Tunesmiths gather for Smoky Mountain Songwriters Festival

Aug. 22, 2013 @ 12:50 PM

The idea came to Cyndy Montgomery Reeves in Key West.

“I saw an ad for the 16th annual Key West Songwriter’s Festival,” she said. “I looked and said, ‘I love you, Jimmy Buffett, but how can you have a songwriters festival for 16 years, and I’m from East Tennessee, and I’ve never heard of one?”

She was stunned, she said, that the Appalachian mountains, source of so much music, were not the site of a similar event. “I was actually angry.”

So she began planning the Smoky Mountains Songwriters Festival. The second annual event runs Aug. 15-18 in Gatlinburg, where dozens of songwriters will perform their material, for free, at venues including Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler, Loco Burro and Crystelle Creek Restaurant & Grill.

The festival gathers accomplished Nashville songwriters like Marty Dodson, who wrote Billy Currington’s “Let Me Down Easy”; and Clay Mills, composer of Diamond Rio’s “Beautiful Mess.” The event also hosts writers of bluegrass and gospel songs, and a band competition brings together groups that play original music. Festival performers have written songs for artists including Reba McEntire, Johnny Cash and George Strait.

A festival highlight is the songwriting contest, featuring competition in the bluegrass, country, folk and rock genres. Contest winners will be chosen at a live event, set for 5 p.m. Saturday at the Edgewater Hotel. Last year the grand prize went to Knoxville’s Jonathan Dean Snellings for his song “Can’t Hide Crazy.”

In 2011, Reeves previewed the festival at a private event for Gatlinburg officials. They heard performances by Dodson and Mills, and by fellow Nashville tunesmiths Bobby Tomberlin and Chris Wallin. The preview was a success.

The next year, the four songwriters enlisted other composers for the festival’s public debut.

“It was very successful,” Reeves said. “Everybody there enjoyed it. We broke even, and we started something we knew could be a great success.”

“I thought it was very cool,” said Dodson. “So many neat venues.”

A Nashville native, Dodson is a veteran of songwriter festivals, including the one in Key West. His songs have been recorded by Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and Diamond Rio.

Why does he play songwriter festivals? “It’s about putting a face behind the song,” Dodson said. “When people hear a song I wrote that Kenny Chesney did, they might feel like maybe he wrote it, or they don’t think about who wrote the song.”

Songwriter festivals also can educate listeners about the nature of the music business, Dodson noted. “If I’m downloading a song for free, here’s who I’m hurting, a real person with a family.”

At the Gatlinburg event, Dodson will host a talk for songwriters called “Increasing Your Chances of Getting a Song Cut,” one of several pro-oriented workshops. These cost money, unlike the free live-music performances.

Dodson doesn’t often play in public. “I like to be at home with my family,” he said. But some songwriters, he noted, “have the performing bug. In Nashville, you can play every night of the week.”

kburns@themountainpress.com