Her name is Maren Morris, and she won a 2017 Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance for her eloquent “My Church” (which, by the way, isn’t about a church at all). Plus she was named 2017 New Female Vocalist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music, and 2016 New Artist of the Year by the Country Music Association.
Joining Maren for the festival — called the largest of its kind in the world — are some 200 other chart-topping songwriters, singers and entertainers, taking the stage for more than 50 shows. In fact, the event has become an annual tradition for many of America’s leading country and pop music hitmakers, drawing them back year after year to the easygoing island city.
“I think the songwriters enjoy being in Key West for the same reason that writers like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams were drawn here previously,” said Charlie Bauer, the festival’s founder and president. “It opens up their creativity while they’re here.”
Each year, the visiting tunesmiths take turns performing in landmark Key West settings: popular bars and restaurants, waterfront resorts and intimate inns, boutique theaters, a historic Cuban cultural center and a even catamaran during sunset sailing cruises.
In front of appreciative music-loving audiences, they play a blend of beloved hits and new melodies. Most shows feature a rotating group of writer/performers who share creative insights and often relate the stories behind their songs.
“Key West in general, but the Songwriters Festival here, is a perfect fit for me,” advised Jack Ingram, whose successes include the Top 10 summertime anthem “Barefoot and Crazy” among others. “I think there are songs in the air in places like this.”
“Songs in the air” just might be a fairly accurate assessment. In past years, the island was a haven and permanent or occasional home for legendary songwriters including the late Shel Silverstein, “pirate laureate” Jimmy Buffett and even Jerry Jeff Walker of “Mr. Bojangles” fame.
Today, an ever-increasing group of melody-makers regards Key West as an ideal place to relax and recharge their batteries away from everyday career pressures.
“Some switch gets flipped here as far as creativity,” offered Chris Lindsey, who co-wrote Lonestar’s smash hit “Amazed.” “It’s not that we don’t write in Nashville, because we do … but it’s different here.”
Talents arriving for the 2017 festival — besides the eagerly anticipated Maren Morris — include the Dylan Altman Blues Band, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Steve Cropper, ACM Award–winning band Old Dominion, acclaimed singer/songwriter Cam, master Texas song-spinner Robert Earl Keen, Langhorne Slim (best known for the evocative “Put It Together”) and superstar songwriters Scotty Emerick, Dean Dillon, Chuck Cannon and Jeffrey Steele.
“I think the amazing thing that keeps bringing these writers back year after year is the ambiance of Key West and the great camaraderie they have down here together,” Charlie surmised.
As attendees of past performances can attest, festival concerts often contain moments of pure enchantment — sizzling jam sessions, spontaneous harmonizing between musical cohorts, and the first public performances of unforgettable sure-to-be-hits.
“I love coming down here because, as a fan of music, I’m a fan of all these songwriters,” said 2016 headliner Jake Owen. “When you see someone who’s so talented play a song that they wrote or created, it’s like art — it lives forever.”