This past MLK Holiday weekend, music enthusiasts converged upon the quirky, artistic enclave of Florida’s panhandle South Walton County nestled along the Gulf between Destin and Panama City Beach for the 4th annual 30A Songwriters Festival, a non profit event produced by the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County. Over 125 artists performed in less than 20 venues peppered all along the scenic highway of 30A, in the townships of Seaside, Seagrove, Santa Rosa Beach, Grayton Beach, Rosemary Beach and Watercolor. This is not the music festival of your youth (or your teen’s for that matter). Without a doubt, this stretch of beach along the Gulf, is of the most beautiful in Florida and contender for all of the world. That being said, the exclusive beach cottages and communities of South Walton, which stayed filled year round, attract those of the upper echelon of economics. Though there were attendees of all ages and socio economics, the average enthusiast was that of the Baby Boom generation.
Still in the infant stages of conception, there were some obvious stumbles, mostly in sound engineering, crowd monitoring, but the overall festival design seemed to work. The venues were open only to festival goers, determined by the colorful woven wrist bands purchased in advance for $150. All venues, with the exception of an amphitheater for the headliner shows, were small, quaint, and intimate. It doesn’t get any better than seeing talented artists in small rooms with an appreciative audience, unless you were among those who didn’t line up early enough to get a coveted spot inside. A wristband does not guarantee you entrance. There in lies the future challenge of this festival, keeping it intimate – keeping it local – keeping the festival goers happy. They did their best to provide a multitude of artists in the various venues simultaneously attempting to spread out the masses, but this meant negotiating the drive, the parking and the lines to get in. Timing is everything at this event. For the first time this year, a free shuttle was provided though there were grumblings of the convenience of it. My suggestion is to glom onto a local as soon as you arrive to get the festival lowdown and to avoid missing any of the action, there are many details to negotiate, many of which can be easily missed on a newcomer.
The Gulf Place Amphitheater was the stage for headliners this year with the solid performances by Holly Williams, Suzanne Vega, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lucinda Williams, (with a last minute illness of Nanci Griffith, replaced by The Shadowboxers, and Tift Merritt), but for me, the highlight of the festival was discovering unknown artists that surprise us with their big talents. Though virtually impossible to catch all the shows, of the ones I caught, the real stand outs were: Charlie Mars, (singer/songwriter with stellar entertainment abilities from story telling to comedic timing) Humming House, (young Nashville-based Irish, gypsy, stomp, contemporary pop group with a contagious joy for their art), The Quaildogs, (fast-paced, Mumford and Sons meets the Beatles a la bluegrass guaranteed to get one up and dancing), Fastball, (90’s rock, rattle and roll with an emphasis on keyboard boogie) Davin McCoy, (sexy vocals, solo artist reminiscent of Damien Rice and David Gray accompanied by the enchanting Maddie) Chas Sandford, (monster guitarist on the 12 string and veteran singer/songwriter) and Megan McCormick, (emotionally charged, smokey voiced young singer/songwriter with brilliant guitar skills.)
With so many shows to see, as many were missed due to the logistics including Shawn Mullins, Jeffrey Steele, Don Dixon and Marti Jones. Arriving too late for anticipated show of Randall Bramblet, Tommy Talton and Jimmy Hall, a crowd gathered behind the heavy sliding stage doors of The Boat House to dance and enjoy the slightly muffled sounds of these amazing, notorious songriter/musicians who have collectively played with Sea Level, Gregg Allman, Wet Willie, REM, Widespread Panic and Hank Williams, Jr., just to name a few.
Part of the draw to this heavenly square of the planet, are the sugar sand beaches with the mild winters and notoriously warming Florida sun. This weekend, the warmth and sun were late on the scene as the area was hit with a cold snap, dropping into the 30’s on the first night, though most festival goers seemed to adapt or at least huddle around the space heaters.
When attending The 30A Songwriters Festival do your homework in choosing which artists are on your Plan A, Plan B and even Plan C list. Also, most of the venues provide a festival menu, but there endless options of local tasty joints and/or fine dining. Not on the list of venues this year was Red Bar in Grayton Beach, one of the locals’ favorite eating/entertainment spots which featured Dread Clampitt, a brilliant bluegrass trio playing originals as well as covers of Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. Book early for a charming beach cottage and your weekend will be complete.
Pleasing to the ears, easy on the eyes, and soothing to the soul, this is definitely one festival not to be missed.