Straight from the writers’ mouths: M.V. Songwriters’ Festival


The writers behind hit songs, no matter how successful, don’t often share publicly in the glory. Although a songwriter may have a huge roster of Top 10 songs to his or her credit, very few enjoy widespread public recognition. Fortunately, this weekend, a number of these hit makers will have the opportunity to present their work to the public — introducing new material, and accompanying acoustic performances of established hit songs with the stories behind their creations — at the second annual Martha’s Vineyard Songwriters’ Festival to be held Friday and Saturday evenings at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.

The festival was launched last year to complement the popular Key West Songwriters’ Festival. The original festival, which is held in late April/early May each year, has, throughout its 16-year history, grown into a huge weeklong event for fans and music industry people from all over the world.

Festival sponsor Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) is a performing rights organization that collects and distributes license fees on behalf of songwriters, composers, and music publishers. The organization’s hope is that while audiences are being entertained and given a behind-the-scenes perspective, the songwriters themselves will have the chance to meet others in their field and possibly form new collaborations.

Mark Mason, senior director of writer/publisher relations for BMI, explains the two-fold nature of the festival. “It’s great to be able to introduce the roster of the country’s greatest voices to a new audience. But all the while the formation of new co-writer relationships among our top writers is another goal of the festival. These festivals are a source of inspiration for writers that usually result in a string of hit songs.”

The two-day Martha’s Vineyard Festival will feature writers from both New York and Nashville, where a large number of successful songwriters reside. “In the business of songwriting right now the center of the universe is Nashville,” Mr. Mason says. However, he adds, the music that will be presented is not strictly country. He says not to expect “all jangly guitars and honky tonk,” explaining that, although a hit country song is the most lucrative prospect for a songwriter, the crossover among the worlds of country, rock, and pop has really blurred the lines. Also, the inclusion of the New York writers, who are not a part of the Key West festival, will bring genres ranging from R&B to pop and jazz to the Vineyard festival.

The two nights will feature “rounds” in which three songwriters are grouped, taking turns performing and talking about their musical creations. The 15 writers spotlighted boast more than 100 number one songs combined. Although their names are likely to be familiar only to a few, they have variously penned hit songs for country legends such as George Strait, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers, and Eddie Rabbitt, as well as emerging stars.

Some of those who will be featured are performers as well as writers. Mr. Mason comments that he is especially excited to hear from the women in the lineup, all of whom, including R&B artists Arama Brown and Mayaeni, have recorded their own music. Arguably the most accomplished on the lineup is songwriter/producer Keith Stegall, who is responsible for an impressive 45 number one hits for artists like Helen Reddy, The Commodores, Johnny Mathis, and Al Jarreau, as well as a number of country stars.

Singer/songwriter Scott Kirby has been involved in the Key West Festival almost since its inception. A native of New Hampshire, Mr. Kirby, a sailboat owner, settled in Key West about 10 years ago, and has also spent a good deal of time on the Vineyard. He was one of a couple of musicians who recommended the Vineyard as a location for a sister festival.

“People who live on islands view life in a way that seems to be universal. There’s a relaxed attitude about life,” Mr. Kirby says, though he’s quick to add “Key West is more of an anything-goes kind of place.” The Key West festival, which had its humble beginnings with eight musicians playing at the legendary Hog’s Breath Saloon, now goes on for six days, “All day and all night,” according to festival coordinator Danielle Holliday and is presented on 25 stages including boats, beaches and bars.

An opening party from 5 to 7 on Friday at the Mansion House features the presentation of BMI’s Million Performance awards and music by Mr. Kirby, Tony Roberts, and Vineyard native Phil DaRosa. Mr. DaRosa was invited to participate by BMI representatives who caught his set on Circuit Avenue during Tivoli Day last year (the first annual festival was on the same weekend) The popular singer/songwriter, who held an EP release party last weekend, notes that he is honored to be included. He hopes that in the future the festival will include more local musicians. “There are so many talented artists on the Island who don’t get the chance to get their names out there much,” Mr. DaRosa says. “It would be great exposure.”

Mr. Mason says BMI intends to continue to host an annual festival here and foresees it growing organically, although there are no expectations that it will attain the size of its southern counterpart. Last year’s Key West festival featured over 150 artists and attracted approximately 8,000 fans. Mr. Mason comments that a number of successful collaborations have sprung from the festivals over the years and he predicts success for the 2010 Martha’s Vineyard Festival.

“Great things will transpire because of this festival,” he says. “Another round of great songs will be born.”

M.V. Songwriters’ Festival, 8 pm, Friday and Saturday, Sept. 24, 25, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. 2nd annual music festival. $40; $25 in advance.

Gwyn McAllister, a frequent contributor to The Times, lives in Oak Bluffs.