Despite Tragedy, 30A Songwriters Festival Was All About The Stories

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The 11th annual 30A Songwriters Festival will be remembered as the year singer-songwriter David Olney passed away onstage, but as he no doubt would have wanted, the shows still went on right to the end of this music-packed three-night, four-day weekend in South Walton, Florida. And though his Saturday-night death, from an apparent heart attack, cast a somber mood over Sunday and Monday’s performances, it came after nearly two days of upbeat sets by 225 artists in 30 venues along the 18-mile stretch of Gulf Coast highway that gives the festival its name. 

At an artists’ welcome party Thursday night, the vibe was celebratory, as if someone had convened an unofficial meeting of the singer-songwriter mutual admiration society. At Monet Monet, a tucked-away outdoor oasis/wedding venue ringed with seafood buffets and libation stations, artists who’d respected one another from afar finally met face-to-face, while old friends reunited and happily caught up. Familiar faces included Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo of Fastball, Amy LaVere and Will Sexton, Steve Poltz, Robyn Hitchcock, Tommy Stinson, Amelia K Spicer, Chris Stills, Dan Navarro, John Paul White, the Rev. Shawn Amos & the Brotherhood (Brady Blade, Christopher Thomas and Chris “Doctor” Roberts) and Smokey & the Mirror’s Bernice and Bryan Hembree (attending as Oxford American podcasters). Up-and-coming performer and visual artist Abe Partridge made several sales from his exhibit of painted-on-wood outsider art, including four plucked off the walls by “American Pickers” collectible hunter Mike Wolfe.

That tone of relaxed ebullience carried through Friday and Saturday’s performances, many of them song swaps by artists who stepped onstage as strangers or acquaintances and stepped off as friends. But Sunday and Monday, most of the artists paid tribute to their fallen comrade. For the tightknit folk and 30A communities, an opportunity to mourn with others who knew and loved the late troubadour offered some catharsis.

30A Moments

At 723 Whisky Bravo, reformed Baptist preacher Partridge, “Diary of a Mod Housewife” darling Amy Rigby and Replacements/Bash & Pop legend Stinson regaled their audience — and one another — with wryly humorous tales about life’s absurdities (sample titles: “Abe Partridge’s 403rd Freakout”; Rigby’s “From PhilipRoth@gmail.com to RZimmerman@aol.com”). Their pithy observations and finely sharpened wit meshed so well, even when wrapped around sometimes poignant confessions, that Stinson mock-complained, “Are they only giving us an hour? ‘Cause we’re havin’ so much fun!” 

Nearly every artist who performed uttered variations of that statement, an indicator that this festival represents far more than a paycheck to most. (Though streaming-era revenue realities have caused many to deliver “shameless plugs” for products in addition to albums and merch. Partridge encouraged art purchases; Rigby offered copies of her well-received new memoir, “Girl to City.”) Because they usually spend a few days in upscale vacation homes while delivering multiple performances, they can relax and let creative juices flow. Bonding happens; sometimes, new collaborative partnerships form. They also get to hear other artists perform, a rarity for constant travelers.

Over at Bud & Alley’s, the Hembrees, who produce the Fayetteville Roots Festival, caught one of their 2019 bookings, Birds of Chicago, and an artist new to them, folk singer Erin McKeown. (Judging from their reaction, it’s a good bet she’ll be booked for their August gathering.) Though McKeown and Birds couple JT Nero and Allison Russell are stylistically quite different, McKeown’s jazz-influenced timing and accomplished playing (on her first gig with her spiffy new Godin acoustic guitar) synced perfectly with the Birds’ elegant, yet earthy “secular gospel.” Birds’ lead singer Russell (also a member of Rhiannon Giddens’ Our Native Daughters) has a beautifully nuanced voice and engaging sincerity; combined with her dexterity on banjo, ukulele, guitar and clarinet, she’s a dynamic presence. With Nero on guitar and harmonies and guitarist “Champagne” James Robertson playing shimmering electro-acoustic textures, they sometimes slipped into a shared musical reverie, without ever disconnecting from the audience.

McKeown offered sharp contrast with bold statements and moves like her perfectly executed jump into hip-hop poetry slam mode. Earlier, she’d narrated a deeply symbolic dream fantasy about rescuing a wild baby fox as an elaborate introduction to a song that, she explained, required the story to work. In that moment, she crystallized what the craft of songwriting is really about: Stories, both sung and spoken. The best troubadours know the windup is every bit as important as the pitch, so to speak, and they become the best by getting listeners to hang on every word before they drop a note. As the festival’s motto so aptly conveys, it’s all about “hooks, lines and singers.” Emphasis, perhaps, on the first two.  

But there’s something to be said for energetic rock ‘n’ roll, which explains why the Old Florida Fish House was packed sardine-tight for the Rev. Shawn Amos & the Brotherhood’s Friday set. The singer alternated between blues and R&B-drenched, harmonica-pumped originals, including tracks from the upcoming album, “Blue Sky,” and nuggets like Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” reconstructed as a slow-burn blues, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” He certainly put a spell on that audience with moves including belting that tune, punctuated by harp wails, from a pub-height chair, his hat nearly hitting the canoe dangling from the ceiling. Even drummer Blade pulled out his phone to capture the moment as Amos segued into “Mercedes Benz.”

While far less raucous, Dan Wilson’s set at Caliza was amusing, especially when he discussed “the four chords of doom”: the melody line threading from “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) through “Bali Hai” (from the musical “South Pacific”) to the Semisonic hit “Closing Time” and the Dixie Chick’s “Not Ready to Make Nice” (which he cowrote). Accompanied by pianist Brad Gordon, Wilson applied his choirboy-pure voice and soaring falsetto to an intentionally very different version of “Someone Like You,” the massive hit he co-wrote with Adele. 

In contrast to the generally intimate bar and restaurant venues and theaters, the festival books three larger acts each Saturday and Sunday afternoon at its 6,000-capacity Grand Boulevard outdoor stage. Saturday started with Tanya Tucker, who’s clearly reveling in the career rejuvenation she’s experiencing thanks to her 2019 album, “While I’m Livin’,” coproduced by one of last year’s headliners, Brandi Carlile. (Carlile followed her festival appearance by winning her first three Grammys and setting a new bar for awards performances with “The Joke.” Tucker headed from the festival to Grammy Week with four nominations, including Song of the Year for “Bring My Flowers Now,” co-written by Carlile and the Hanseroth twins.)

Tucker could win her first Grammy on Sunday; remarkably, she hasn’t yet done so despite a nearly 50-year career that took off with “Delta Dawn” when she was 13. Tucker must have been ready for stardom at birth, though; she absolutely adores the stage — and hasn’t lost one bit of her strutting, waggling sassiness or dramatic flair. She works it, and knows it, and loves it, but thrusts her tongue just far enough into her cheek to assure she doesn’t come off like a diva. She also maintains a healthy dose of humility; Saturday, she repeatedly thanked fans for supporting her, adding, “I’m so thankful that my music still matters.”

That’s in part because she doesn’t just dress the part; in songs such as “High Ridin’ Heroes,” she inhabits it. When Tucker unwinds lines like “She’s been to hell and Texas/and she knows how it feels to be/Riding that hot streak/and drunk on some back street,” she’s singing country and western. She encored with the album’s title tune, which she’d started writing decades before and finished, at Carlile’s urging, on the last day of recording. Maybe the tear she wiped at its end wasn’t really there, but it didn’t matter. The honest appreciation was. And so was the voice, as strong as that 13-year-old’s, as she sang an “Amazing Grace” intro and a cappella opening to her biggest, and most enduring, hit. 

Festival regulars the Indigo Girls followed, performing a pleasing but not transcendent set (though members of their band, particularly violinist Lyris Hung, shone in generous solo moments). John Prine brought more levity — and rain. That didn’t stop fans from soaking up his humorous stories and touching songs, including “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone),” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” and of course, “Angel from Montgomery,” which Tucker sang with him.

At festivals like this one, sometimes the biggest charms come from the smallest stages. Despite the rain and increasing chill, Chris Stills and Shannon LaBrie warmed the intimate outdoor space behind Hibiscus with spirited tales and songs. Though they’d just met, LaBrie welcomed Stills’ accompaniment, and he didn’t disappoint. Exhibiting just as much guitar-playing prowess as his dad, he jammed on the break during LaBrie’s “Firewalker” and turned his own “100-Year Thing” into a tour de force of jazz, blues and bluegrass — and even a snippet of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

At Bud & Alley’s, pals Will Kimbrough, Marshall Chapman and Tommy Womack engaged in so much hilarious, off-the-cuff repartee, they almost didn’t get around to playing. But all three are such accomplished songwriters, and Kimbrough is such a world-class picker, it was great whether they were riffing off one another verbally or in song. All three chose mostly humorous tunes as well; after playing “Half Drunk,” Kimbrough mentioned his former boss, Jimmy Buffett, had just recorded it. Chapman sang about stalking an ex, and Womack, who managed to make even bladder cancer funny, finished by reading a passage from his memoir, “Dust Bunnies.” It was long, but he kept everyone’s attention with a clever setup and shocking punchline. Because that’s how real storytellers do it.

Sunday’s mainstage acts are usually nostalgia bookings; this year featured Peter Noone’s Herman’s Hermits, Don McLean and Brian Wilson. Noone, another comic, had chilly fans rolling with his Mick Jagger impression; McLean leaned on Buddy Holly and of course, led an “American Pie” singalong. Wilson hit some high notes but generally let his band do the work; he didn’t seem comfortable or happy to be sitting at his piano on that cold afternoon. It’s hard to fault him for showing up, though, if fans still want to listen.

Todd Snider, who performed at the Hub, opened his set with a tribute to Olney, his friend and fellow East Nashville stalwart, and sang Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” in his honor. Snider, who had mortality on his mind (and would lose his dog a day later), has a well-earned reputation as one of the finest storytellers gracing stages anywhere. He’s been known to tell half-hour stories before a song; on this night, he would set up “Play a Train Song,” with a typically humorous yarn about Olney and a departed sound engineer friend. That followed his Jerry Jeff Walker prelude to “Mr. Bojangles” — a story so rich and crazy, it’s almost better than the song.

As he noted at its start, “The difference between a freeloader and a free spirit is three chords on a guitar.”

That’s how it often begins. If you’re lucky, it ends at a festival where you die with your boots on and your guitar in your hands, and your death makes news around the world, and your friends dedicate their performances to you because you touched them so much with your stories and your songs.  

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