Hooks, LInes and Singers

Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles performs with songwriters Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins at the 2010 30A Festival. Photo by Tommy Crow.
Hooks, LInes and SingersThe 30A Songwriters Festival brings big names to the Emerald Coast
By Julie Hauserman

What’s a coastal resort owner to do when business dwindles after the winter holidays? Crank up the music!

That’s what’s happening on Martin Luther King Day weekend (Jan. 14–16) at restaurants and resorts on Highway 30A along the Beaches of South Walton. It’s the second annual 30A Songwriters Festival, and musicians from all over the United States are coming to play.

You could call this event “Nashville by the Sea” because of the large number of country and pop music hit-makers that performed in 2010. It’s a rare and intimate treat to hear these radio hits in their stripped-down versions, performed by the people who wrote them.

The festival offers plenty of acts to love — not all of them country. Around 120 artists are expected in January, spread out over 16 different venues along 30A. Festival-goers get a printed schedule and travel from show to show, grabbing meals and drinks along the way. You’ll catch established acts and up-and-comers, and, by the end of the weekend, you’ll probably go home with new music to share with your friends and family.

“A hundred and ten artists came last year, and I think all of them walked away thinking, ‘That was the most gorgeous place I’ve ever stayed for a songwriters festival,’” said Russell Carter, an Atlanta musical-artist manager and South Walton regular who helped put on last year’s event. “We’re lucky that everybody along 30A bought into the idea when it was nothing much more than that.”

The 2010 headlining artists included the Indigo Girls — Emily Saliers (who has a house in the area) and Amy Ray. They rocked to a capacity crowd beside the Gulf at Alys Beach. Susanna Hoffs, whose distinctive vocals graced the 1980s pop girl-group The Bangles, kicked off the festival at Bud & Alley’s in Seaside along with artist Matthew Sweet.

Returning artists for 2011 include Saliers of the Indigo Girls; Grammy Award winner Rodney Crowell, who wrote the No. 1 country hit “After All Of This Time” and produced then-wife Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” album; Jeffrey Steele, who co-wrote a string of country hits, including Rascal Flatts’ “What Hurts the Most” and “These Days,” Faith Hill’s “When the Lights Go Down” and Tim McGraw’s “The Cowboy in Me”; Chely Wright, who had hits with “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female”; and Shawn Mullins, an Atlanta songwriter who penned the hit songs “Lullaby” and “Beautiful Wreck” and co-wrote the Zac Brown hit “Toes.”

As Emerald Coast Magazine went to press, the festival’s producers announced that big acts will include Kim Carnes, who wrote and sang the 1980s No.1 hit “Bette Davis Eyes”; folk troubadour Dar Williams; Vicki Peterson of The Bangles; and Matt Kearney, whose hit “All I Need” was featured on the television show “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“It is amazing to watch these people perform and think: They wrote that song in their living room and now it’s on every radio station in America,” said Jennifer Steele-Saunders, executive director of the Cultural Arts Association of Walton County and producer of the 30A Songwriters Festival.

“A lot of Nashville artists were an easy sell to come to our festival because many of them have homes here,” Steele-Saunders said. “I heard one of the artists call it the Sundance of songwriters festivals. Another (artist) said: ‘This is the best thing to happen to 30A since the Gulf of Mexico.’”

Jennifer Williams, director of sales and marketing for WaterColor resort, says hosting singer-songwriters at the resort’s Fish Out of Water restaurant boosted business during last winter’s slow time.

“It was packed, and the restaurant did great business,” she said.

With the Gulf oil spill hurting bookings last spring and summer, an event like the 30A Songwriters Festival is especially welcome for 2011.

“We hope this year will bring in a lot of out-of-town people as well,” Williams said.

About 2,000 people came to the festival last year. Attendance got a boost when one of the event’s sponsors, Broadcast Music Inc., promoted it nationally. Broadcast Music is a key player in the music industry — it collects license fees on behalf of songwriters, composers and music publishers and distributes them as royalties to the authors whenever someone performs the song.

Organizers are planning to make 4,000 tickets available — twice as many as they did last year.

“We think this is a wonderful thing for the people who live here and for the business community,” Steele-Saunders said. “The artists will stay here and spend their money, as well as the audience.”

Venues hosting performers at the festival include Seaside’s Bud & Alley’s and the REP Theatre; Grayton Beach’s Pandora’s, Hibiscus, Shorty’s and the Red Bar; Santa Rosa Beach’s Gulf Place Amphitheater, the Naked Grape wine bar, La Botana and the Santa Rosa Beach Club; WaterColor’s Fish Out of Water and The Boathouse; Caliza and the Amphitheater at Alys Beach; and Rosemary Beach’s Amavida and Towne Hall.

“I think what makes this event special is just the quality of the resorts on 30A,” Carter said.

Organizers have added several large venues to the lineup and plan to have a text-messaging system operating so that people can check their mobile phones during the weekend to find out which venues are full and which still have room for more audience members.

Some of the venues can get pretty crowded, so it’s a good idea to show up early to catch your favorite acts. But you probably can’t go wrong no matter who you end up seeing — and there’s always more music down the road.

Tickets for the 30A Songwriters Festival are $85 beginning Nov. 1 and $100 beginning Jan. 1, 2011. They can be purchased at 30ASongwritersFestival.com.