Get ready Key West, Country's comin' to town. The annual pilgrimage of Nashville's finest songwriters to the Southernmost City begins on Wednesday, May 1 for the 2013 Smokin' Tuna 18th Annual Key West Songwriters Festival presented by BMI.
The largest of its kind in the world, the festival draws more than 100 top songwriters and up to 10,000 audience members each year.
Five days and nights will be filled with more than 40 free shows, staged at an array of the island's most popular watering holes, resorts and hot spots where the artists will share the stories behind their well-known songs.
Sara Haze, whose song "Moonshine" was recently featured on the Safe Haven soundtrack, was a newbie at the festival last year and said that there's a buzz about the event in the Music City.
"I feel like all of Nashville takes off that week to go to Key West," she said. "Everyone is rocking flip flops and drinking piña coladas at 2 p.m. It's definitely a more casual atmosphere, and it's a great bonding experience for the songwriters. We're always sitting in rooms and writing with each other, but here we're out on a beach or snorkeling."
The festival had a modest debut in 1995, but when Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) stepped in as a partner and sponsor the following year, the event began to blossom.
"BMI helped bring a lot more writers down every year," said Charlie Bauer, who is the festival founder and director as well as the managing partner of Smokin' Tuna Saloon. "They have been instrumental in making the event grow."
He added that in addition to the artists, more industry people are attending the festival.
"The past few years it's become almost like a South by Southwest. Key industry people are coming down--record labels and publishers."
The festival gained even more notoriety in 2003 when producer Greg Travis featured the weekend on his television show Country Music Across America, which aired on Great American Country (GAC). They've filmed at the festival each year, and in 2009, Storme Warren, the host of GAC's Headline Country, took over coverage of the event.
Some of the performers have been coming to Key West over 16 years in a row and have developed their own fan base at the festival.
"The fan base builds every year because they get to know these writers on a more intimate level," Bauer said. "It's just grown on both ends--the fans that come down to see the performances and the performers themselves."
Jan Wang from Islamorada said that she enjoys attending the festival for the diversity of music, as well as the interaction with the songwriters.
"We get to experience music in a small intimate setting that we usually can only get at a big concert venue, and it's different from the island style music down here," she said. "We also enjoy meeting the musicians."
This year, critically acclaimed young blues journeyman Gary Clark, Jr., who recently appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and the "Late Show" with David Letterman, will headline the festival's official kick-off party. It will be on Wednesday, May 1, at 6 p.m. on the Sunset Pier at the Ocean Key Resort.
"We've got a little something different this year with Gary Clark Jr." said Bauer. "He's a major blues artist right now. He's been touring with Eric Clapton, and we're so excited to have him."
A free street concert at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 4, will fill the 200 block of Duval Street with the sounds of the six-man country-rock band Bush Hawg, singer/songwriter Joanna Smith and X-Factor winner Tate Stevens.
The rest of the weekend is jam packed with concerts by performers like the original Blues Brother, Steve Cropper, who's known for such classics as "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and "Knock on Wood."
Grammy nominee, James Slater, who wrote "In My Daughter's Eyes" recorded by Martina McBride, will be on hand to sing Key West's official song, "Key West Address" and more. Also expect country hit-writers Jeffrey Steele, Paul Overstreet, Bob DiPiero, Lori McKenna, Bobby Pinson, Keith Stegall, Liz Rose, Paul Jenkins, Doug Johnson and Even Stevens, as well as revered Texas singer/songwriter Robert EarlKeen.
The power-trio, The World Famous Headliners, made up of chart topping writers and musicians PatMcLaughlin, Shawn Camp and Al Anderson and top-flight guitarist and songwriter Guthrie Trapp are some additional highlights.
Known for the 90s hit "I Love the Way You Love Me," songwriter Chuck Cannon has attended the festival since the early days. He cautioned that while many of the artists are known for country music, the festival transcends genres.
"We have to be really careful when we talk about genres," he said. "The vast majority of songwriters will tell you they just write songs. When you put it to synthesizers and extremely processed lead guitars, that's going to make that song a pop song. But you wrap twin fiddles and steel guitar around it, and it's going to be a country song."
Haze, who is currently working on a new record with Gammy Award-winning producer, Paul Worley, said that the festival is an opportunity for audiences to hear new songs that haven't been released yet.
"We can test out new material and see what connects with the audience," she said. "We can navigate certain songs for our record and maybe take certain songs off. The festival is also a really good way for people to get to know songwriters before the rest of the world does."
Originally published in L'Attitudes section of the Upper Keys Reporter and Keynoter.