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Penning Truths

A Celebration of Songwriting

Story and photography by Colleen E. Hinely

It was close to ten on a brisk evening in Seaside, night two of the fifth annual 30A Songwriters Festival. Bud and Alley’s Pizza Bar, one of over twenty venues designated for the music festival, was transformed into a cozy listening room, all of its patio chairs and wicker sectionals occupied by ardent music lovers awaiting the next performer. Cylindrical propane heaters tossed up sultry flames, spreading warmth throughout the room; the porch of the Pizza Bar was cocooned in thick Plexiglas barriers that guarded it from the frigid January air.

South Alabama minstrel Grayson Capps ascended the corner stage. The long-haired singer/songwriter settled into his seat with guitar in hand, his neck embellished by a harmonica. Capps seemed to emulate an evangelist: with his gritty, lyrical depictions of bayou blues and gothic philosophy, he was like the scion of an eighteenth-century backwoods preacher. A guitar case replaced the traditional circuit rider saddlebag; his songbook was a proxy for a tattered Holy Bible.

Grayson Capps, along with over a hundred and fifty other singer/songwriters, beguiled audiences with intimate musical performances at the various mellow and modish venues along Scenic Highway 30-A in Northwest Florida. Performers at the 2014 festival included Grammy Award–winning songwriters, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, and country music megastars intermingled with extraordinarily accomplished regional and local songwriters. The 30A Songwriters Festival sets itself apart from other music expos by the organizers’ emphasis on showcasing musicians with original songs, allowing only the composers and their instruments on stage. The result is a three-day weekend of immersion in musical storytelling and acoustic divinity.

The various soundstages designated for the 30A Songwriters Festival were just as unique as the songwriters themselves. From the community of Dune Allen Beach to the town of Rosemary Beach, the participating restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and record stores were transformed into miniature concert halls and cozy listening rooms, where hushed audiences indulged in the lyrical anecdotes and rhythmic alchemy of each songwriter. Music fans flocked to the 30A Songwriters Festival for the distinctive opportunity to watch their favorite performers and to bear witness to details and intimate inspirations as sung by the songwriters themselves.

As distinctive as a human fingerprint, a well-developed song articulates the uniquely personal thoughts and emotions of the individual songwriter. John Oates (of the legendary Hall and Oates, one of the most prodigious duos in rock and roll history) explains his method for songwriting as an “artistic way of expressing real things and bringing them across to people in a way that makes them feel the same way that I am feeling at the time.”

As distinctive as a human fingerprint, a well-developed song articulates the uniquely personal thoughts and emotions of the individual songwriter.

“It is the small things that connect us, not the big ones,” adds festival newcomer, Grammy Award–winning singer/songwriter and producer Kristian Bush. Kristian, half of the duo Sugarland and author of such hits as “Already Gone” and “Stuck Like Glue,” disclosed his own personal formula for songwriting. “As songwriters, it is our job to grab some of the larger threads, as well as the threads from our own hearts, spin ’em and wrap ’em like you would a rope, and make a song out of ’em.”

The expression of self-evident truths and the experiences of lyricists have historically incited movements of peace and sparked social discord. No other artistic medium has this universal influence for provoking social and political movements or, on a personal level, for chartering an empathic individual connection with the plight of the songwriter. The voice of one, the songwriter, becomes a voice for leagues of others. Truth and candor are the common threads that bind a songwriter and his or her audience. “For me, it is sincerity,” concludes singer/songwriter Jesse Harris. “If it is something that I didn’t truly feel, then I couldn’t write about it.” As the 2003 Song of the Year Grammy winner (for penning Norah Jones’s hit song, “Don’t Know Why”), Jesse Harris would care not to be distinguished solely as the recipient of the revered Grammy Award; instead, he prefers to be acclaimed for his dynamic competence as an author and melodic prophet.

Each January, the 30A Songwriters Festival allows music lovers to be exclusive guests to hundreds of artists and to bear witness to such lyrical poems of truth as those mentioned above. Over the course of a weekend, the intimate proximity of the venues along 30-A allows listeners to behold the testimonials of songwriters and to stake claim to the anthems epitomizing their own personal truths.

The finale performance of the fifth annual 30A Songwriters Festival was held under the lofty tiki hut dome of Pandora’s Steakhouse in Grayton Beach. The expansive space was standing room only, eclipsed in the azure glow of the stage lights and thriving with the sudden engorgement of die-hard concertgoers determined to devour the capstone performance of Cooper Carter and the Royal Senders. Pandora’s entry door dispensed a brigade of fans, event organizers, festival volunteers, performers, and their posses. Carter electrified the assembly with thick vintage-sounding guitar riffs. Listeners reveled in the sinuous volumes of Memphis-inspired blues emanating from the stage, enmeshed in the analogous magic. The magnetic mood lasted well into the night—the perfect ending to a weekend of truth and discovery through song. “I used to believe that it was the larger experiences—the ‘We Are the Worlds’—that connect us,” Kristian Bush admits. “But really, it is about a whole lot of people sharing in the same small experiences.”

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To learn more or to purchase tickets for 2015, visit 30asongwritersfestival.com.

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