Every year on the Gulf shore, somewhere just before Thanksgiving, you will see something more unique than just the waters of the gulf…you will see guitar-toting songwriters. Many of these are Nashville’s finest, who head to the beach each year to play for the anxiously awaiting audiences in the Gulf Shore and Orange Beach communities.
Nashville’s musical history is a great one, and one of the greatest expressions known to the music community is: “It all begins with a song,” which is a hail to the songwriter.
However, many times we forget where the music industry would be WITHOUT the songwriter. And we also forget what an impact our Nashville songwriters are having on others throughout the nation.
Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival
For instance, one of the longest standing festivals in our nation that celebrates the songwriter is the Frank Brown International Songwriter’s Festival in Gulf Shores, AL and Orange Beach, AL. There are numerous venues in Alabama and Florida, including Perdido Key and Pensacola, involved with the festival. The Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce and the Escambia County (Florida) Board of County Commissioners are avid supporters of the festival. And thanks to their ongoing support the festival continues to thrive.
Celebrating 28 years this year – and expecting over 200 songwriters to be in attendance, the Frank Brown International Songwriter’s Festival (FBISF) is one of the largest of its kind – and also – one of the most unique, in that it honors the songwriter – and not just the artist. The FBISF honors the songwriters by providing venues for them to perform their own music, an appreciative audience, and lunch each day of the festival. It is the proverbial “songwriter’s dream” – except for that big NUMBER ONE HIT of course.
According to Linda Ponder, who books the talent and venues for the festival, the FBISF is more intimate than just going to a concert. “The songwriters interact with the audience, tell the stories behind the songs, and many times the story is never what you’d expect.
So it’s just a great event for both the writers and the audience, because they get to know each other.”
The biggest year of the festival accommodated 340 songwriters at over 25 venues – though both Ponder and festival coordinator, Lori Crace , admit that 340 was a real challenge, and they now strive to stay within a 200 count limit.
Songwriter’s and Hurricanes
Another challenge came when Hurricane Ivan struck back in 2004, but the songwriters pulled through. The story goes that songwriters like Dean Dillon, Paul Overstreet, Wayne Carson and Todd Cerney called up Joe Gilchrist – (the guy credited with starting the festival) and asked if the songwriter’s fest was still on, and if so, they were on their way. So despite the wreckage of Ivan, the FBISF didn’t miss a year.
Students Benefit from Youth Showcase and Songwriter Seminars
Ponder and Crace say they are glad the festival continued, because it means a great deal to to so many in the gulf community. Even school aged kids are now getting involved and are now submitting their own songs to the songwriter’s fest in hopes of getting seen and heard. To make that happen, Ponder and Crace established songwriting seminars for kids (the Youth Showcase) that are held during the day.
Students can apply to the festival just as the other songwriters do, and if selected, are able to perform one song each during the festival, and have it reviewed by a professional songwriter. Classes of students are also able to attend as part of a learning field trip, are included in the seminar, and support the performing students.
A venue called LuLu’s (owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister) is the venue used for the seminar and showcase, and manager Michael Butler says it is an honor to be involved, and that it provides a great way for kids to learn about the real world of songwriting outside of their I-pads and computers; and it’s a lot of fun for the kids, because its hosted by Nashville’s own CJ Watson, and he is great with the kids.
The Youth Showcase has had a varied number of schools involved in the youth programs through the years, but the goal is to include 6 schools this year; 3 from the Alabama side, and 3 from the Florida side.
The Founding of the FBISF
How did this all get started? Though many venues are involved in supporting the songwriter’s festival, according to Ponder and Crace, the festival came about when a man named Joe Gilchrist worked in a package store that had a little performance area in the back. That package store was called “Flora- Bama.” The Flora-Bama takes its name from its location on the Florida-Alabama border line. The bar is in fact located all within Florida, with the Alabama line being about six feet from the western outside wall. It is also known as America’s “Last Great Roadhouse,” but until you’ve experienced it, you won’t really know what that means.
In the early days, Gilchrist would apparently sell liquor or beer to the folks out front, and then take them by the arm and insist they go back and see the guy (or gal) he had playing guitar and singing. After a little while, the club began to get a reputation as a place for great entertainment.
Currently owned by John McInnis, the Flora-Bama continues to make history…with a complete recovery from Hurricane Ivan – and complete with songwriter heaven awaiting the songwriters who will soon be taking the stage this November. (FSIBF takes place November 8th thru 18th, 2012)
McInnis says the Flora-Bama survived the last few years and stayed open to serve its patrons, by utilizing PCV pipe and tents after Ivan hit. And now rebuilt, he is certain the Flora-Bama and the Gulf community can get through anything now.
In an interview with Gilchrist – who is still a partner at Flora Bama Lounge along with Pat McClellan – he talks about why the event is built around songwriters.
“Seemingly, in Nashville – as in much of the world – songwriters are the least appreciated segment of the music industry. We simply try to appreciate the base reason we have a music industry. And we want to create an environment where creative people are comfortable and bring in an audience that appreciates the artistry,” Gilchrist says.
Early on, I was privileged to meet a man named Mickey Newbury, and he would come down and play, and we became great friends.”
As he continues to discuss the life of music and of the Flora-Bama, we finally hit the topic of money, and Gilchrist further noted: “Its difficult to get money back to the source of music nowadays. For new songwriters, the industry isn’t exactly a democracy…it’s harder for them to get cuts and make money because everything is working so differently. So we have a goal to create productions right here for the songwriters and then create a platform where Internet viewers would pay to see the talent. That’s where we are heading, because a lot of the dynamics in the music business are different today. It’s still who you know – but you also have to know how to find the money. “
“…through the past 28 years, we’ve had some great legends appear here, writers with hits from the time we started this thing, and they include:
– Of course, the late Mickey Newbury
– Dean Dillon
– Red lane
– Paul Overstreet
– Wayne Carson
– Bob DiPiero
– Dave Gibson
– Tony Arata
– The late Harlan Howard
– The late Hank Cochran
– Frank Dycus
– Todd Cerney – we lost Todd in 2010 to Melanoma
– Larry Butler – also recently deceased
– Aaron Barker
Many of these original or long-time songwriters still perform here, but we also have writers like:
– Chris Wallin
– Jamie Johnson
– Lee Brice
– Thompson Square
– Scotty Emerick
– Shawn Mullins
– Larry John Wilson
– Mark Sherrill
– Bo Roberts
– Rhonda Hart
– CJ Watson
– Chris Newbury
– Bobby Tomberlin
– Brett Jones
– Jim Sales
– Billy Joe Shaver
– Bobby Pinson
“And despite being all but destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, all the pictures you currently see on the wall here at the Flora-Bama are from the original bar. And the lumbered walls you see in these rooms with the names written on the walls – they were also salvaged from the original Flora-Bama…because those small things are a big deal to the people here – and to the people who come here.”
For 28 years now (this year being the 28th), the Frank Brown Songwriter’s festival has been going strong – and even during the year that Hurricane Ivan hit, the community and the volunteers rallied to get the songwriters back to the stage, and it seemed to be just the boost the community needed to get their area back on its feet. It also proved to the outside world that a hurricane would not keep them down.
Leaving the songwriter’s festival that year, songwriter Todd Cerney, saw a sign someone had painted with the words: “We’ll be back.” When he returned the next year, he sang a song of the same title to the Gulf-shores audiences, and everyone was pulled together in heart once again…remembering how they’d all joined to make an already great place – back into a paradise. (You can hear that song here: http://toddcerney.com/mp3s/bebackivan.mp3, and we honor the late Todd Cerney, who lived his life with the love of music.)
And paradise it is – every year – for Nashville songwriters, when they receive their invitations to perform at the Frank Brown International Songwriter’s Festival and the honor of performing for those who deeply appreciate them.
Some of the performance venues this year include:
For a complete list of participating venues, please visit http://www.fbisf.com
*The Frank Brown Songwriter’s Festival is named for a night watchman who had become a long-time friend of the festival and of the songwriters. He was 91 years old when he retired. Frank Brown passed away at the age of 93, in 1988.