John Oates Recruits Nashville’s Finest For Aspen Songwriters Festival

The Blue Sky Riders with John Oates, who joined many of the artists onstage throughout the festival.

Photos by Jason Buehler

Aspen, Colorado was on a hot streak last week as some of Nashville’s finest songwriters ventured to the Rockies to perform at the 7908 Songwriters Festival. Hitmaker John Oates produces the event in his hometown and handpicked the sophisticated, genre-crossing line-up that included Sam Bush, Darrell Scott, Angel Snow and The Blue Sky Riders. Among other top-draw acts were enthusiastic funk/soulster Marc Broussard, and established songwriter/rocker Matt Nathanson (familiar to country fans for collaborations with Jennifer Nettles).

Held at the historic Wheeler Opera House, the five-day series opened Wed., March 21 with Darrell Scott, and Yonder Mountain String Band members Adam Aijala and Ben Kaufmann. Unfortunately Skates On The Case missed the action Wednesday and Thursday (James McMurtry and Bob Schneider), but arrived in time for Blue Sky Riders’ Friday night headlining set. The trio comprised of Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr and Kenny Loggins—songwriters with a track record of individual success—is working on a debut album. The polished group entertained the packed venue with an acoustic set devoted mostly to new material including “You Took The Words (Right Out of My Mouth),” “Little Victories,” “I’m A Rider (Finally Home)” and the moving standout “A Thousand Wild Horses.”

An in-the-round segment allowed the writers to showcase a few of their individual hits such as “I’m In” (Middleman), “What Mattered Most” (Burr) and “Danny’s Song” (Loggins). Burr’s sarcastic sense of humor added to The Riders’ engaging onstage dynamics. He cracked up the crowd with jokes about how he was selected to play the festival: “I’m the best songwriter in my price range.” Apparently it had nothing to do with the fact that his hitmaking career landed him in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Exceptional talent on display, Sam Bush and John Oates.

A key part of the 7908 Festival—aptly named for Aspen’s altitude which had Nashvillians hitting the oxygen tank backstage—is to facilitate unique artist pairings, putting together performers who wouldn’t have otherwise teamed up. Oates and bluegrass hero Sam Bush joined The Blue Sky Riders, and most of the festival’s other acts, for a few songs per set.

The two geniuses enthralled the house with their own Sunday night show. Oates, recognized for his major success with Hall & Oates, shined when offering his lesser-known work. Among the remarkable songs were “Six Men Gonna Lay You Down,” a Jim Lauderdale co-write, and “A Day In The Life of An American Man,” written with Marcus Hummon, who played last year’s festival.

Bush’s spectacular musicianship on the fiddle and mandolin was on display all week, and his songwriting talent was equally apparent on tunes including “The Ballad of String Bean and Estelle,” an exceptionally crafted story song about the murder of the Grand Ole Opry star.

Angel Snow offered an impressive set.

Rising songstress Angel Snow opened the Sunday night show, captivating the audience and wooing new fans. Oates joined her for “Lie Awake,” one of three songs she penned that appear on the latest album by Alison Krauss and Union Station. Snow’s set veered from the searing break-up song “Easin’ Away,” to the beautiful soundtrack of heartbreak “Holiday,” and into pop-folk territory with “Stay Away.” With lyrics like those in “Holiday,” it’s no wonder Krauss and Oates have fostered Snow’s career. (“There’s something within your mind/that’s gonna craze this world and leave us girls all blind.”) Be on the lookout for her album to be released in August.

Harley Ellis impressed as winner of the Aspen Songwriting Competition, which earned a slot opening for Matt Nathanson. The Aspen native who grew up visiting the venue has also lived in Nashville and worked as a personal assistant for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Now he’s based in Austin as tour manager for Band of Heathens. His songs were insightful and clever—someone give this guy a publishing deal.

Aspen’s fabulous food was outdone only by the hospitality of The Wheeler Opera House staff under the guidance of Executive Director Gram Slaton. Equally helpful during the week were Nashville publicist Kate Richardson, and event sponsor Martin Guitar. The festival has steadily grown and evolved since 2009, so expect next year’s line-up to be an equally talented mix of new faces and top-bill hitmakers.

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Sarah Skates has worked in the music business for more than a decade and is a longtime contributor to MusicRow.

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