainment. First up is British pop songstress Callaghan. You’ve got to admire her strategy here — in a world of two-named singer-songwriters, the one-named artist is king. Just ask Bono.

Callaghan was discovered by Atlanta musician Shawn Mullins, who produced her debut album. She moved here to Atlanta about a year ago with her husband, not knowing anyone but Shawn, who’d she only met once. It was a leap of faith that seems to have paid off, and the subject of her song “Best Year Ever.” Joined by a smiling bassist named Panda, she accompanies herself on keys and guitar, and turns in a soulful cover of “Over The Rainbow.”

“I feel like I’ve played here loads because I keeps coming down here to visit,” says Callaghan – this is her second time playing the festival. “For those who live here, I’m jealous.”

She ends her set with an interactive version of Johnny Cash’s “Fulsom Prison Blues” (“If you’ve had a few drinks, sing along”), where the audience echoes her “woo woo” train whistles.

8:30 p.m.

Folk music veteran David Wilcox has an infectious laugh, a yen for cool open tunings, and a philosophical mind. Listening to him play, you feel safe in his hands.

I had the chance to interview Wilcox at the festival. Here’s what he had to say.

You’re all performers and musicians, but this is a songwriter’s festival. How does it feel to be branded a songwriter as opposed to a musician?

When I hear somebody talk about a song of mine that they love of the way that it really registers with me, the way that I can take in the compliment, is usually when they can talk about how it changed them. As if it wasn’t just the sound. It wasn’t just the pattern of chord and rhyme and craft. It was actually the idea that was a catalyst for giving them the courage to really take their lives into their own hands, and wake up to what’s possible.

So when somebody comes to me and says, “Wow, you’re a great guitar player,” after I’ve just sung my heart out, it feels sort of like as if I had given some lecture about some topic, and somebody had come to congratulate me on my syntax or my subject verb agreement, or the use of the gerund. It’s like, “wait a minute, did you hear what I said? Or were you just listening to how I said it?”

So for me, being a musician is kind of a given. I’m pretty used to the way I play and the way I sing. I know that I have a facility for expressing something when I know what I want to say, but what’s more important is getting to the heart of knowing what I want to say.  I think that if I had to choose between being known as a performer or a songwriter, I think the songwriter is really the heart of it, the inspiration.

Although maybe one is in-breath, the inspiration; the other is the expression, like the out-breath and you can’t just do one. You can’t just breathe in. So I think the in-breath and the out-breath is what keeps my life so interesting; I have to have a new song to go out and do a bunch of gigs because that makes it fresh and real. But I have to have a gig in order to write a new song to know that it’s going somewhere. So both are necessary. I think if I tried to do just one, the other would stop.

I told you he was philosophical.

Wilcox treats us to a great song about the strange spiritual mecca that is the Waffle House. He follows up with “Western Ridge,” which was born from a songwriting session with his friend LJ Booth. They each took the same guitar riff and went off to work on it independently, and found when they’d returned that they’d both written a song about the dangers of climbing mountains. Later that day they learned through the news that a climbing trip to Everest had gone horribly wrong.

Maybe songwriters do have special powers of intuition. They’re always pulling songs out of the ether.

“With co-writing, the song is almost the byproduct,” Wilcox told me. “The real goal is have an excuse to sit down and talk about what matters, and have the music be the kind of ambient courage that would give us permission to deepen a friendship. Because music affects me so deeply, it’s a way to have my heartbeat open and forget my self conscious nervousness and dive into something that’s been on somebody’s mind. I love the craft of songwriting, but I also love just the psychology of it. I love the way songs are like an oracle that communicates between the deep heart and the conscious mind. It’s a way to become aware of stuff that is percolating in your story that you need to pay attention to.”

9:40 pm

When the spell wears off I go down to the Gathering Spot, the WaterColor’s cozy bar, where I’m pulled in by the siren song of Roy Scheider. He’s playing a brilliant blues song and wailing away on some funky chicken scratch harmonica, for fifteen people, plus me. He’s soon joined by partner Kim Mayfield on keys, mandolin, and later washboard. Together they turn in a truly masterful set of campfire Americana. These guys should be totally famous.

10:30

Back upstairs at Fish Out Of Water, Randall Bramblett and his old friend Tommy Talton are killing it with some blistering acoustic blues. They’re utilizing slide guitar, sax, and keys. On bass is Panda, who’s playing by the skin of his teeth. No drummer required. “It’s just the hardcore in here now,” notes Bramblett, a blues rock icon who’s played with Traffic and Gregg Allman.

“You know that part about being quiet during the set,” he asks. “That’s all over now. Those signs that say “shhh?” You can take them down now.” The crowd sits in rapt attention, eating up every soulful note, as the venue is transformed into a smoky blues club without the smoke.

The musicians wrap things up smartly with Bramblett’s “Get In Get Out.” Time to stumble home and sleep off this wine. What a great night.

MONDAY

9:30 a.m.

We kick back over breakfast and reflect on our magical little weekend. 30A is a festival where the songwriters are the rock stars, the sound is pristine, the audience is always appreciative, and everyone is in love with their surroundings. I didn’t catch every set I would have liked to… no Cory Smith, Sam Bush, or Matthew Sweet… but hey, there’s always next year. Right now I can’t wait to get home to my guitar.

(Shawn Mullins at Fish Out Of Water)

 

 

 

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