Mississippi has never lacked creative talent, especially when it comes to music and literature. But the songwriters who bring together those abilities are unsung heroes of the state’s creative economy.
The Mississippi Songwriters Festival will celebrate the people who write music for some of the biggest names in country music when more than 100 of the most successful writers meet in Ocean Springs on Sept. 16-17 to perform.
“We didn’t really have a community here,” said Mississippi Songwriters Alliance co-founder George Cumbest, “[But] when you start looking into Mississippi’s history on songwriters, there’s tons of them. There was no [festival] set up in the state to honor those folks. If you wanted to catch writers you’d have to go to Nashville or somewhere else.”
Now in its seventh year, the festival puts the often-faceless names behind the hits in the limelight for a series of performances and workshops.
Festival-goers will have the opportunity to see performances by artists such as Brent Anderson, a Pascagoula native who writes and performs with Brad Paisley, alongside fellow Jackson County native Matt Hoggatt, who Jimmy Buffett discovered and signed to his label.
Tricia Walker, who heads Delta State University’s Delta Music Institute, will make her second trip to the festival as a performer.
Walker has scores of Nashville hits to her credit, including songs recorded by Faith Hill and Alison Krauss. She also toured extensively as a keyboardist with Shania Twain, and co-founded the “Women in the Round” at the famed Bluebird Café alongside Pam Tillis, Karen Staley and Ashley Cleveland. She sees the event as an opportunity for artists to network and learn from each other.
“People who write songs, just by the often-solitary nature of it, like to go out and get some tips from other people who are doing the same thing, or someone who’s a professional who has had a hit,” said Walker. “They’re trying to find out what to do next.”
The process of songwriting, and especially the business of selling songs, has changed a great deal in the two decades since the rise of the Internet and consolidation of the music industry, she said.
“Twenty years ago you could still get into a publisher’s door and take some material,” said Walker. “But it’s become harder to get your [songs] in front of the people who could do something with them.”
The Mississippi Songwriters Festival addresses this evolution of the industry through seminars and workshops that cover the craft of songwriting as well as the business side. Multi-genre songwriter Michael Garvin, whose credits include hit songs recorded by Jennifer Lopez, George Strait and George Benson, will lead a workshop that covers both sides — techniques for writing a hit song as well as publishing. Mississippi Delta Community College instructor Jamey Johnson will cover chord progressions, music theory and demystifying the Nashville number system, a unique charting system and an essential topic for songwriters and session players hoping to make the leap to Music City.
“If you’re a songwriter, you can get a lot of education here that you wouldn’t get otherwise,” said Cumbest. “If you’re going to watch, you get the opportunity to meet some of the people who have written these big hits.”
The festival has another educational component through its parent organization, the Mississippi Songwriters Alliance. The group has donated guitars, ukuleles and teaching materials to area schools to help foster the next generation of musicians. Cumbest and the group’s other members also work to “keep everybody’s fire lit,” he said, by hosting weekly open-mic nights around Ocean Springs, as well as the monthly Songs and Stories performance series held at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center.
Helping those up-and-comers is part of the mission that extends to the festival itself. This year, that includes artists such as Brandon Green, a Lucedale native who earned the runner-up spot on Season 2 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.
“We want to build a bridge from here to Nashville,” said Cumbest.
Walker said that her favorite part of songwriting events, where the artists get together and share ideas and stories, is seeing how songs take shape and stand on their own merits.
“I think there’s a great honesty there when a songwriter is able to communicate a song without any window dressing, and the honesty and truth of the song comes through as opposed to when it goes to production and it gets all the bells and whistles added,” she said. “It reminds me of what’s so great about the creative process. In that sort of scenario, you do it because you love to do it. The focus really becomes the song.”
Added Cumbest, “If you get engaged, it’s like any other hobby. If you ride bikes and you have buddies who ride bikes, you’ll probably ride more. We try to build that culture to keep it fostered all year long.
“There are a lot more writers around than people think — and a lot more than we thought when we first started doing this.”
The Mississippi Songwriters Festival will host free performances at Salvetti’s, Boots & Spurs, Mosaic, Murky Waters, Off the Hook, Tom’s Extreme Pizza and the Julep Room in Ocean Springs. Workshops will be held at Gulf Hills Resort on Saturday with an admission fee of $35 per session or $60 for the whole day.
A full schedule of performances with venues and times is available on the festival’s website.