Like A Little Vacation: Inside The 30A Songwriters Festival

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

If you love great songwriting, there’s really no better vacation than the 30A Songwriters Festival, held every year along highway 30A in the beach communities of South Walton, Florida. It’s the perfect destination for lyric lovers, acoustic guitar fetishists, and those who enjoy music with a deeper meaning. It’s also a great place to make friends with your fellow audience members and, if your lucky, the songwriters in attendance. Here’s a diary I kept of this year’s event.

FRIDAY

7 a.m.

Nashville’s BNA Airport. My girlfriend and I are waiting to board the plane that will take us to the 30A Songwriters Festival. And we’re not the only ones. There’s a small army of acoustic guitars waiting at the gate. The Nashville musicians who’ve been booked to play the festival chat amongst themselves with nervous excitement. I’m too sleepy to ask who any of them are.

THE 30A SONGWRITER FESTIVAL IN PHOTOS: VIEW THE GALLERY

9:30 a.m.

We’ve landed safely (if the plane had crashed, Nashville would have lost roughly .0000043 percent of it’s songwriting population), and now we’re being driven to our destination point, the luxurious WaterColor Inn and Resort, by Dave, a friendly hotel staffer. The Inn is located in Santa Rosa Beach, an area so idyllic that they filmed parts of The Truman Show here. “A lot of celebrities and sports figures like to vacation down here,” Dave points out. Kenny Chesney, the beach loving cowboy, is a frequent visitor.

We pass a sign on the highway for Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, “The No. 1 Honky Tonk in the World.” It turns out there’s one in Panama City Beach, just like there’s one in downtown Nashville, and in the Nashville airport. That’s it though.

3 p.m.

Highlights from the 30A press conference

Shawn Mullins:

Hi, I’m Shawn Mullins. This is my third festival and I’m really excited to be back. What makes this different from a lot of other songwriter festivals is that a lot of them are great parties, and you have a lot of fun and you do shows, but there’s not as much interaction. Sometimes it’s so spread out that you’re not able to hang out with the other artists and songwriters.

Here, I’ve been having a great time talking and meeting people in the area, and also getting to have that fellowship with other writers. To me personally, that’s what this is about as much as anything else – it’s the extension of that creative thing that we all really need.

Jim Lauderdale:

My name is Jim Lauderdale. Okay, the first thing we got to do is get the debt ceiling down, folks. I’d get a flat tax put in there and I… I’m sorry. I’m thinking about a different press conference. [Laughter]

One of the fringe benefits of doing something like this is that John Oates and I are staying in the same building, and we had a couple of unfinished songs. So last night we stayed up until about three and got one finished, and we’re just one line away from the other one. So tonight, we’ll perform those.

John Oates:

Hi. I’m Daryl Hall. [Laughter] I used to be really tall and blonde, but ever since I started working with Jim Lauderdale I shrunk. But I’m proud of it.

Anyway, I was invited by Sam [Bush] to come the first time. My wife and I had such a good time. We really enjoyed being here. We’re glad to be back, even for one night. I love being surrounded by songwriters. I’ve actually started a songwriting festival of my own in Aspen, Colorado and we’re going into our third year this coming March. So if all of you people want to get away from the beach and get some snow in March, Aspen is Colorado’s the place to be.

Joan Osborne:

You know, everybody says, “Oh, we have the most beautiful beaches in the world,” but I went out there yesterday with my daughter and it’s like powdered sugar. It’s incredible. I live in Brooklyn so this is like a really nice break for me to have in January.

3:35 p.m

“I just started a new side project group called Trigger Happy and most of the guys are in Nashville,” says Joan Osborne with a twinkle in her eye. She’s excited for her next record, which, if there’s any justice, will sell as many copies as her 1995 breakthrough Relish, the one with “One Of Us” on it (you may know it as the “God” song.)

“I drew a lot of inspiration from the Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and from classical music structures where it’s not just verse, verse, chorus… and tried to open it up and be a little more free with the structures,” she says, casually namedropping one of the greatest albums of all time. “It’s called Love And Hate, so it’s kind of an examination of romantic love in all its different facets – the good the bad the ugly. It’s still in the process of being finished and I feel like it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. So it’s good for me to be around all these other people to really inspire me and get me going.”

My favorite song from Relish is “St. Teresa,” which she assures me she’ll be playing tonight. “That’s a good example of the kind of song that I was trying to write at the time. I’d come from a background in film and studying film, so I was trying to make a song that was like a series of pictures.”

“Right now I’m more focused on trying to write as simply and directly as possible and see if I can say as much as I want to say with very simple language and very direct sentiments,” she adds. “I feel like that’s a huge challenge. When I was younger, I was much more interested in fantastic images and trying to be really different and unusual. Now I just feel like Hank Williams was the greatest genius, because he could do so much with the simplest language.”

3:45 p.m.

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls and her young ward, an intense Seattle singer-songwriter named Lindsay Fuller, are hanging out after the press conference. They’ll play two sets together during the weekend, trading off songs. It’s one of the unique aspects of 30A — most artists get to perform both solo and in the round.

Ray and Fuller have a pretty amazing story about how they ended up together.

“She’s been a big influence of mine for a long time — since I was a little kid,” says Fuller, smiling. “I sent her this CD a few years ago and I put a note on it and said, ‘you’re the reason I give a damn about my lyrics.’ And I sent it to her label, I guess.”

“Yeah, I was going through my box of demos people sent in and it looked interesting,” says Ray. So I was like, ‘oh I’m gonna listen to this.’ I was driving and it totally blew me away. From the first note, I was like, ‘whoa, this is not just a demo, this is like a CD.’

Anyway, while I was driving and listening to the CD and multitasking, a text came in on my phone. So I pulled over and it was a friend of mine who was in Seattle at her show. She said, “you have to hear this songwriter I’m listening to right now. You’re gonna love her.” And I was listening to the CD, so it was a weird coincidence.

So I texted her back and I was like, ‘You’re not gonna believe who I’m listening to.’ It just went from there. I got in touch with her and it just started. She opened for Indigo Girls some and we just started formulating ideas of how to go do some stuff together.”

So have you guys rehearsed much for this?” I ask.

“Yeah, actually,” says Ray. “We don’t usually rehearse, but we did. Jeff Fielder is playing dobro and guitar with us. We rehearsed like four hours total.”

“We’re trading off,” says Fuller. “I’m playing my songs. She sings on a couple of mine. Her songs are a little more rascally. Like, when you try to sing harmony with them, sometimes it ruins them. Because it’s so perfect because you don’t need anything else. It’s like, ‘I’m going to leave that alone.’ I’m serious, it’s true.”

“I’m as excited to play with Lindsay.” Ray interjects. “She’s like someone I go to to figure out how to be a better writer. I’ve just been doing it a long time.”

I can’t let the opportunity go without asking Amy Ray about Bon Iver, 2011’s breakout indie artist and one of the Indigo Girls’ most vocal supporters.

“Yeah, it’s mutual. It’s super flattering,” she says. “I was a huge fan for a long time, since his first record. Then I heard he was a fan and then he played some shows with us. And then he waxed poetically and wrote me some letters. I don’t know – I’m humbled by it. He’s somebody that I’m way into. Like, I’m embarrassed how into him I am.”

4 p.m.

Lauderdale and Oates are in a rush to leave and get ready for their gig, but I catch them at the door with a burning question. “Can you tell me a bit more about that song you’re writing?”

“No, we can’t,” Oates says, impishly. “It’s not even copyrighted yet. In fact, we’re copyrighting it right now before we play it tonight. It’s kind of an R&B song. We’ve got two right? One’s a bossa nova, samba-esque.”

“We just need one line,” adds Lauderdale. “Probably when we get back we’ll finish the line, run through it once, and then we’ll play it tonight for the first time. Wow, I’m nervous now.”

“We worked until three o’ clock in the morning,” says the man who co-wrote “Maneater.” “Well, Jim worked until four but I went to bed. Jim’s a harder worker than I am. He’s got more stamina.”

7 p.m.

After a dinner of lobster mac and cheese and oysters rockefeller at Fish Out Of Water, the WaterColor’s high end restaurant, it’s time for the evening’s entertainment to begin. A volunteer explains that we’ll need to be quiet, because this (like all 30A venues) is a listening room. He has a sign that says “shhh,” and he’s not afraid to point it at you. “Well, alright,” I think. Finally some decorum at a rock concert.

Kicking things off is Brian Kennedy, a local, who’s wearing a red shirt and black cowboy hat. Kennedy penned a couple of #1 hits for Garth Brooks, such as “Good Ride Cowboy” and “The Beaches Of Cheyenne” (“there are no beaches in Cheyenne,” he informs us) and “American Honky Tonk Bar Association.” He plays them all, quite well, and shares the stories behind them in between. His easy charm and humorous lyrics (“If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen”) warms up the giddy crowd.

Next up is Susanna Hoffs, one of the original Bangles, who looks like she’s stepped out of a time machine. She could be a spokeswoman for anti-aging cream, but she’s a musician first and foremost. Check out her duet albums with Matthew Sweet.

“Welcome to the opening night if the grooviest music festival in America” she says. We duck out after she finishes a cover of “To Sir with Love” (shout out to Lulu!) to see Ray and Fuller perform.

We head over to Bud And Alley’s, a restaurant on the shore that’s only a short walk away. Not sure of the layout, we pop into their pizza shop, where RJ Cowdrey is performing for a small but appreciative crowd. It’s warm and cozy in there, and the night air is chilly. Cowdrey’s a seasoned folk performer with a great voice, and it’d be nice to stay awhile under her hypnotic spell. But we pull ourselves away to catch the main attraction.

Fuller and Ray, with their guitarist Jeff, are performing in a white tent that seats a hundred or so people. Behind them is the ocean, an unseen but still vital presence. A few heat lamps work to warm the tent, and it’s almost like being in a dustbowl camp circa the 1930s (albeit one where you can buy a nice glass of wine) – an image Fuller enforces by dressing like Natty Gann from the old Disney movie. It’s my first time hearing her music, and like Amy Ray, I’m impressed. She’s got a slight quaver in her voice, and her lyrics are dark and brooding, with a literary quality to them.

Maybe the quaver is weather related. “I’m trying to conserve body heat,” she says. “You guys have those heat lamps. I hope your enjoying them. I never had a runny nose at a concert before.”

They blend their voices on songs from the Indigo Girls’ new album and from Ray’s upcoming solo album, Lung Of Love, which from the sneak preview, may stand among her best work. Ray’s reedy, powerful voice is a force of nature, and it sounds amazing in this stripped-down context. This show is probably going to be the highlight of the festival, I think to myself. That status will be challenged later.

We leave early so we can watch Osborne perform (it’s like a mini-Lilith Fair tonight.) She’s accompanyed by a great keyboard player, and the atmosphere in Fish Out Of Water is like a snazzy, private supper club. Sure enough, she plays “St. Teresa,” and “Pensacola” too. For “Spider Web,” another song off Relish, she keeps time by beating a stick on her mic stand, a captivating trick. As it turns out, her solo rendition of “God” is actually better than the one on the radio. She encores with the Rodney Crowell/Roy Orbison/ Will Jennings song “When The Blue Hour Comes,” and a stunning lullabye from her new album.

SATURDAY

11 a.m.

Back at Bud and Alley’s tent, for the main event-worthy songwriter circle of Jeff Black, Tommy Womack, Mary Gauthier, and David Onley. “Eleven is the new noon,” jokes the Nashville-based Black, whose songs have been covered by artists like Dierks Bentley, Alison Krauss and Waylon Jennings; he’s currating the circle. The tent is overflowing with eager listeners, so the staff removes the two side walls, and now you can glimpse the ocean and the beautiful dunes. Amy Ray’s in the audience, taking it all in. That’s one of the cool things about the festival. You keep bumping into the aritsts on the street and in the venues.

It’s great to finally see Womack live. He’s one of my favorite writers of any kind. (“Isn’t he Lee Ann Womack’s husband?” someone wants to know. He isn’t.) His 2007 album There I Said It!  explores the twin themes of resignation and acceptance of life’s disappointments. With titles like “I’m Never Going to be a Rock Star,” “I Want a Cigarette” and “Too Much Month at the End of the Zanax,” it paints a vivid picture of a musician facing life’s daily grind in relative obscurity. If you haven’t heard “Alpha Male and the Canine Mystery Blood,” his seven-minute long greatest hit, stop reading this now and go listen. A sardonic humorist, Womack warms up the crowd to his world view with a clever song about Cheap Trick.

“Nice Day,” his beautiful and poignant song about swimming with the family, is received as laugh riot, until the last few verses, when the gravity sets in.

I’m 45, my hair is going,
I’ve got a shaky sense of self esteem,
but in that water, that smile on my boy’s face
for a moment life was not a bad dream.

It’s been a nice day,
we all went swimming.
“I love you Daddy.”
he said that twice.

Nothing got broken
No one got sunburned
I never freaked out,
it was nice.

Mary Gauthier is tasked with following his songs, since she’s seated right next to him. I’ve never heard her music before, and I’m equally blown away. With Tania Elizabeth backing her on fiddle and harmony vocals, she opens with “Camelot Motel,” an amazing song about “cheaters, liars, outlaws, and fallen angels” who have to face each other in the morning light. Her next song, “Sweet Words,” is another stunner. Get me her discography, stat.

The other two aren’t half bad either. Olney, who’s songs have been covered by Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and others, introduces his song “Titanic” as only song about Titanic written from the iceberg’s point of view. Eventually they all start jamming along on a Jeff Black blues song.

I pick up Womack’s book The Cheese Chronicles which I’ve long been wanting to buy at the merch table, which is being manned by Black’s wife and young son and daughter; It’s a family affair.

“I want to thank Jeff for having us at this circle,” says Gauthier. “Maybe next time I won’t sit right next to Tommy though. He goes from funny and happy to way down here.”

2:30 p.m.

I’m peddling my borrowed bike as fast as I can so I can hear “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a song that was huge when I was eleven. I can distinctly remember roller-skating to it at birthday parties. Did Weird Al Yankovic ever get his hands on this one? It seems like a natural fit. (“Fill out a prescription?” “Don’t have a conniption?”)

Ordinarily Bangles concerts aren’t on my radar, but when they’re playing a co-headlining show in the center of town, there’s no reason not to go and have a good time. “Yes, we are the Bangles, 30 years later,” says guitarist Vicki Peterson. Their perseverance is a testament to Girl Power.

The Bangles sound like they haven’t lost a step, performing their hit cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” “Manic Monday” (Prince wrote that one), and songs from their new record Sweethearts In The Sun. They even bust out “Eternal Flame,” the ultimate slow dance hit. “Hug your loved one,” they counsel the audience, who are happy to oblige.

They save the best for last, bringing up Antigone Rising and others on stage to help them perform “Walk Like An Egyptian.” The crowd breaks into a YouTube worthy dance party, their hands above their heads in shark fin formation. The band show off by mixing in bits of The Who’s “Magic Bus.” It’s all good.

5:55 p.m.

That night, sipping a drink in the WaterColor’s circular reading room, I eavesdrop on two songwriters (Ben Friedman and Kyle LaMonica) discussing their adventures from the night before, and quickly going over the set their about to share. It’s five minutes ‘til game time. “We’ll bring it up here, drop it down here, then bring it up again with this one. Sound alright? Are you comfortable with this song? I know this one and this one pretty good. Okay, let’s do it.”

As it turns out, they play beautifully together, as if they’ve been doing it all their lives.

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