Exclusive: Key West Songwriters Festival Celebrates 22 Years

Natalie Hemby performs at San Carlos Theater during Key West Songwriters Festival

Today, numerous singer-songwriters descend on Key West to celebrate the 22nd annual Key West Songwriters Festival.

A massive lineup that includes Maren Morris, Old Dominion, Cam, Lauren Alaina, Shawn Camp, William Michael Morgan, Michael Ray, Luke Combs, Aaron Watson, Steve Cropper and Robert Earl Keen play alongside a party of Nashville luminaries and rising writers. The five-day festival, slated for May 10-14, will feature more than 50 free shows at various venues around the area, incorporating performances from more than 200 songwriters.

Key West Songwriters Festival founder Charlie Bauer has been managing venues in Key West since 1988, when he opened Hog’s Breath Saloon. The venue featured three shows a day, featuring singer-songwriters. A struggling songwriter presented him with the idea of offering performing rights organizations the chance to bring writers to Key West to play shows. Key West Songwriters Festival’s first year came in 1995, and featured six songwriters, including Shel Silverstein and Mickey Newbury.

Performing rights organization BMI stepped in as a partner and sponsor in 1996, helping to grow the festival into one of the country’s most unique songwriter festivals.

“At the time Mark Mason was with BMI and he offered for me to come back to Nashville with him, to introduce me to publishers and really crank it up to the next level,” Bauer recalls. “I was also booking songwriters to play the Hog’s Breath, so I was well-received in Nashville. I had a bar in Key West where songwriters could come down and play some of their original stuff and kind of get feedback on their original music and make some money too, so I was pretty popular when I came up to Nashville.”

Though the festival has attracted top artists over the past two decades, Bauer says the emphasis is still on the songwriters, and that the event’s growth has been organic.

“If you follow the chronologic lineups of our show over the years, a lot of the major artists were down here performing as singer-songwriters either on their own or with publishers. Everybody from Lee Brice to Randy Houser to Florida Georgia Line to Maren [Morris] and Kacey [Musgraves], all these people were down here sometimes four or five years in a row. Almost all of them have been down here performing. Our alumni is pretty much everyone who has been around the past 25 years or so.

Wendell Mobley performs at Sloppy Joe’s during Key West Songwriters Festival.

“We want the singer-songwriters here. We don’t try to get the big name acts. What has happened is a lot of them became big name acts and it’s cool that they will still come down, because they are not getting paid for these shows.”

Bauer says 90 percent of the festival is made of free concerts. Additionally, there are seven larger theater shows throughout the event. Each day will feature music at venues including Pier House Resort Beach, Sloppy Joe’s, Green Parrot Bar, and special events including the NSAI “Bluebird at Blue Heaven” show and the closing concert at Casa Marina Resort.

“It’s one of the few festivals where you can see so much free music. I’ve tried to keep it as a local event. I get a lot of tempting offers for people to come in and have outside vendors for food and other things, but we try to keep it local for local businesses.”

As word of Key West Songwriters Festival has spread over the past several years, Bauer says the festival has continually attracted more of Nashville’s music industry.

“It used to be kind of a way for writers to get away from Nashville to have some more fun, and now the industry’s kind of followed them down here.”

Charlie Feldman (BMI), Robert Earl Keen, and Charlie Bauer.

As country music and Nashville’s songwriters have incorporated various musical styles into their work over the past several years, so has the Key West Songwriters Festival. “We are following along with the lead that country music is heading. There’s a lot of pop involved and a lot of Nashville writers are not necessarily country writers. They go there to co-write and to work on their craft. When they come down to the festival, it’s fun to hear them perform songs that you wouldn’t necessarily hear on the country station, and maybe not on radio at all. It’s fun to let them cut loose and hear them play stuff they have written.”

Given the long-running popularity of Key West Songwriters Festival, Bauer says he is considering launching a new festival in late 2017 or early 2018.

“We are thinking of going a little more pop-oriented, and there is a lot of Latin influence here, too. Some of those performers are coming down from Miami and LA, too, and mixing up the genres a bit. “

Proceeds from the Key West Songwriters Festival will benefit the BMI Foundation, which supports creation, performance, and study of music via awards, scholarships, grants and commissions.

Bob DiPiero, Robert Earl Keen, Charlie Worsham


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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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