Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival brings a little Nashville to the Vineyard

Jilly Martin is the co-organizer of Martha's Vineyard Songwriting Festival. -Courtesy Matt Casey

When Matt Casey set out to produce the first Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival (MVSF), he never imagined that it would rise to the level of success it has achieved. Now in its sixth year, the festival features established talents from Nashville’s songwriting elite alongside rising stars in the world of country music. The five-day festival kicks off in Boston before moving to the Island on Friday, Sept. 16, for three days of workshops and performances conducted by a world-class assembly of music industry insiders.

While Martha’s Vineyard has long been regarded as a haven for creative communities, cowboy hats and steel guitar slingers seldom come to mind. But to hear Mr. Casey tell it, the connections between Nashville and New England are stronger than expected. The idea for the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival first came from a collective of New England transplants living in Music City called New England to Nashville (NETN). The group, created by Mr. Casey in 2012, now boasts over 800 members on Facebook, and provides a close-knit community in which songwriters can showcase their work and hone their skills through events such as writer’s rounds and workshops.

The homespun spirit of the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival is dear to Mr. Casey. In its first year, MVSF events included a workshop at his family’s Island home and a small acoustic performance at a listening room in Oak Bluffs. “It was just a few people who went over for a songwriting workshop at my house,” Ms. Casey said. Now, “it [has grown] into what I always thought it could be.”

Mr. Casey’s co-organizer, Jilly Martin, has strong local ties, with a family home in Vineyard Haven and a relationship with the Island dating back to her infancy. Ms. Martin fondly recalls the early years of helping Mr. Casey with the logistics of the festival. “It was very cool at first, because there was nothing like it,” she said. “Bringing the songwriters up, letting them tell their stories, and having the songwriter rounds that are common to Nashville, but not quite as common to the New England area.”

This year, Ms. Martin will perform alongside her bandmate Ryan Brooks Kelly as the crossover country duo Martin and Kelly, one of the festival’s rising-star acts. The two have performed as supporting acts for such artists as Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and Miranda Lambert.

The 2016 MVSF is jam-packed with hit songwriters, but one in particular holds a special importance to Mr. Casey. Steve Seskin, this year’s lead instructor, is the writer behind seven No. 1 songs, including “Don’t Laugh at Me,” recorded in 1999 by Mark Wills, as well as Tim McGraw’s Grammy-nominated hit, “Grown Men Don’t Cry.” Recalling his early days in Music City, Mr. Casey told The Times, “One of first things I did when I became a songwriter was attend [Seskin’s] workshop in Nashville. You couldn’t have a better teacher if you’re interested in learning the nuts and bolts of songwriting.”

Among other hit writers featured this year are Lance Carpenter, the co-writer behind Kelsea Ballerini’s No. 1 song “Love Me Like You Mean It;” Deric Ruttan, who penned Dierks Bentley’s 2003 hit “What Was I Thinking;” and Bonnie Hayes, author of such tunes as “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter” from Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy awardwinning album “Nick of Time.”

No matter where audience members fall on the radio dial, the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival is poised to impress and entertain with a look behind the curtain at music’s most influential writers and compelling performers. “We’ve never had so many writers at the top of their game,” Mr. Casey said of this year’s lineup.

Residents of Martha’s Vineyard will receive a $100 discount on the workshops held at this year’s festival. Those interested can register at All workshops will be held at Alex’s Place at the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard. The festival’s partnership with the venue allows for some Vineyard youth to attend MVSF events free of charge. VIP passes include admission to the headline performance on Saturday, Sept. 17, as well as an intimate barbeque and house concert where attendees will have a chance to mingle with hit writers and rising stars. All proceeds from VIP ticket sales will benefit Alex’s Place.

The weeklong festival will make landfall on the Island Friday, Sept. 16 with an introductory Q and A session with hit writers and a guitar pull. Saturday promises almost ceaseless entertainment, with a rising star performance at the Tivoli Day Street Festival in Oak Bluffs from 12 to 5 pm, followed by a 7 pm VIP happy hour performance at the Ritz, culminating in an in-the-round acoustic performance by hit writers and full-band concert by the festival’s rising stars at the Lampost Bar and Nightclub on Circuit Avenue.

For a full schedule and more information, visit