The 30A Songwriters Festival, which stretches across the Florida Panhandle coast along Highway 30A and its branches, isn’t just a festival where songwriters sing and tell stories for appreciative, mostly well-heeled audiences.
What makes this festival special is that it not only gives its 200 performers opportunities to interact with their peers, but often with mentors and influences as well — and even, in some cases, to discover the power of their own influence.
That’s what happened to Kim Richey during the 10th annual festival, held Jan. 18-21. As she sat in a lawn chair, trying to keep warm during Brandi Carlile’s Sunday headlining performance on the outdoor Grand Boulevard stage, Carlile spotted her and went nuts.
“Is that Kim Richey out there? Holy shit!” she exclaimed. “Kim Richey has been my hero since I was 16. I was so influenced by Kim Richey’s songwriting.” Reeling off a list of Richey’s albums, Carlile added, “I know all your songs and I’m in love with you.” Then she sang Richey’s “A Place Called Home,” and asked her to come onstage so they could do it together. When Richey came out, wearing one of Carlile’s guitars, the headliner, weeks away from possibly earning six Grammys including Album of the Year, beamed like a kid who just got the best birthday present ever. The moment clearly was special for both of them; when they finished, Carlile bowed to Richey, went in for a tight hug, then said, “How cool that I’d be here at a songwriters festival, and one of the most important people that ever taught me how to write songs is just standing there?”
Inside a very cold tent at Shunk Gulley just a few hours later, belle of the ball Richey would receive more accolades from pals Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss, who invited her up to sing several songs, including a gorgeous rendition of “Wild Horses.” The hit Nashville songwriters title their trio performances “Wine, Women & Song” — though one of them irreverently cracked that when Berg’s husband, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band co-founder Jeff Hanna, and Peters’ husband, keyboardist/accordionist Barry Walsh, join them (as they eventually did that night), the name changes to “Wine, Women & Schlong.”
In addition to performing a Friday co-bill with Peters and Courtney Marie Andrews and another on Saturday with Berg, Peters and Ellis Paul, Richey joined Hanna and Radney Foster during a set also featuring Berg and Foster’s tourmate, Eddie Heinzelman. Richey and Foster co-wrote “Nobody Wins,” his biggest hit.
They were followed by Louisiana soul singer Marc Broussard, who declared his appreciation for Foster and opened his set with “Come in From the Cold,” a song they cowrote with Justin Tocket. Of course, it’s not unusual for artists to honor mentors, but only in a situation like 30A would fans get to witness what happened next: Foster ran out from backstage and threw his arms around Broussard.
Such moments can give veteran artists a renewed sense of validation at a time when radio airplay and record sales don’t provide it. For newer artists, spotting their influences listening in the audience can be a thrill — and a confidence booster. But there’s another reason 30A is as much a haven for songwriters as it is for song lovers: it fosters collaborative opportunities for artists whose paths don’t cross as much as they’d like.
“We make a point to come up with cool combinations for sets, like putting people in rounds that have an affinity for each other,” says festival co-producer and talent booker Russell Carter, of Atlanta-based Russell Carter Artist Management. This year, combinations included Elizabeth Cook, Kevn Kinney (of apostrophe-challenged Drivin N Cryin) and Aaron Lee Tasjan; Jerry Joseph (Stockholm Syndrome), Will Kimbrough and Phil Madeira (both members of Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Boys, among many other credits); Chely Wright, Jeremy Lister and Korby Lenker; and many others. Many slots were filled by artists whose names may not be recognized by most festivalgoers, but whose songs certainly are.
Other configurations were arranged by the artists. For example, Peter Holsapple (Continental Drifters, dBs, R.E.M., Hootie & the Blowfish) played songs from Game Day, his new solo album, with the Peter Holsapple Combo (drummer Will Rigby and bassist Glenn Jones), and sang close-harmony pop gems with dBs partner Chris Stamey, who also performed solo.
Most artists perform two or three official sets (in addition to those impromptu appearances), though Steve Poltz squeezed in four, including an engaging Friday sunset show with Ryan Culwell, to spread excitement about his March 1 album release, Shine On (first single: “Ballin’ on a Wednesday”).
Many players arrive in time for a Thursday welcome party and stay through Monday’s daylong “late checkout” party; several, including Robyn Hitchcock and Justin Townes Earle, even performed on Wednesday. The festival accommodates them by providing donated lodging space in vacation homes, usually shared with other performers. Russell says they try to put people under the same roof who might wind up writing songs together.
“It happens; we hear about it,” he reports.
In addition to hooking up with old and new friends and collaborators while spending several days watching gorgeous sunsets and, weather permitting, dipping their toes in the white sugar sand of 30A’s Gulf Coast beaches (and this year, viewing the stunning blood orange moon eclipse), artists also clamor to play this festival because it gives them a rare chance to be fans as well as performers. Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, playing solo, said he was excited to see Patty Griffin and Carlile. Poltz left a performance by Matthew Sweet and the Dream Syndicate’s Jason Victor when he heard that Livingston Taylor was holding court across the street.
During her solo set, first-time 30A performer Carlile wondered how many audience members had seen her previously, and “how many of you are just here for all these fucking incredible songwriters?”
Incredible is right. The festival, started to goose tourism during what had been the region’s slowest period, and to raise funds for the non-profit Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, presents such a dynamic array of legends, hot talents and young up-and-comers that it now sells out its 5,000 tickets in advance (comps for sponsors, over 600 volunteers and others raises attendance to 6,500, according to Russell) and provides 80 percent of the alliance’s annual funding.
Headliners playing the 5,000-capacity Grand Boulevard stage this year also included former John Mayer bandmate David Ryan Harris, 30A first-timers Rosanne Cash and husband John Leventhal, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (band members Amanda Shires and Sadler Vaden later played sets at a separately ticketed event, with Isbell sitting in), the War & Treaty and Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals. Thirty-one other spaces — theaters, bars, restaurants (including tented outdoor patios), a town hall, a record store and similar sites — held somewhere between 75 and 500, making for incredibly intimate experiences. Artists gracing those stages included Hayes Carll, Bob Schneider, Chris Stills, Dan Bern, Dan Navarro, Darrell Scott, Edwin McCain, Steve Earle, John Fullbright, Lilly Winwood, Lucy Dacus, the Secret Sisters, Shawn Mullins, Amelia Spicer, Webb Wilder, Amy LaVere and Abe Partridge, each brimming with songs and stories that could tear at your heart or tickle your funnybone — sometimes simultaneously.
With all those “hooks, lines and singers” (as the slogan goes), at 30A, it’s impossible not to catch some magic.