To learn about the Hwy 80 Songwriters Fest, you must first learn about The Montgomery Institute (TMI).
With a mission to “upbuild the people and places of the East Mississippi and West Alabama region guided by the leadership legacy of G. V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery” TMI undertakes initiatives in leadership development, rural place building, educational enhancement, workforce development, research and information dissemination, regional cooperation, and innovation. Working with partners to engage citizens, identify place building champions, and create regional networks of place builders, TMI seeks out resources and opportunities for innovation that will help partners do better, for the benefit of the people and places in West Alabama and East Mississippi. Twice, in 2003 and 2010, the 13-state Southern Growth Policies Board presented TMI its “Innovator Award” in recognition of its innovative approaches to region and place building. The Hwy 80 Songwriters Fest was born out of one of these initiatives, namely the West Alabama East Mississippi (WAEM) Mayors Network. http://tmi.ms/
The seed of the Fest was planted during a WAEM luncheon facilitated by TMI.
The inaugural 2013 Hwy Songwriters Fest began as two “Musical Appetizers,” one in Demopolis, Alabama on July 6 and one in Meridian, Mississippi on September 17. The Demopolis event hosted 19 songwriters from Alabama and Mississippi in three rounds on the Demopolis courthouse lawn. The Meridian event hosted 13 songwriters in Dumont Plaza in downtown Meridian. All but one were from outside Lauderdale County. From the first fest in 2013, the goals and outcomes were to expand the songwriter’s platform and territory, provide education in the songwriting craft for songwriters of all ages and levels of expertise, to build and support the creative economy in West Alabama and East Mississippi, and to ignite the public’s understanding and appreciation for songwriters and their craft. Songwriter rounds in Mississippi/Alabama venues, the Grand Finale, the professional songwriting workshop and songwriting in the schools accomplished these goals. In fact, several Mississippi songwriters were invited to perform in other Alabama venues and Alabama artists were invited to play in Mississippi venues.
With the 2014 Fest, the committee moved into the expansion and progression phase, adding the educational component with songwriters going into Poplar Springs School and Northeast Elementary School in Meridian to work the students on the craft of songwriting and writing their own song. The activities helped students improve reading, writing, comprehension and critical thinking skills. Also offered was a two-hour songwriting workshop at Rhythm & Brews, Downtown Meridian on October 25 from 2 – 4 p.m. Facilitated by Marty Gamblin, Executive Director of the Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Center and the world-renown Ralph Murphy, Vice President of ASCAP and author of Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting. James Walton “Walt” Aldridge, Jr., an American musician, singer, songwriter, engineer and record producer, also helped facilitate the workshop. He has written dozens of hit country songs including the Number One hits “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” by Ronnie Milsap (1981), “Holding Her and Loving You” by Earl Thomas Conley (1982), “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde” by Travis Tritt (2000), and “I Loved Her First” (2006) – recorded by Heartland. He is listed as a “Music Achiever” by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which is a precursor to future induction, and has been awarded a star on their Walk of Fame. Also involved in the workshop was Bob Regan, a Grammy and Dove Award nominated songwriter based in Nashville Tennessee, participated in the workshop round with Ralph and Walt. Bob has had over 200 songs recorded by such contemporary artists as Keith Urban, Luke Bryan, Jake Owen and Rodney Atkins as well as legendary artists ranging from Don Williams to Hank Williams Jr. to Andy Williams, from Kenny Rogers to cowboy legend Roy Rogers. In 2009, Bob’s song “Dig Two Graves”, by Randy Travis, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Song. 2, 3, 4. This extensive workshop covered how to write songs and the business of songwriting.
The 2014 fest rounds began in Demopolis on the courthouse lawn.
In Meridian, three venues, Faces Lounge, The Brickhaus Bar & Grill and Weidmann’s Restaurant became the stages for the 19 songwriters Friday and Saturday night. The 2014 Hwy Fest Meridian rounds included Dexter Allen toured with Bobby Rush for 3 years as lead guitarist, was inducted into the Mississippi Artist Roster and devotes time conducting Blues in School workshops sponsored by The Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in area schools throughout Mississippi. Cary Hudson made Gibson guitar’s “Top 10 Alt Country Guitarists” list in 2008. Steve Deaton recorded and performed with Buffalo Nickel and has shared the stage with the likes of Wilco, Maroon 5, Junior Brown, and Leon Russell. Scott Albert Johnson, accompanied by Chalmers Davis, was one of the “Hot 100” Harmonica Players worldwide by The Harmonica Company (U.K.); He also received a 2013-2014 Performing Arts Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Bob Ray, an award winning singer-songwriter from the hills of north Mississippi, has twice been named a Kerrville Folk Festival – New Folk Songwriting Finalist. He has been a finalist in both the Ozark Folk Festival Songwriters Festival and the Gum Tree Song Festival. Christina Christian, an indie/country artist and songwriter from Foley, Ala., picked up the guitar at 12 years old, and began writing her own music at 16. Taylor Craven began writing songs as a hobby and soon was performing in songwriting festivals across the south, including the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival and winning contests, including recently both a 3rd place and honorable mention award in American Songwriters Magazine. He was selected to play in the first ever Gulf Coast Songwriters Shootout in 2014. He’s a 2014 top ten contestant in the Texas Troubadour Songwriter Classic, judged and selected by Ray Wylie Hubbard. Taylor is also a co-founder and current member of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Songwriters Festival, which was established in 2010. Sydney Beaumont began writing and producing her own music early in 2009 and formed Sydney Beaumont Band as a vehicle to showcase songs and also with goal to license and sell music. Sydney performed for Nashville “Play for Publishers” workshop and with other writers at Richards Café and also performed at the famous Bluebird Café. Alphonso Sanders is the Chair of Fine Arts and Director of the BB King Recording Studio at Mississippi Valley State University. He has performed with such artist as Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, Mulgrew Miller, Rhonda Richmond, Cassandra Wilson, Paula West, Debra Brown, Bobby Rush, David Lee Durham, The Four Tops, and David “Honey Boy” Edwards among others. He is recipient of the 2010 MAC Folk Arts Fellowship; the 2011 Mississippi Humanities Award and is published in Big City Rhythm & Blues magazine 2011 (UK); the book “Musicians Up and the Delta”; and “Down in the Woods” a documentary of the legendary bluesman Willie King. He is also an award winner in the 2009 and 2010 International Blues Challenge and was selected by the Delta Blues Society as the 2013 Blues Musician of the Year. These are the caliber of songwriters you discover at the Hwy 80 Songwriters Fest!
The 2015 Fest, after careful evaluation of the past two years changed its date to coincide with the Demopolis venue,
which connects to its annual Freedom on the River July 4th weekend. However, before the rounds began, on June 22, songwriters worked students at The Meridian Freedom Project in Meridian. In October, they will conduct songwriting workshops with the 4th and 5th grades in October 2015 at Poplar Springs School.
The Mississippi rounds began with a new round at Hal & Mal’s (see round list below) in Jackson on Wednesday July 8 and in Newton on July 11 (see round list below. The night of July 16 local songwriter rounds were held at News and Squealers Restaurants (see round list below) in North Meridian. On July 17, rounds with Mississippi/Alabama songwriters from outside of Lauderdale County returned to Weidmann’s and Brickhaus Bar and Grill (see round list below).
Saturday, July 18, the songwriting workshop facilitated by Alphonso Sanders and Marty Gamblin was at Meridian’s historic Soule Steam Feed Works Museum. Open Mic started at 5:00 p.m. and welcomed all ages, all levels and all genres to stage. Alphonso backed up every songwriter with either Sax, trumpet, flute or harmonica. The Grand Finale of professional songwriters started at 7:30 and included Scott Albert John and Tony Sant’Angelo, Ron Etheridge, Thomas Jackson, K. D. Brosia and Alphonso Sanders. The caliber of the 2015 songwriters remained as high as the 2014 Songwriters with some of the same songwriters returning this year. All rounds will bring more business into popular community venues. The Grand Finale location in Meridian showcased the beautiful historic buildings of Soule and most songwriters plan to return for the Soule Steamfest in November.
The Hwy 80 Songwriters Fest gathered communities, cultures, social groups and all ages together in one setting where music spoke a universal language and stories touched the deepest place within us all. The Fest was made possible through the generous contributions of these sponsors and grantees:
The Mississippi Arts Commission
The Mississippi Writers Guild
The Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Center
Meridian Main Street
WTOK TV, The CW, My-TOK2, Bounce TV, Cozi TV
The Radio People, The Meridian Family of Stations, New South Radio, SuperTalk Mississippi, 106.9 the Eagle, WMOX 1010
The Meridian Star, Lamar Outdoor Advertising, Premier Outdoor Advertising
The 2015 Rounds
Demopolis, AL Courthouse lawn, July 3
July 8 Hal & Mal’s, Jackson, MS
David Vincent/Richelle Putnam
July 11 Newton, MS Church Street Market
Jacky Jack White
John Marshall/Terry Cherry
Local Songwriters – Meridian – July 16
Earl Aycock, Jr.
John Paul Dove
July 17 Weidmann’s, Meridian, MS
Stephen Lee Veal
Brickhaus, Meridian, MS
SATURDAY WORKSHOP – 2 – 4 p.m.
Soule Steamworks, Meridian, MS
Master of Hwy 80 Songwriters Fest Saturday Ceremonies – MAEC Executive Marty Gamblin
Hwy 80 Songwriters Fest Workshop Facilitator – Dr. Alphonso Sanders, Chair of Fine Arts and Director of the BB King Recording Studio at Mississippi Valley State University.
4:30 – 6:30 p.m. (All songwriter/musicians, all ages, all levels welcome to participate. Sign-up, play two songs, sign-up and play again, if time permits!
SATURDAY NIGHT ROUND July 18
Soule Steamworks, Meridian, MS
Scott Albert Johnson
K. D. Brosia