Warm Scenes from Florida and the 8th Annual 30A Songwriters Festival
I have always wanted to attend the 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida’s panhandle. Not because it’s four days in warmer climes in the middle of winter, but because when I first began my musical quest for the holy grails I found myself abnormally, and perhaps a bit obsessively, attracted to singer-songwriters. Not that I had anything against bands per se, but as a writer I found the singular vision of an individual to be more interesting than that of a group or committee. The song itself came first for me; I valued the strength of the song itself over its arrangement.
The reason I am unable to attend is the same reason I cannot go cruising with my Cayamo buddies: The three months of winter is the only time of the year when I have the obligatory, yet necessary, day job.
There are 25 venues generally spread along a 15-mile portion of Florida’s Route 30A that fronts the Gulf of Mexico. Some are close together, some within walking distance of some others, but, needless to say, most are not. So, there is trade-off by being so close to a southern gulf in the throes of winter.
There were 225 artists, both solo and in groups, with some folks performing solo, in duos and in bands, such as Will Kimbrough and Sugarcane Jane, who are three-fifths of Willie Sugarcapps. The artists themselves range from legends such as John Prine and Dr. John to well-respected folks who have been around a while such as John Gorka, Todd Snider, and Don Dixon & Marti Jones, to relatively newer ones working themselves up the food chain, such as Nikki Lane and Amy LaVere, and ones who are just emerging. Plus, the one name we do not get to see as often as any of us of a certain age would like, the guy who released only one record nearly 45 years ago, but what a record: Willis Alan Ramsey.
While ND’s Editor-in-Chief Kim Ruehl wrote about the festival as it happened, this week I offer an in-depth look at the fest courtesy of writer-photographer Brenda Rosser and photographer Michelle Stancil. We are also fortunate that they just so happened not to overlap what they saw, so we get more photos of more artists. They both took a load of photos, and Brenda provided a detailed account of her days there. My many thanks and hugs to them both.
As the 30A Songwriter’s Festival is so spread out, I find it is best to strategize a bit over the schedule and try to plot out your shows so that venues are not too far apart, and just go with the flow. Don’t wait in line for shows if possible, and just know you can never see everything.
I arrived Friday afternoon and had just enough time to pick up my wristband in time for the music. I listened (and glimpsed) The Tall Pines as I unloaded my car as they were playing at a venue near where I was staying. The female singer, Connie Lynn Petruk, had a strong and lovely voice, and Christmas Davis was cranking out some fuzzy blues guitar work. They sounded like a lot of fun, but I hot-footed it down to the east end of 30A. I stopped for coffee at Amavida and caught about half of The Wide Open’s set, another male/female duo. Season Ammons has a beautiful bluesy voice and I really enjoyed Alan Rayfield’s harmonica playing.
Off to Rosemary Beach Town Hall, where I caught Tom Gray, and Marti Jones & Don Dixon. I appreciated Tom’s raspy blues vocals and fine picking on “Rock and Roll Girl,” the moonshine inspired “Clear Blue Flame” (inspired by his Uncle Jack, who told him to test moonshine before drinking. “If it’s red, it’s full of lead, and you’ll be dead” – good moonshine burns blue), “Hellbound Train” (where I learned the history of the phrase “hellbound train,” an old term from a poem called “Tom Gray’s Dream” written in late 1800s), and he closed with his money-making tune from his years with The Brains, “Money Changes Everything” (recorded by Cindi Lauper).
Jones & Dixon somewhat swapped between her songs and his, leading off with “Feels Like 1972,” and then “The Night that Otis Died;” “Always;” “Secret Room;” “Keep It To Yourself” off Jones’ latest CD of bossa nova songs, You’re Not the Bossa Me and written by Rigby/DeMain, a clever tune that brought big applause; and closing with Dixon’s biggest money-maker, I Can Hear the River, recorded by Joe Cocker.
Dashed out the door to 30 Avenue, to catch Kim Richey and Jack Ingram. I can never get enough of Richey with her silky smooth voice, like buttery caramel. I must admit I got lost in her voice and the moment and didn’t write a song down! I know she sang “Angels’ Share” and, I believe, “I’m Alright.” This was an engaging show to watch, as Ingram and Richey are both clever and funny. They kept us laughing between songs and it was so entertaining that they should consider a tour together. Ingram ended his portion of the set with a song he wrote for Guy Clark before Guy passed away, “Sailor and the Sea.”
On to see Over the Rhine, at Trebeaché Ballroom, not a huge room but lush in looks with beautiful chandeliers, a perfect setting for this elegant folk duo. Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist were accompanied by Bradley Meinerding on guitar and mandolin, and his excellent playing added a new dimension. The room filled to standing-room-only, but was a quite comfortable venue and OTR were in top form. Perfect ending to a busy first day.
Saturday we had a leisurely breakfast then headed into Seaside for the Hair of the Dog Hoot at Bud & Alleys. It is always a popular show and there is virtually no counter-programming, so we got there an hour early and stood in line and still only got in by the skin of our teeth due to late-arriving line jumpers. Jeff Black kicked things off with “Tom Domino,” Kim Richey started with her first hit, “Just My Luck,” Kevin Gordon played the rockin’, blue-tinged “GTO,” and Lari White had everyone howling with “Beer One.” It was a fine start to a great round. Gordon jumped in on guitar for more than one of the others’ songs, and Richey played a new song that just got picked up for an episode of Nashville, a ballad called “One and the Same.” White closed the round down with “Lead Me Not Into Temptation” (“I can get there all by myself”).
After some free time in the afternoon, I headed to Trebeaché Reception (the smaller venue at Trebeaché) for Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough. They played many selections off their new album, Mockingbird Soul. Particular favorites were “Little Easy,” “I Can Hear Your Voice,” “Mockingbird Soul,” and “Running Round.” I dashed out after this to drive about 5 or 6 miles down to The Hub to catch The Mulligan Brothers, a five piece band out of Mobile, followed by John Fullbright. Unfortunately the venue was already full and a pretty good line had formed to get in as people left, so I spoke to a few friends and listened to one song from outside and then just headed to Fish Out of Water. I wanted to be there early so I would not miss the late show.
At FOOW, I first saw a partial set of David Berkeley, Eliot Bronson, and Becky Warren. I enjoyed Berkeley but was not familiar with his material at all, so I need to hear more. Eliot performs in Atlanta often and I always enjoy his songs. Becky Warren was totally new to me. I loved her voice. I missed any background on her songs but they all were about a soldier and spouse, and reading afterward I discovered they were from her debut album, War Surplus. I happened to see her the next morning when she sang harmony on a song in Mary Bragg’s set at Hibiscus for a much more upbeat co-write. Next up at FOOW were Nikki Lane, Jonathan Tyler, and Elise Davis. Lane was suffering from a virus that felled several performers and she said this second show was really her first. She carried on despite being ill and I particularly enjoyed hearing her song “Jackpot.” She also sang on Tyler’s “To Love is to Fly.” I was glad to finally hear Elise Davis, as she is a friend’s new discovery, and I can see why he likes her so much.
The final set of the night was a group I had been looking forward to very much, Traveller, a group formed by Robert Ellis, Jonny Fritz, and Corey Chisel. I had not heard any of Fritz’s music before but was familiar with Ellis and Chisel, and I must say this grouping blew me away. Their jam-packed set included: “Are You Thirsty?”, “Nobody Makes it Out,” “Hummingbird,” “I Love Leaving,” “Get Me out of the South,” “Elephant,” “Chili Dog Morning,” “15 Passenger Van,” “Sing Along,” “Never Meant to Love You,” “Stadium Inn,” and “Western Movies” (with smooth vocals and great guitar work — I can’t quit humming this song). They closed with an a capella version of a song that my friends and I swore was some old melody, like “Good Night Irene,” or “Good Night Sweet Heart.” Actually, it was a Fritz song called “Silver Panty Liners.” Only these three could make that sound like a hymn. Not only are all of these guys immensely talented musically, they are very, very funny and the good time rolls on out into the audience. I can’t remember having so much fun at a show in a long while. Do not miss them, ever!
Sunday I was not feeling well so I spent most of the day at Hibiscus, which is a fairly small venue in the “backyard of love” at Hibiscus Inn and Café. The morning began with a set with Mary Bragg and Edie Carey, and Brag was joined by Becky Warren for their co-write: “Ice Cream & Liquor.” Next up was Sarah Lee Guthrie, who was doing a rare solo set. I think she said this was only the eighth time she had played solo (she usually tours with husband Johnny Irion). This was one of my favorite sets of the weekend, a perfect combination of artist, venue, and space/time in current events. Guthrie was engaging and told great stories about her dad, Arlo, her hippie mom, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, but the thing I enjoyed the post was her playing some of her grandfather Woody’s songs that happen to still be politically relevant. Her last song was a capella, Woody’s “I’ve Got to Know.”
Why can’t my two hands get a good paying job?
I can still plow, plant, I can still sow!
Why did your lawbook chase me off my good land?
I’d sure like to know, friend, I’ve just got to know!
A beautiful day in the backyard of love at Hibiscus with a Guthrie descendant singing folk protest songs the week before a controversial inauguration in a very divided country – it was a moment that I will not forget.
The last set of the morning was Gary Louris, who had joined Guthrie for a song a little earlier. He opened his set with “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and rolled through selections from the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow the Green Grass, Rainy Day Music, Smile, and Paging Mr. Proust for a great set of both familiar music and newer selections. Favorite quote early in the set: “I was in a band called the Jayhawks. Some people say we invented Americana. Other people say, ‘Who?’”
Sunday evening at Hibiscus was another opportunity to see Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough. They mixed it up again with some selections from their duo album, some Willie Sugarcapps songs, and songs each had done solo. Then came 2/5 of Sugarcapps, Grayson Capps and Corky Hughes. It was a very enjoyable set, with audience members calling out songs and Capps obliging and Hughes dazzling us all on the guitar and lap steel.
Off down the highway to Caliza for the last show, the amazing Darrell Scott. This is a very beautiful venue, but for some reason they have the most uncomfortable chairs of anywhere. It was otherwise a perfect way to close out the weekend, with Scott running through his songs with his rich voice and ability to just dazzle on anything with a string. Many musicians must think so too, because the room continued to fill through his set, after their own sets had ended elsewhere. This was Scott’s first trip to 30A, but I don’t think it will be his last.
There were “Late Checkout” events at two venues on the way out on Monday, but I skipped them because I needed to get home. I am sorry that I did so – the guys from Traveller decided to do an impromptu set, which I am sure was a blast. Oh, well can’t see and do everything.
Now, slide on through for gorgeous photos from the fest.