Walter Anderson first put Ocean Springs on the cultural map with paintings and murals that captured the pastoral beauty of the town, its neighboring marshes and offshore barrier islands.
The modern image of Ocean Springs may still be heavily indebted to Anderson’s legacy, but the coastal town is also becoming known as a haven for musicians and music fans.
Ocean Springs – “We’re experiencing a lot of good organic growth in Ocean Springs, and there’s lots going on,” said Vicki Applewhite, a media professional who this year established the Ocean Springs LIVE music series. Applewhite, who recently joined the board of the Mississippi Arts Commission, wants the series to enrich her hometown’s creative economy by expanding its music scene and boosting business at the same time.
On any given night, visitors can catch live music at 14 venues within a single square mile, centered around a rapidly growing, walkable downtown. On the west end of Government Street, interspersed with specialty shops near the oak-shaded intersection at Washington Avenue — the original center of this town of 17,000 — restaurants and bars cater to widely varying musical tastes.
“You might see a jazz combo down at Mosaic, a Top 40 band at Leo’s, then funk or rock at the (Government Street) Grocery, maybe a DJ at the Juke Joint, or a singer-songwriter at Kwitzky’s,” said Corey Christy, bassist for the 10-piece jam-funk group Blackwater Brass, a local fixture. “You can see whatever you want down here.”
Applewhite saw an opportunity to add to the music scene by attracting music fans downtown early and bringing artists that local audiences wouldn’t ordinarily get to see perform. She founded the Ocean Springs LIVE series at Rosetti Park, a green space she and her husband own on Church Street, two blocks from the heart of downtown.
The first season in 2016 featured such acts as Wet Willie and Cyril Neville, and Blackwater Brass opened every show as the house band. Applewhite’s biggest coup was bringing in The Swampers, the Muscle Shoals, Ala.-based backing band heard on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” — no small feat, considering they’ve always been a studio-only band.
“Those guys are studio musicians, and the really cool thing is they do not tour,” Applewhite said. “It was a cool experience for them to come down and be treated like rock-n-roll royalty, and get exposure to the area. They had mega fans show up to see them.”
Applewhite set up the shows so they would end by dusk, intending that they would add to the nightlife experience by attracting large crowds of people who could continue their evenings at the restaurants and bars downtown. Revelers could bring their families for the free events, which would open the experiences to more people.
“People are looking for something new all the time,” Christy said. “They expect the venues to bring something special to the table.”
Government Street Grocery, the longest-running downtown music venue, is one of the spots where audiences can count on finding something a little off-center. Bluegrass bands, Americana artists such as Cary Hudson and New Orleans-inspired crews like Blackwater Brass give music fans a taste of the eclectic. Late-night crowds hit the Juke Joint, where bands go on as late as midnight and play well into the early morning.
Strong musical scenes have one thing in common: an equally strong sense of community. The Mississippi Songwriters Festival, which has brought hundreds of songwriters and fans to the town over the past seven years, is a key part of the mix in Ocean Springs. One of the annual event’s main goals is to give local songwriters a way to network with professionals who work in the music industry.
“We’re trying to develop a community down here, that way you’ll have people to write with and listen to,” said Mississippi Songwriters Alliance co-founder George Cumbest. “It’s like anything else — if you have a community, you’ll stick with it and get better. We want to build a bridge from here to Nashville. ”
Brent Anderson, a Pascagoula native who writes and performs with Brad Paisley, performed at the festival this year, along with fellow Jackson County native Matt Hoggatt, whom Jimmy Buffett discovered and signed to his label. Tricia Walker, who heads Delta State University’s Delta Music Institute and has written for Faith Hill and Alison Krauss, has made two trips to the festival.
“I think people who write songs, just by the often-solitary nature of it, they feel like they’d like to go out and get some tips from other people who are doing the same thing, or other people who have made it farther down the road, someone who’s a professional who has had a hit,” Walker said.
Cumbest and the other Mississippi Songwriters Alliance members work to “keep everybody’s fire lit,” he said, by hosting weekly open-mic nights at venues around Ocean Springs, as well as the monthly Songs and Stories performance series held at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center on Government Street.
Helping those up-and-comers is part of the mission that extends to the festival itself. This year, that included artists such as Brandon Green, a Lucedale native who earned the runner-up spot on the second season of CMT’s “Can You Duet,” and was picked by Keith Urban as the winner of Guitar Center’s “Your Next Record with Keith Urban” competition.
“When you become part of an audience, you become part of a community and people experience things together,” said Applewhite, who plans to coordinate a festival with the Mississippi Songwriters Alliance in the spring. “We’ve been creating this tent pole to say Ocean Springs is Mississippi’s live music capital.”
For more information on Ocean Springs LIVE, visit www.oceanspringslive.com.