- By: Carol Shaughnessy
- April 10, 2009
Tia Sillers takes the microphone at the Key West Songwriters Festival, brushing back her dark curls. She speaks a few words in a throaty voice, her smile flashing.
When she starts singing one of her songs, she exudes a joy so deep it’s almost tangible. Her initial verse resounds with passionate conviction — a conviction that only a song’s writer can give it. She begins the chorus: “I hope you dance …”
A reverent hush falls over the audience. Lee Ann Womack’s hit recording of “I Hope You Dance” has become a classic, but Tia’s own version is so compelling that it’s like hearing the song for the first time.
Such moments of magic aren’t unusual at the annual Key West Songwriters Festival, set this year for April 29 through May 3 with more than 100 writer-participants. Now in its 14th year, the festival gives some of America’s foremost writers a chance to perform their hits and showcase their new songs in a laid-back tropical setting.
In past years, it has offered intimate performances by such luminaries as Mavericks founder Raul Malo; Chuck Cannon, who co-wrote the blistering “How Do You Like Me Now?” with Toby Keith; Gary Nicholson, writer for Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King and Stevie Nicks; Scotty Emerick, who co-wrote “Beer For My Horses” for Keith and Willie Nelson; and Pat Alger, whose “The Thunder Rolls” helped propel Garth Brooks to superstardom.
“The very successful songwriters, by and large, are good performers too,” says Charlie Bauer, the festival’s longtime director and guiding spirit. “Not only do they come up with new songs all the time, but they can explain where the songs came from.”
In the early- and mid-1900s, it was writers of prose, plays and poems that embraced Key West: Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop and their contemporaries.
In more recent years, the island has become a haven for songwriters. Former musical residents include the late Shel Silverstein, “pirate laureate” Jimmy Buffett and even Jerry Jeff Walker of “Mr. Bojangles” fame.
Today, some of America’s most notable tune-spinners regard Key West as an ideal place to relax and recharge their batteries away from everyday career pressures.
“I step off the plane and this just feels like home,” says Grammy winner and veteran Songwriters Festival participant Brett James.
Scores of other writers also discovered the island as guests of Charlie Bauer. For Charlie, the annual festival provides an opportunity to share his love of Key West with leading songwriters, while sharing their world-class music with local and visiting audiences.
As attendees of past performances can attest, festival concerts often contain moments of pure enchantment — spontaneous harmonizing between musical cohorts, or a jam session where each participant’s creativity outdoes the previous efforts.
According to many songwriters, Key West itself is responsible for much of the creative magic.
“Some switch gets flipped here as far as creativity,” says 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.”
Troy Verges, who co-wrote “Who I Am” for Jessica Andrews, agrees completely.
“I definitely feel more creative here,” he says of Key West. “You write songs, get on your bike, go down to Duval Street and absorb a bunch of craziness, go back and write another song, and just keep doing it. It doesn’t get old.”
One of those songs, written by festival favorite James Slater and titled “Key West Address,” was named the island city’s official song by Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson during the 2008 Songwriters Festival kickoff reception.
That’s hardly surprising. With its infectious melody and upbeat lyrics, the song is a musical love letter to the place:
“GIVE ME A KEY WEST ADDRESS, A TATTOOED WAITRESS
AND A FISH THAT’S BIGGER THAN THE HOLE IN MY NET
A GOOD BOTTLE OF RUM, A FINE CUBAN CIGAR
LIFE WILL TAKE CARE OF THE REST
GIVE ME A KEY WEST ADDRESS …”