NASHVILLE MAY LAY CLAIM TO THE nickname “Music City,” but this week Key West is mounting a serious challenge to that moniker. Back for its 23rd year, the 2018 Key West Songwriter’s Festival began Wednesday, May 9, bringing a sea of cowboy hats and country music hitmakers to the Southernmost town for a week of concerts, Corona Light, and fans from all over the world swooning over the next wave of hitmakers. Beginning with a TX Bash kickoff party at the newly and oh-so-appropriately rebranded Margaritaville Resort starring Keith Gattis and The Amigos featuring Randy Houser, Jack Ingram and other special guests, this year’s festival features the typical mix of up-and-comers, recently made-its, and established legends performing at Key West’s most iconic venues.
After more than two decades of excellence, the Key West Songwriter’s Festival has developed more than a cult following — indeed, longtime attendees often brag that the festival is where they first saw so-and-so long before they hit it big. And as the festival has grown.
It has attracted more than its fair share of huge names in the music world. Case in point? This year, festival attendees are getting a double whammy of serious celebrity. Florida Georgia Line kicked off the fest at the San Carlos Institute on Wednesday night (which is also a benefit concert for Irma relief organization Keys Strong Hurricane Relief) and Tyler Farr, Walker Hayes and LANCO are this year’s Saturday Night Main Stage Duval concert headliners.
The existence of the Key West Songwriters Festival is all thanks to a struggling songwriter by the name of Drew Reid.
Back in 1995, Reid had the inspired idea to bring a few songwriters from Nashville down to Key West and have them perform the hits they’d written at a few local bars. A sun-soaked tour in one of America’s most beloved music towns, not to mention the many rounds of drinks that would come with it seemed like an easy sell.
He pitched the idea to Charlie Bauer, founding manager of the Hog’s Breath Saloon, whose stage was already a must-play for any touring musician making their way through town.
Together, the two were able to wrangle together a small group of Nashville writers and local performers, including two big names: Mickey Newbury, who in 1980 had become the youngest person to have been inducted into the Songwriters
Hall of Fame, and Shel Silverstein, legendary children’s book author, cartoonist and singer-songwriter. The group played half a dozen shows around town, and the Key West Songwriters Festival was born.
A year later Bauer was invited to Nashville by Mark Mason, associate director of BMI, one of the country’s largest nonprofit performing rights organizations, which collects fees on behalf of the songwriters, publishers and composers it represents.
Mason toured Bauer around Nashville and together, the twosome spread the word about the new festival gaining momentum in Key West.
By 1997, the event’s participating songwriters had more than tripled, and the secret was officially out: The Key West Songwriters Festival was the best new gig around.
Twenty-three years after its conception, the number of performers and concerts has ballooned with artists numbering more than 250, free shows spread across the island, as well as a handful of ticketed theater concerts and one massive block party performance on Duval with the aforementioned Tyler Farr, Walker Hayes and LANCO. And while the festival has grown exponentially over the years, its reputation has remained the same: it’s a chance for some of country music’s most talented songwriters to mix and mingle with crowds during a week that feels, according to many attendees, like a kind of country music homecoming dance — new faces and old friends gathering together to share a few laughs and songs over plenty of cold beers.
But of course, the plight of the songwriter — even those successful enough to have penned entire albums with a singer-songwriter you might have heard of by the name of Taylor Swift — is usually one of anonymity. It’s the singers themselves who are most often associated with hits so ear-wormy they inspire us to belt out lyrics into hairbrushes or behind the wheel of the car, windows down for the world to hear. Ask any country music fan to name the number one song of last summer and you might hear over a dozen answers; ask him to name who wrote it, and you’ll likely receive nothing more than a blank stare. And for many songwriters, this is bliss: the opportunity to make money (and, in rare cases, a whole mess of money) from their art without attracting Kardashian-levels of intrusive attention, to feed their families and see their life’s work commended on the public stage without having to worry about being photographed in a pair of bulky sweatpants at Publix. This is the American Dream for those who crave the spotlight, only directed ever so slightly to the side: you’ll have every 5 p.m. commuter mouthing the words to your songs while stuck in traffic, but they won’t know you’re parked next to them, watching them sing along.
In Nashville, songwriting is as close to a traditional, anonymous 9-to-5 job as many in the music industry could hope for. Of course, there are exceptions: Jack Ingram, for example, has had a number one hits on the Billboard country and six other songs have hit the country Top 40.
But apart from Ingram, bluegrass big gun Robert Earl Keen, and a few other recognizable names, the majority of the artists slated to perform at this year’s Songwriter’s Festival have achieved a quieter type of fame.
Sure, they’ve accumulated dozens of Grammy awards between them, toured the globe and signed their names to some of the best country hits of the past few decades, but apart from a select group of diehard fans, most Songwriters Festival attendees remain unknown names across most households.
That is, except for during one week in Key West, when they become bona fide celebrities, with crowds cheering them on from such venerated venues as Margaritaville, Irish Kevin’s, Sloppy Joe’s, and the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon.
Seasoned audience members of Songwriters Festivals past will know to keep an ear out for any songs that sound especially catchy; it’s likely that, in a few months, they might hear them again on the radio, this time from the mouth of a big-name star that will inevitably get all the credit (and the paparazzi).
The list of this year’s confirmed performers is staggeringly long.
Most concerts still have seats remaining, though a few heavy hitters — including some performances by The Bass Brothers, Jack Ingram, Keith Gattis, SUSTO, and the ever-popular Smokin’ Tuna Bloody Mary Brunch with Robert Earl Keen — have already sold out.
Country songs can get a bit of a bad rap when it comes to often-used tropes about lost love, shots of tequila, and late nights in bars, though die-hard country fans know that these clichés reside only at the surface of what is arguably one of the most universally applicable American musical traditions of all time.
But for those whose tastes lean more toward Mozart, metal and Marley, the Key West Songwriters Festival is a great way to dip one’s toes into the muddy waters of country music at its purest and realest songs sung in earnest by those who created them, before airbrushed beauties and dusty-booted cowboys are given the reins, before the application of a glossy, auto-tuned veneer that results in a radio-ready hit you can’t get out of your head for days.
This is real country, sung in bars for crowds who are there for the lyrics and the melody, not the name brand and the celebrity.
The music is live, (mostly) free, and has become one of Key West’s most beloved and well-attended week-long parties — which, for an island known worldwide for its partying, is saying a lot.
So, if you think that country songs are all about blue jeans, big dogs, heartbreak, back roads, dirt roads and country roads with your girl riding shotgun in a pickup truck and only sung by perfectly coiffed twenty-somethings or old grizzled cowboys, then saddle up, partner: you’ve got some preconceived notions to abandon and some darn good songwriting to hear.
The Key West Songwriters Festival runs through Sunday’s, May 13.
The full schedule of events and artists can be found at www.keywestsongwritersfestival.com. ¦