25th Annual Key West Songwriters Fest Puts Songwriting First

David Adam Byrnes/Dean Dillon/Lori McKenna

Even in this confounding day and age in country music, it all still starts with a song. Not a beat, not a riff, but a song. Words, music, and melody. Story and inspiration. It’s what separates country music from certain other musical art forms. No matter how much it may get boiled down and commercialized in the mainstream, country music is still a song-based business.

Chasing Mile 0 Fest in Key West, Florida the final week of April, songwriters from the nascent stages of the craft to the topmost reaches of the mainstream participated in the annual Key West Songwriters Festival over the first week of May celebrating its 25th year in 2021. It afforded the opportunity to scope out some of the up-and-coming talent of the discipline, some of the absolute legends of the art form, and to sort of sneak behind enemy lines to see some of the names and faces responsible for some of the sausage making of mainstream radio country.

In previous years, massive names such as Florida Georgia Line, Brad Paisley, Kacey Musgraves, and Maren Morris have participated. A couple of years ago it was Luke Combs running around the island, writing and performing songs with a slew of other songwriters.

This year it was Lee Brice, Brandy Clark, Lori McKenna, and Robert Randolph comprising the top of the lineup. Lee Brice helped open the festivities on Wednesday, May 5th, introduced by SiriusXM’s Storme Warren on the famous Sunset Pier on Key West, and performing songs acoustic style along with a slew of other top Nashville songwriters.

But after getting a sniff of that, it was time to head to the smaller events where there was something to discover, and the subject matter of the songs veered beyond beer and trucks. Over at the Smokin’ Tuna saloon, the Texas Music Office was sponsoring a showcase featuring three quickly-rising Texas songwriters who also have careers as performers: Brian Callihan, Curtis Grimes, and David Adam Byrnes.

“This is the Texas Country showcase,” David Adam Byrnes said. “Or what I like to call the real country music showcase.”

Brian Callihan

All three of these guys symbolize the nexus between quality songwriting, and something that can still appeal to a wide audience and find success on Texas regional radio. Brian Callihan has written songs with guys like Josh Thompson and Mo Pitney, and has a knack for instilling a folksy humor in his songs.

Curtis Grimes is known for his songs delving into faith and patriotism, and has scored some dozen #1 hits on Texas radio. David Adam Byrnes has that traditional country swagger and feels like he could be a superstar on the level of Jon Pardi if just given the right opportunity. All three of them could hold a crowd just with acoustic guitars.

One of the great things about a songwriter’s fest is it gives a forum to the songwriters who don’t always have one, since most of their work happens behind-the-scenes. Three of the perhaps hardest-working songwriters on the week running around the island taking advantage of every opportunity also happened to be three of the best. Accustomed to performing just as solo acoustic acts instead of solely writing songs for others or playing in front of bands, Channing Wilson, Rob Snyder, and Dave Kennedy really were the standouts as far as performing songwriters.

Dave Kennedy

Rob Snyder and Channing Wilson helped start The Revival that transpires every Tuesday at Nashville’s Tin Roof, and features songwriters in-the-round that try to keep the traditions of country alive. What all three of these guys are able to do with simply an acoustic guitar can put most full bands to shame. How they remain under-the-radar is scandalous, but such is the fate of many artists who put the craft of writing first. Dave Kennedy is like an undiscovered version of Chris Stapleton the way he’s able to belt songs out.

Rob Snyder and Channing Wilson wrote the song “She Got The Best of Me” that ended up being a #1 song for Luke Combs. Rob Snyder also landed numerous cuts on Luke’s most recent album What You See Is What You Get. In fact landing cuts with Luke Combs was sort of a theme over the week when you sought out some of the best songwriters showcasing on the island, which speaks to the depth and importance of Combs as arguably the biggest performer in all of country music at the moment.

Erik Dylan is in a similar boat. First causing a stir here at Saving Country Music with his song “Fishing Alone” that was nominated for Song of the Year in 2016, he co-wrote “Blue Collar Boys” with Luke Combs, as well as the excellent song “Dear Today” with Luke and Rob Snyder. It is these kinds of songs from songwriters like Channing Wilson, Rob Snyder, and Erik Dylan that have underpinned the success of Luke Combs with substance beyond some of the bigger radio singles.

Erik Dylan performed on the porch of the famous Southernmost House on Key West with another songwriter who should be on your radar named Austin Moody. An unapologetic traditional country writer with an excellent, deep voice for the medium, he charmed many as soon as he started singing. So far only releasing a succession of singles including his most recent “Ride Like Hank,” Austin Moody is definitely one to keep an eye on both as a songwriter and a performer.

But you couldn’t get the full breath of the Key West Songwriters experience without scheduling time to see some of the most legendary living songwriters in country music who made their way to the island. Liz Rose is a regular at the fest, and is best known for co-writing so many of those early Taylor Swift songs that in retrospect, included a lot more creative aptitude than first given credit for, and were overlooked due to their more pop production. She’s also of course 1/3’rd of the famous “Love Junkies” songwriting collective with Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey who have penned some of the best mainstream country songs in recent years, and have multiple Grammy Awards among them to prove it.

Liz Rose

Any opportunity to see Liz Rose should be exploited if only for her standing in the songwriting community. The same goes for Lori McKenna, who like Liz, has overcome the inherent gender bias and ageism many love to harp about in country music to find remarkable and continued success. Along with penning many memorable songs in the mainstream, McKenna also enjoys her own performing career, and is considered one of the most critically-acclaimed songwriters in Americana. Similar to Channing Wilson, Rob Snyder, David Adam Byrnes, and so many of the other performers on the week, Lori McKenna can hold her own simply as an acoustic performer, and is worth seeking out just in that capacity.

But arguably the biggest name to see on the weekend was legendary songwriter and now Country Music Hall of Famer Dean Dillon. Though Dillon has written songs for scores of artists including Gary Stewart, Vince Gill, Vern Gosdin, Lee Ann Womack, and so many others, it’s his partnership with George Strait that has gone on to become legendary.

George Strait sang them, but Dean Dillon wrote them. He’s written more than 50 songs for George Strait, and every George Strait album except for one includes a Dean Dillon song. And we’re not talking about the obscure album cuts, but the songs that went on to define George Strait’s career. “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” “It Ain’t Cool to Be Crazy About You,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Famous Last Words of a Fool,” and so many more sprang from the pen of Dean Dillon, and ended up on the country charts. He also co-wrote “Tennessee Whiskey” with Linda Hargrove.

Beholding Dean Dillon’s song “The Chair” when King George sings it is one thing. Getting to experience the actual writer of the song singing it in an intimate setting is another, and the reason the Key West Songwriters Festival has become a tradition for many country music aficionados.

Unlike some other songwriters festivals that may solely focus on the folk or Americana side, or exclusively on the mainstream, the Key West Songwriters Fest commingles the various worlds and scenes of country music in a way that helps foster discovery for both the songwriters and the audience. After all, the event also acts as a retreat for the songwriters themselves, and lends to numerous songs being written and eventually recorded every year. Want to know why there’s so many country songs that mention the beach? It’s often because many of them are written on one.

Though perhaps not for the pedestrian music fan, for those that want to dive deeper into the songs and artists who write them, discover something new, and do so in paradise, the Key West Songwriters Fest makes for a worthy retreat. It also offers great insight into where country music is, and where it might be going since it all starts with a song. It’s also why focusing on songwriting is so important to the effort to save country music.

Channing Wilson
Rob Snyder
Austin Moody
Erik Dylan
Curtis Grimes
Luke Laird with Liz Rose
Scotty Emerick
© 2021 Saving Country Music
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