I was pretty old (or at least older than I should’ve been)
when I first realized that not all musicians wrote their own songs. Someone told me that the writer of a song we sang at summer camp lived next to their aunt near Wichita. And while I didn’t confirm this particular story it blew me away that the singer on the record didn’t write the tune. Some one else did. And that was their entire job, a songwriter.
Last weekend I had a chance to participate as both a performer and a spectator at the Red Lodge Songwriter’s Festival in Red Lodge, MT. This was my second year playing my original tunes and my third year watching, often in awe, the other talented songwriters at the festival. At this festival in particular, there are several concerts each day consisting of 3-4 songwriters that play in a “round”, or take turns singing the songs that they wrote. Most of the songwriters were from the Montana/Wyoming area, but the final concert of each night consisted of top Nashville songwriters with dozens of hits between them.
The music community out here is very different than the other places I’ve lived and played.
Most of my former scenes were cumbered with envy and posturing. Other songwriters and musicians were looked at as competition to be bested. And on top of all that were the gatekeepers; those musical gurus and talent bookers who anointed the chosen few to sit on top of the local scene, most of whom couldn’t have heard the difference between a major and minor key. I spent the majority of my time in these places thinking I was inferior to the chosen, and not good enough to play with or around them (which, of course, was probably true, but a little constructive criticism wouldn’t have killed them). The general feeling is that there is a small pie and you’ve got to get as big a piece as you can.
It is different out here, and I will spend the next paragraph or two desperately trying (and surely failing) to explain just why. There is a sense of camaraderie between musicians out here, especially the songwriters. To run into other songwriters means instant hugs (and by that I mean shots), handshakes, and certainly a raise of the glass (and by that I also mean shots). There is a genuine interest when you are asked “how’ve you been”, and a genuine enthusiasm when you announce that you might “play something new this year”.
We encourage each other.
We laugh (a lot) with each other. And if one of us were in need, the rest would rally, I’d guarantee it. It is a step beyond any other group (social, community, or otherwise) I’ve ever been a part of. And if you’re one of us, you’re in. If you want to be a songwriter, you’re also in. If you happen to be standing within earshot, you are still in.
It is hard to imagine a weekend where I laugh more, and I am truly grateful for the friendships we have formed and for the music I get to be a part of. We call this songwriter’s weekend “the class reunion”, maybe because it always seems to pick up right where we left it off. There isn’t a sense of “gotta get mine”, just a general feeling that each person is a significant part of the music scene. And there is no pie. There is only this potluck called the Red Lodge Songwriter Festival and you are welcome wether you bring a dish or not.
I’m not sure why I have such a fondness for songwriters.
Maybe it’s knowing that Buck Owens had help writing Tiger by the Tail (and pretty significant help if you ask me), and that gave me hope as a writer and a musician. Maybe it is because on my second time around I have a very different outlook on building meaningful relationships with my colleagues. It could be that my best work always comes out after spending some time with my songwriting friends. I’m not sure, but I don’t think that the “class reunion” moniker really fits.
And thats why I, in a way, attend each of these festivals not just as a performer and a spectator but in a third capacity: as a member of a small but extremely open and welcoming family.
P.S. A major shoutout to Mike Booth, the co-founder and organizer of the Red Lodge Songwriter's Festival, and Cory Leone Johnson, co-founder of the festival and accomplished songwriter!